Ketchikan Stories and Tips

1: Where the heck is Bella Bella, anyways?

Bella Bella Photo, Ketchikan, Alaska

It all started when some friends out in the Pacific Northwest bought a boat. Jan and Jay were planning to live aboard the 65-foot trawler yacht Viking Fjord. Having sold their house on San Juan Island as well as their former boat, my friends planned to start a charter business with their new boat. They needed crew for their maiden voyage up the Inner Passage and asked me if I’d like to join them. Frankly, I was astonished that they’d ask me. I had virtually no shipboard experience other than an occasional passage on large ferries. But then, I realized, what was required was not necessarily experience but a willingness to learn. Needless to say, I leapt at the opportunity.

The only difficulty that presented itself was coming up with a workable itinerary. Jan and Jay were planning to go by easy stages up from San Juan Island, off the coast of Washington, to Sitka, Alaska. When I got their proposed itinerary, I quickly realized that the only week I’d be able to come was the week of June 26-July 2, on the leg from Bella Bella, B.C. to Ketchikan. My first challenge, therefore, was figuring out how to get to Bella Bella, a small Heiltsuk tribal village on Campbell Island, some two hundred miles as the crow flies north of Vancouver and accessible only by boat or plane. Planning was complicated by the fact that I hoped to use flyer miles to get out west, but didn’t have enough for a flight outside the U.S. Furthermore, there were no flights from Seattle to Bella Bella; the sole airline that serviced the village being Pacific Coastal, based in Vancouver. Thus I ended up developing a slightly lopsided itinerary, flying into Seattle to take a bus north to Vancouver, then getting a flight to Bella Bella. Another slightly worrying factor was that if we encountered storms or technical problems cruising north from Bella Bella, we might not get into Ketchikan on the date planned, so I added a couple days onto the end of my trip to allow me extra time, if needed, before flying back to Washington, D.C.

I’d never planned a trip in which one stage was so dependent upon the prior ones operating smoothly, but whether luck with was with me or my planning paid off, I found myself on June 26th on a Quick Coach bus headed for Vancouver Airport, having flown into Seatac the night before. I’ve always enjoyed travelling by bus. I’m a poor passenger in a car and a nervous driver, so sitting on a clean and comfortable motorcoach is just about my favorite way of travelling, save by bicycle on flat terrain. At Vancouver Airport, I learned that the Pacific Coastal flights all left from the South Terminal, which services small planes. Coming into the terminal, I quickly realized I’d entered what was a small universe unto itself – the world of the sports fisherman.

Now, I don’t want to step on any toes here, so I’ll say right from the start that I think being a sports fisherman is a wonderful thing. Still, I was somewhat taken aback by the passengers disembarking and waiting to embark on the charter flights, going to places like Oak Bay and Chatham Sound, places I’d never heard of before. Every one of them seemed to be of a type, with some variations, with a tanned, weather-beaten face beneath a sport hat, which usually bore a beer company or fishing gear logo. Almost all of them wore fishing vests with numerous pockets, woolen jerseys or flannel shirts, jeans, and sturdy boots. They carried long, canvas bags for their rods and reels, and most were also carrying small coolers.

I had two and a half hours to kill before my flight for Bella Bella left, and I spent most of it watching the sports fishermen come and go. The ones waiting to leave sat hunched over beers around tables at the terminal café, splaying their hands just-so to indicate the size of the one that got away as they spun their yarns. The ones disembarking proudly carried large cardboard boxes containing the fish they’d caught, which had been duly canned, smoked, or frozen by what must be an entire British Columbian mini-industry devoted to preserving whatever the sports fishermen catch. I seemed to be the only non-fisherman in the terminal, save the efficient Chinese staff of the café. After eating lunch at the café (leaving a big tip, which was what I imagined any sports fisherman would do), I boarded the flight to Bella Bella.

There were four passengers aboard the 13-seat plane. The pilot looked like he was scarcely of age, but flew like a seasoned pro. I''d worried a bit about a smaller plane ride being bumpy, but other than the loud, persistent drone of the propellers, which sounded like an outsized basso box fan, the flight was remarkably pleasant. The occasional view through the clouds below revealed flat, shimmering sheets of water interspersed with green islets and peninsulas. An hour and a half later, the plane descended towards one of the larger pine-tree studded land masses: Bella Bella.

A stretch of asphalt for a landing strip with a prefabricated building sporting a wind sock alongside comprised the airport. So this was Bella Bella. But where was the village? One of the other passengers, a trim-looking woman with an air of efficiency, turned to me and asked it I knew how to get into town. As I professed complete ignorance, one of the other passengers, a great bear of a man with a shaggy beard, turned to us and said, "There''ll be a taxi along any moment now. Would you like to share it into town?" Sure enough, moments after disembarking and retrieving our luggage from the underbelly of the plane, a battered station wagon pulled up near the plane. Meeting the flight from Vancouver was obviously a local cottage industry. As we squeezed into the station wagon - one door, it turned out, did not open - my fellow passengers introduced themselves. The trim woman was the new resident nurse practitioner for the village, and the bear was a local skipper, "Big Mike."

I told them I was planning to meet some friends coming up from San Juan Island on their boat. "What''s the name of the boat?" Big Mike asked. "The Viking Fjord," I replied. "Hmmm... we can check down at the harbormaster''s." And so we did. After the nurse got out at her new digs, Big Mike took me in tow, leading me along the dock to the harbormaster''s hut. But no one there had seen or heard of the Viking Fjord. I wasn''t quite sure what to do, but was determined not to be thrown by this potentially worrisome fact. "The plane got in a little early, Mike. Perhaps I''ll just wait here a bit. Thanks!"

Sitting down on a bench on the pier, I partially succeeded in squashing my fears of being stranded in the middle of nowhere. People watching provided a distraction. The scene at the pier was lively, at least by local standards. One tribal fisherman was doing something complex with a net while several other fishermen leaned on pylons and chatted with him. (Why is it, I wondered, that it always seemed to take a minimal of three workmen to do anything - one to work and at least two others to watch?) Several teenage boys motored up in a flat-bottomed fishing boat, angled it effortlessly into a small slip, and tied the boat off, all in just a few minutes. Born to the aquatic life, I surmised. Several wary-looking cats skulked around the pier, hoping for bits of fish, while a dog of indeterminate ancestry scratched at fleas before stretching out for a nap. Men came in and out of the local bait and liquor store a stone’s throw from the pier. No women were in sight. Perhaps they were home cooking dinner? Worry got a foothold in my mind. Where would I stay if Jan and Jay had been delayed somewhere en route to Bella Bella?

Lost in the grip of this negative fantasy, I didn''t at first hear someone calling my name. "Kay!" Startled, I looked up. There was a gaunt, bearded man in a skiff coming towards the pier. How did he know my name? Then I recognized him - Jay! Good grief, he''d lost a lot of weight, looking like the proverbial old sea salt, with his hair tied back in a pony tail. And what of the Viking Fjord? Anchored out a ways, Jay said. He’d come to take me out to it. He manhandled my suddenly silly-seeming red suitcase on wheels into the skiff (oh, what I suddenly would have given for a seaworthy duffel bag instead) and off we headed for the Viking Fjord.

(to be continued...)

Been to this destination?

Share Your Story or Tip