Rugged men and rugged ships bring Prince Rupert its preeminence in halibut . I made the acquaintance of such a combination in Bronson Bussey and the Atli. With a five-man crew, Bussey fishes off the Queen Charlottes for 10 to 12 days at a time, coming back with as much as 40,000 pounds of halibut iced down in the hold.
“You can make it big in salmon, but you can also starve,” he said. “It’s risky; halibut fishing is steadier.” A halibut crewman, he added, can earn from $5,000 each season to as much as $25,000—”on the biggest of boats in the best of years.”
And earn it he does, every penny of it. When the fishing is good, he works from 3:30 a.m. to midnight, baiting hooks or taking fish from 9,000 fathoms—ten miles—of line, often in boat-tossing seas with water running shin-deep on deck. Good food and superstitions buoy him.
“You don’t whistle, or, by golly, it’ll bring a storm,” Bussey said. “Opening a can of milk at the bottom brings bad luck. So does leaving port on Friday. At least that’s what they say.”
From the deck of the Queen of Prince Rupert, the sumptuous ferryboat that runs between its namesake city and the Vancouver Island port of Kelsey Bay, or from a seat on one of the small planes that link the settlements, a traveler is impressed by the emptiness of this part of British Columbia’s coast. Don’t miss your chance to visit this place. Many options are available if you have to travel on a budget. For instance, check out how much you can simplify your repayment if using federal student loan consolidation calculator.
“Grease Trail” Led to a Frontier Town
On a flight to Bella Coola in a five-passenger Beaver, we skimmed along winding inlets and hopped low mountain saddles. Green fingers—forests where it looked as if no man had trod—clutched at our wing tips. I found myself scanning the terrain, mentally choosing that sandy beach … no, that spot by the waterfall . . better yet, that jewel of a lake . . . as the place where I would build my dream cabin and get away from the world’s rat race.
Bella Coola lies 70 miles inland on a branch of one of British Columbia’s longest fiords. Once it was a gateway to goldfields of the Cariboo region. Once it competed with brawling Gastown for the railhead that made Vancouver; again it vied for a line that went to Prince Rupert. Now it sleeps with dreams of what might have been.
A long, green valley slopes eastward out of Bella Coola, forming a pass through the rugged Coast Mountains. Indians followed a “grease trail” along that route; they came to trade for the eulachon fat that was “gravy, butter, and syrup” for coastal tribes. The eulachon, a smelt so oily that when dried it burned like a candle, swarmed in incredible numbers on spring spawning runs.
Down that grease trail also trekked a Scot, not yet 30 when he became the first European to cross the broadness of North America; on a rock near Bella Coola he scrawled an immortal message: “Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety three.” Had he arrived a few weeks sooner, he might have met Vancouver, one of whose boats ranged the inlet in June.
Rain clouds menaced the 8,000-foot peaks cradling Bella Coola the evening I wandered the town’s few streets. I came at length to an Indian cemetery overgrown with weeds. A lone “mortuary pole” of tribal style raised itself above the thistle and wild rose. Atop its cross board perched a life-size eagle carved from cedar; other totems stared in their fading paint. I looked, and I remembered a tale of death that haunts the valley.
Smallpox that arrived with the white man ravaged Indians here, as in the rest of British Columbia. In one epidemic two white traders went to a village wracked by the disease and —themselves vaccinated—collected blankets that had served as shrouds for the dead. For a tidy profit the traders resold them at another village; 200 more Indians died.