The earth is 71 per cent water, human beings are about 60 per cent water, and our brains and hearts are 73 per cent water. Here in the Coast Mountains, those numbers mean more than just biological fact. Some of us are mountain people in love with oceans and rivers. Some of us are water people in love with mountains. But water – rain, snow, clouds, rivers, ice and oceans – is part of who we are.
Inspired by the West Coast’s unique proximity to massive peaks and scenic ocean fjords, we arrived in Bella Coola with skis and stand up paddleboards ready to encompass all of the elements into one adventure. The plan was to hike into some big mountain ski lines then return to the river to paddle through ancient Nuxalk First Nations territory along the Atnarko River before hitting the pacific and venturing into the Dean Channel, an isolated, 100+km fjord of steep shorelines dotted with natural hot springs. Finally, we would cross Hakai Pass to Calvert Island, where the open pacific winds and swell would hopefully bring good surf and a chance to savour both the wilderness and our successful journey amongst it.
But nothing fires up Mother Nature’s sense of humour like a well-detailed plan. We arrived in Bella Coola to discover gusting winds, a ridge of high pressure and unseasonably warm temperatures. Local ski guides relayed stories of dropping cornices and wet slab avalanches and our plan had to change before it even had a chance to get going. Bella Coola has some of the best skiing in the world but for us it was not to be. We inflated the boards and hit the water.
There was a moment on this trip – not long after we paddled away from the mouth of the Atnarko and onto the Pacific – when a biological transition occurred within our bodies. A point where the water from the creeks and rivers of our landscape had totally replaced our bodies’ stored reservoirs of tap water from home. Right down to the cellular level, we were now truly a part of the wilderness we’d come to explore. Of course, it was impossible for any of us to know exactly when this moment occurred, but we could all feel that it had.
The crux of adventure: Challenged by the elements and fatigue we are blown away not by the Pacific winds, but by the epic vista of the Northwest Coast as we hit cross Hakai Pass. This is the open Pacific; thick fog can roll in very quickly and sea conditions can shift from flat, calm to 4–6-metre (12–20-foot) swells within a matter of hours. Capsizing and re-gathering yourself in a place like this is neither simple nor relaxing, but the promise of surf and a beach on Calvert Island invigorates our last stores of energy. We stroke on.
Time is not ticking anymore. The sun rolls in and the waves shape up. This is a time of leisurely cooking, resting, surfing and welcoming the stars as we gather around the fire. It’s a simplicity that we cherish and do not take for granted, combined with a sense of accomplishment that comes with reaching any destination. To step into nature, alone or in a group, is to build a connection and an understanding of what needs to be protected.
“Right down to the cellular level, we were now truly a part of the wilderness we’d come to explore.”
Laying in the sun, I find myself thinking of my own young kids and how early and often they will develop ecological values. Will they need a big trip like this or can an afternoon in a Provincial Park build that connection too?
“Memories of the journey, the wilderness, good friends, and of simply being present while outside, alive and in step with nature; we can only hope these things will stay in our cells forever.”
“The winds howl so hard against the fortress-like walls of the fjord that we are forced to paddle through the night. Under the glare of the moon, we watch phosphorescent algae twirl away from each paddle stroke, keeping our minds occupied, happy even, as we push onward in search of shelter.”
I look over at four grown men, fathers and adventurers, with smiles in their eyes and peace in their hearts. Soon we will be home and the waters of the Northwest Coast will be gone from our bodies. But memories of the journey, the wilderness, good friends, and of simply being present while outside, alive and in step with nature; we can only hope these things will stay in our cells forever.