Canadian photographer R. John Knight shares the stories behind some of his nature and wildlife images

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Stranded in Bella Coola With Rising Flood Waters

Well, we're home after being away for 3 weeks.

We had headed towards Bella Coola on Sept. 22nd to join some photographers at Chilko Lake to photograph grizzlies for a week.  At least, that was the plan.  However, 'mother nature' intervened.

Since we had arrived in the area a couple of days early, we drove down 'The Hill' to Bella Coola, just as the rain started. 

We stopped at Hagensborg, a few kilometres east of Bella Coola, for gas and a few groceries late Friday afternoon.  It was here that we learned about the significant storm headed our direction.  We hunkered down for the night at a local campsite, not wanting to try driving back up 'The Hill' in the dark, but planning to leave first thing in the morning.

It rained heavily all night.  When I looked outside in the morning, there were large ponds of water in the campsite, and the road back to the highway was under water.  And, there was no water for the toilets or showers.

We quickly had something to eat, then drove through ~20 cm of quickly flowing water back onto Highway 20, and headed east.  We didn't get far.  A flagman was standing in the middle of the road.  The road was washed out just around the corner, and there were apparently about 14 other washouts between Hagensborg and the bottom of 'The Hill'.

Surfing with our Tacoma and pop-up camper
We headed back the other way, past the campground turnoff where water levels were already noticeably higher.  The accesses to the gas station and local store were flooded, and the road to Bella Coola was under water and impassable.   We were trapped with rising water all around us.

Highway 20, Hagensborg
Highway 20, Hagensborg
House in Hagensborg
I checked our GPS to locate road access to higher ground.  It turned out to be at the local high school in Hagensborg.  We parked there for most of the day while it continued to rain, and the rivers and streams flooded.  Periodically, we drove out onto the highway to see if anything had changed.

About mid-afternoon, a local invited us to their house for tea.  A few hours later, however, the road to their house was under water, and threatening to be washed out by the rapidly moving water.  So, with the threat of being cut-off, we helped these people load up a few things, mainly food and clothing, and we headed further up-valley and up-slope to an empty house that was on well-water.  The owners were working in Vancouver.  This is where we stayed, safely above the flood for the next two days.  We slept in our camper, and shared our meals and cooking with our new friends and hosts, Stewart, Shirley and Marilyn, their four canine pals, and friends, Mike and Clare.  While this was happening, Stewart headed off to work on the local roads and clearing culverts of debris with other road crews.

Olsen Road Wash-out, Hagensborg
By late Monday, the rains had eased off and the flood waters began to recede.   With the water turned back on in Hagensborg Tuesday afternoon, albeit with a 'boil order', we helped moved our hosts move back into their home.  The flood waters did not wash out their road, but had come to within ~20 cm of the main floor of their house.  Fortunately, they had no basement, but the crawl space was full of mud and water  Their workshop/business building had been flooded by about 1.5 m of water, judging from the watermarks on the walls, and was now loaded with water-sodden items and about 10-15 cm of wet silt.

Tire tracks in muds deposited by flood.  Heavy shoveling!
Since we had not been in touch with any of the local authorities, we registered with the RCMP and the emergency staff at the Central Coast Regional District office. We were able to confirm that the only road out of Bella Coola would be closed for at least a month, if not longer.  There were apparently kilometre sections washed out by the 200-250 mm of rain that had fallen.

We learned that Tweedsmuir Travel was trying to organize a ferry with the BC government to evacuate stranded visitors like ourselves.  The seasonal ferry that serves Bella Coola twice a week during the summer had just gone into dry-dock mid-September for its winter maintenance.

For the next two days, we retrieved and re-stacked firewood and other items that had floated away, and shoveled silt from buildings and basements at our host's place, and at some of their neighbor's nearby.

Grader repairing undercut road edges

Road and bridge washout, Hagensborg

On Wednesday evening, we heard that we were on a list of possible evacuees the next morning.  The plan was to get us to Bella Bella aboard a small ferry, the Nimpkish, so that we could catch the southbound, Prince Rupert to Port Hardy ferry, the Northern Princess, Thursday evening. 

We were up and out the door early on Thursday to make the drive down to Bella Coola.  Work crews were busy everywhere repairing washed out and undercut roads.

Bridge approaches washed out
Road to bridge undercut by flood waters
At the ferry, we were initially told that our pop-up camper was too tall for the ferry.  It was, after all a 'really small' ferry with a capacity of only 13 vehicles, of which only three could be taller trucks, trailers or campers.  To make a long story short, we did get on.  They had us back on, and with some jockeying around, we put the nose of our truck in under the area for cars.  

We left Bella Coola about 0900 with mixed feelings.  Part of us wanted to stay and help, but we were extra mouths to feed, and food supplies were getting low in the community.  When we heard that other ferry evacuations might be uncertain during the following week, we decided that it was best to take the opportunity and leave.

Tacoma and camper squeezed onto the Nimpkish
Pack'em in!
Northern Explorer, Bella Bella
By 2230 Thursday evening, we were in Port Hardy, but we were still wondering about how our friends were doing back in Hagensborg.

The Bella Coola flooding was the worst on record for the community, i.e., with 309 mm of rain falling within 36 hours, the river came up 4 m.  Roads and bridges were washed out.  Homes were flooded; some washed away.  The damage was extensive.

Almost three weeks later, the only road to the outside is still being repaired (re-constructed).  Limited essential traffic can use the road under escort.  It will be months before it is properly fixed.  In the meantime, food and fuel comes in by barge.   As if this were not enough, grizzlies and cougars are now wondering through the community in larger than usual numbers as they forage for food to replace the salmon from the annual run.
Yes, we missed our week to photograph the grizzlies, but there will be other years.  Obviously, this is where we were meant to be this year, and by being there and through helping others in need, we met some truly amazing and courageous people.

After escaping to Vancouver Island, we stopped to visit our daughter and son on the way home.  Being touch was family after such an experience seemed really important.  Our trip to coast and back turned out to be more of an adventure than we had planned!
Bella Coola at sunrise
For more images of the Bella Coola flood, visit Mike Wigle's gallery at:

Friday, October 1, 2010

Yellowknife In February - A Moment of Winter Madness?

Canadian Shield east of Yellowknife
We could claim that we took a wrong turn, or that we ignorantly followed the directions offered by our GPS.  The truth is that it was mid-February in Calgary, and while most people find themselves thinking about sunny beaches far to the south as an escape from winter, we found ourselves craving for some ‘real’ winter. 

One moment, we were wondering what to do.  The next, we were asking our son about Yellowknife this time of year, and our daughter about the best kind of vehicle for the roads up north.  A week later, we were heading North in our truck.  When our son heard about our decision, his comment was, “That was fast!”

As with any winter driving, we packed for the cold, but still wondered about how cold it might get and about driving conditions.  We also wondered if it might be too cold to overnight in our camper, and whether or not we would see the Northern Lights.

North of Grande Prairie, we drove into dense pockets of ice fog, and passed by hoar frost encrusted trees and fences.  As we crossed into NWT, the roads were partially snow covered, and heavily snow-covered black spruce sentinels lined the highway’s margins.  The winter vistas were beautiful.
Farm, northern Alberta
Gray Owl, High Level, AB
Near Fort Providence, we encountered our first ice-bridge across the Mackenzie River.  It was hard to imagine crossing on the river ice with a truck weighing up to the 64,000 kg posted limit.   With our southern ignorance, we drove at the posted speed limit of 25 kph in our little truck with a pop-up camper which weighs less than 3000 kg.  Later, a local told us that it was okay to travel a little faster with a regular vehicle.

Abandoned mine, Yellowknife
Lynx at the edge of Yellowknife
At the Visitor’s Centre in Yellowknife, it was suggested that we try the ice road from Yellowknife to Dettah, a winter-time shortcut across an arm of Great Slave Lake.  With weekend traffic, the ice road felt like an ordinary country road during the winter, except that the road was on ice.
Ice-road from Yellowknife to Dettah
We drove to end of the Ingraham Trail, and watched the trucks head onto Tibbitt Lake where the ice road to various diamond and old gold mines further north begins.  It wasn’t until we saw the truck traffic that we appreciated the magnitude and significance of the thousands of truck loads, mostly double tankers, driving up the ice road.

Start of ice-road at the end of the Ingraham Trail

Large truck heading south on ice-road
In town, we learned that we could drive on the ice roads, at our own risk, as long as commercial trucks were given the right of way, and if we carried our own fuel.  We wanted to try the ice road, and hoped that we might see some caribou.  After traveling about 100 kms on the ice road and across nineteen portages, we eventually saw about 40 caribou in the distance at the north end of Gordon Lake.  Then noting the time of day, and our remaining fuel, we decided to turn-around.  On the way back, we saw two smaller groups of caribou, one of which was fairly close to the road.
Woodland Caribou
The ice road effectively followed the same route that canoeists would paddle and portage during the summer.  Driving on the ice road was like any snow-covered winter road elsewhere with some exceptions.  One, the road was on lake ice, not ‘terra firma’, leading you to wonder about ice thickness and water depth.  Two, we were sharing the road with big, heavy trucks that were spaced about 500 m apart, traveling at posted speeds that ranged from 15-25 kph depending on ice thickness and size of the lake.  If you were standing on the ice when a truck went by, it was a little unnerving to hear the ice creak and groan, and to feel the ice bend beneath your feet.  It was difficult to imagine being able to stay on the road during white-out conditions.
Driving on the ice-road
With warmer than normal winter temperatures, maintenance crews were flooding portions of the ice road to sustain and enhance the ice thickness.  Driving on these freshly flooded ice rinks required finesse particularly on the corners. 

From the looks on the faces of many of the truckers, they seemed amused to see someone like us on the road. 

After returning to Yellowknife, we headed west to Fort Simpson, Fort Liard and back south with fond memories of our mid-winter trip to the North.  We did overnight in our camper, and the Northern Lights were spectacular.  Travelling the ice road with the truckers gave us a better appreciation of their work, and of the importance of this winter lifeline to northern communities and businesses.

When we got home, we felt that we wanted to do the trip again, but that will have to wait for another winter.  And, we hear that there are more ice and winter roads to explore!
Aurora Borealis