It was a dark and stormy night as our B.C. ferry chugged north between steep islands and narrow fjords of the Inland Passage. Driving rain lashed the windows as choppy waves rocked the small vessel, and Thor and I peered in vain through the murk for a glimpse of the fabled rugged scenery of the coast. A blast of a horn, and the engines slowed. Out of the gloom, a dock appeared, and behind it the ruins of a concrete bunker-like building, its broken windows staring like empty, haunted eyes.
“Ocean Falls. Everyone off the ferry.”
“Wait! We’re heading for Bella Coola, not this ghost town.”
At 6:00 am, we boarded the gleaming B.C. ferry we’d booked for our trip up part of the Inside Passage and then through the fjords to Bella Coola. The ferry, more like a cruise ship, featured a theater, sleeping cabins, two restaurants, and a gift shop. After enjoying a delicious breakfast, served in style, we settled in to watch the scenery, keeping an eye out for orcas and other wildlife. We saw a humpback whale before the weather closed in with dumping rain, but hoped for clearing as we threaded between islands.
A couple hours later, we learned that we would need to change ferries at Bella Bella. “Better buy some sandwiches now,” we were informed.
“What, no cafeteria on the other ferry?”
Only an amused snort answered us.
After a long delay while the ferry threaded between the nets of commercial salmon fishing boats, we drove onto the steep gravel road at the Bella Bella landing, where we were destined to wait four hours in pounding rain before the new ferry arrived. (We entertained ourselves in a brief rain break by wandering the beach past this old fishing boat and ravens eating the carcasses of spawned-out salmon.) Appearing more like a tugboat, the new ferry laboriously loaded the few waiting vehicles to make sure the weight was balanced, then set off into darkening seas. We hadn’t realized our reservations were for the “milk run” ferry that would make more than one stop to serve the small coastal communities along this roadless coastline.
Ocean Falls welcomed us sometime before midnight into its crumbling arms, as all vehicles had to disembark, turn around, and reload onto the ferry for the continuing trip. A few foot passengers dashed aboard out of the downpour, shaking water and sharing stories about this ghost town that had once been a thriving community centered around a mill and the dam the company had built in 1912 to hydropower the self-contained settlement. For a while, the town attracted wealthy tourists to its fancy spa hotel and outdoor experiences, including world-class fishing and hunting. When the hotel burned down, a more utilitarian concrete building was erected, and that is the abandoned shell we glimpsed on our dark and stormy night.
At its height of productivity, the mill town had a population of around 3500, with such amenities as an Olympic-sized pool where several champion swimmers trained. Today, about 35 people live among the crumbling ruins, some of them engaged in logging, opposed by some of the original tribal people.
Instead of sunshine (or at least daylight) for our highly-anticipated ferry trip, we realized later that we had experienced the true coastal British Columbia, where it rains around 173″ per year. At the moment, I didn’t appreciate the authenticity. It may have been the weather and the long, damp day of travel, but something in the air at Ocean Falls made me eager to put the place behind me. Thor, however, was fascinated, and vows to return to explore the town and its ghosts.
Here are links to two YouTube videos, if you’d like to take the tour:
“Ocean Falls Musimentary”:
This one is more a “mockumentary” and good for some chuckles:
A note from Part 1 of this blog series, which will continue on Nov. 14 with Bella Coola, petroglyphs, and more: A visceral sense of place is very important to me when writing my novels, and after setting them in far-flung locales, I’m bringing this new novel-in-progress home to my back yard. Growing up fourth-generation in the far Northwest corner of the U.S., very close to Canada, I’m rooted in our green forests and island waterways. I’ve always felt a tension between my love of my homeland and wanderlust, and in this new novel I’m exploring themes of displacement as ocean levels rise in the near future and coastal dwellers must move. Northwest native culture is so interwoven with the importance of ancestral homelands that I felt I needed a refresher visit to some coastal villages and wilderness just to the north in British Columbia. And research made a fine excuse to pack up the car for a ferry and road trip.
Sara’s newest from Book View Cafe was recently released in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection. It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?” The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction.