All of our research indicated that paddling from Bella Coola to the outside on standup paddle boards had never been attempted and is rarely paddled due to the fierce winds that hammer the deep fjords. The diversity of British Columbia is mindboggling… If we could pull this off it would be a legitimate journey from mountains to surf. Our team of five - Kokatat ambassadors Jimmy Martinello, Jon Burak, and Chris Christie, with JF Plouffe and Dennis Flett - all share the same passion and connection with our mountains, rivers and oceans, so this was a perfect way to absorb ourselves into this environment and be “fully in the moment” for the next two weeks.
Timing was everything… Too early in the season and the days would be short and the coastal storms would be difficult to manage. We also needed just the right amount of runoff for the upper Atnarko River but not so high so that the Bella Coola River would be difficult to navigate due to the amount of wood on the river.
We arrived in Bella Coola to perfect paddling conditions.The snowline was starting to lift, giving ideal spring runoff but reports of powder up high were still coming in from the local heli operations. We didn’t want to waste a moment so we packed our gear, set our transitions and got an early start on the 80km river section. The rivers were fairly low, up to class 2, however the amount of wood and strainers kept us alert and the stunning scenery with towering mountains on either side of us were a mind blowing distraction!
One of our many highlights was a sandbar Salmon BBQ some of the adventure community hosted…that fueled us up for the massive days that lay ahead! We committed to long hours and made the Bella Coola inlet late on the 2nd day. The inflow winds hammered us for the final 20 km and pulling up to the dock was a bit of a relief. The original idea was to transition to “ski mountaineer” at this point, however the extended forecast was ideal to continue paddling and finish off the journey with skiing. The 175km paddle to the outside, although not that far, was the most daunting part of the trip due to historical winds, strong tides, and fatigue with limited places to pull out. Strangely as we unpacked the wind subsided and the entire inlet went to glass. The decision was made to continue on into the night and take advantage of the conditions.
17 hours of paddling brought us deep into the North Benedict arm. We broke the ocean portion up into sections where we knew there was camping. Even then it was really difficult to find along the steep walls of the channel. We paddled long into the nights to avoid the wind and navigated by GPS to pinpoint potential camp locations that would have fresh water. The Kokatat Gore-Tex dry suit was the key factor in allowing us to stay warm for the long day’s and then set camp before changing into dry land clothing.
One of the more memorable camp spots was the Eucott Bay hotspring. We arrived with driving rain and gale force in the forecast so we hunkered down and kicked up our heels in the hotspring.
A Shearwater fisherman showed up on day 3 and the decision was to get bumped up the channel to maintain our schedule to make Calvert Island. It was a difficult choice being that we wanted to experience the entire trip under human power, but the consensus was “safety trumps boldness” in these waters. The hitched ride added to the experience for everyone. The captain of the ship had his two kids with him on spring break so he was stoked to have adventurers on board. Sometimes unplanned opportunity adds to the adventure for everyone!
We continued paddling out the Dean Channel and entered the Fisher Channel, hugging the shoreline of King Island while working the currents and wind. We explored some lagoons that offered shelter from the moderate south east winds, and countless bald eagles curiously eyed up the crew while whale spouts were seen in the distance. Eventually we crossed the Burke Channel into the old cannery town of Namu.
It wasn’t that many years ago that Namu was a small fishing port busy with exporting fish product, but now it was a crumbling mess. We had expected an interesting ghost town, but in reality it was disappointing with most structures heavily vandalized. We did find a reasonably clean spot to camp, which provided a shelter from driving rain, and we were able to dry our gear.
The following morning we woke up to a light rain and a NW wind which provided an ideal downwind situation. We had approximately 38 km to make Calvert Island, and the Fitz Hugh Sound crossing is notorious for challenging all but the largest vessels! While trip planning, this area had me concerned so it was a huge relief to have perfect conditions to leave the relative safety of shoreline.
We had 2 choices to access Calvert Island. The usual entry was into the sheltered Pruth Bay, or we could take the direct line which offered no protection from the outside. As a crow flies the Hakai Pass was the shortest so we decided to test our mind and bodies and paddled towards Hakai Luxballs Conservancy, which is the largest marine protected area on the B.C. coastline. As we neared the narrows the oceans and winds increased and slowed our progress. Often we would disappear from one another behind the swells.
There was nothing casual about the last 10km into Pruth Bay as we physically pinned it for the point that would give us respite. The slap chop off the steep walls and the strong currents were the ‘real deal’ and we all dug in to reach that sheltered zone. As we pulled the corner there was a large fishing vessel anchored, and the captain said we looked like “Jesus walking on water” because all he could see were the top of our heads as we approached.
Leaving the chaos behind we soft paddled into the head of Pruth Bay, home of The Hakai Institute – a scientific research institution that advances long-term research at remote locations on the coastal margin of British Columbia, Canada. From Pruth Bay it was a short hike across the island to the west side and our final destination, where we camped four nights and found some variable good surf. It was incredibly rewarding after all the effort we put in, to arrive at this destination which produced some of the most stunning sunsets I’ve ever seen!
It was hard to believe it was early April as we were seeing temperatures of 25 degrees Celsius. We filled our days with early surf sessions, hiking and kicking our heals up as the sun dipped beyond the horizon.
Sadly our time on Calvert Island came to an end, and we had to return to Bella Coola. Our boat arrived and we loaded up for the journey into the Burke Channel and North Benedict Arm. The crew were still hungry for more adventure to complete the expedition, so we moved our attention to the mountains to tag some lines high above the fjord.
The rivers, oceans and mountains take considerable management and patience to play in them safely. During this trip we stayed current with forecasts and leaned towards conservative decisions, as rescue would have been nearly impossible if caught in a bad situation. We consulted with Bella Coola Heli Sport mountain guides to get the most recent observations in the mountains. Strangely, Bella Coola was the hotspot in Canada that week and all heli skiing operations were shut down due to extreme avalanche hazard at all elevations.
The crew fired ideas back and forth on how to finish of the journey in good style. Everything came full circle on managing the risk, and often forcing ideas is when things go bad. We reflected on the trip up to this point, and we all agreed it was one of the top adventures any of us have done, so it felt right to call it a day and return to the mountains when they allow passage.
Our final day in Bella Coola, we met with a Nuxalk Nation story teller who took us on a spiritual walk through the Petroglyphs dating back 10,000 years. His story’s and knowledge in local history are an important part to any visit to the Bella Coola valley, and it furthered our respect for the lands and oceans we passed through on our 250 km, 16 day adventure!