Ocean Falls

By Réanne Hemingway Douglass
Pacific Yachting, March 1999

 

In 1980, a mill closure nearly left this once prosperous North Coast community a ghost town. But today, Ocean Falls is coming back to life as a destination for cruisers and tourists.

If you are looking for quiet, uncrowded cruising waters off the beaten path, the Discovery Coast and Ocean Falls could be for you. Located at the head of beautiful Cousins Inlet, 12 miles northeast of Bella Bella, Ocean Falls is one of our favourite ports of call. In contrast to the numerous islands west of Bella Bella which are low, flat and covered mainly with cedar, Cousins Inlet is surrounded by steep-sided mountains which rise to more than 1,000'. Mixed second-growth forests of fir, spruce, cedar and alder line the slopes, and waterfalls spill down from high lakes. Early in summer you'll he treated to spectacular views of snow-covered peaks.

Ocean Falls was once a prosperous industrial town-its Crown Zellerhach paper mill was the second largest on the coast. It was home to the most active yacht club on the central coast, with several outstations, including one at Codville Lagoon. We can thank former club members for huilding the trail from the lagoon to Sagar Lake; it's still usable although a bit rough and overgrown these days.

In 1980, after nearly seven decades of struggling for economic viability, the mill operation shut down and the town became a "living" ghost town of about 60 dedicated souls. However, the docks with good floats and the old yacht cluhhouse facilities are still there to welcome visiting cruisers.

Except for the occasional car or truck, the only sound in town is the continuous roar of the waterfall that carries millions of gallons of water over the dam from 27km-long Link Lake. Certainly it's hard to find a quieter, more scenic marina within 100 square miles. And to top it off, the several hundred feet of floats are rarely full, moorage fees are reasonahle, power anti good drinking water are available, and the public telephone at the head of the gangway is among the most accessible on the central coast. True, there's no fuel available in Ocean Falls, but by the summer of '99 you'll be able to tank up at Shearwater which also has the only repair facilities on the coast hetween Port Hardy and Prince Rupert.

GETTING THERE The Discovery Coast summer ferry service, initiated in 1996, has opened up new opporttmities for small-boat owners. Kayakers and people with trailerahle craft can now catch the ferry at either Port Hardy or Bella Coola (both have road access) and off-load at Bella Bella or Ocean Falls. Since the ferry makes its run several times a week, itineraries of varying lengths can he planned and pick-up arranged at ferry stops.

Whether you're traveling by small boat or fully-equipped cruising vessel, you have two choices for the route from Bella Bella to Ocean Falls. The most direct route leads through Gunboat Passage which connects Seaforth and Fisher Channels. Plan your transit near slack water-currents can he tricky at other times-and follow the nav aids carefully. The east entrance to Gunboat Passage, between Maria Island and Denny Point, has a shallow bar with submerged rocks (see the inset on Chart 3720). The fairway carries ahout two fathoms, so keep your eye on the depth sounder and post a lookout on your bow.

A longer alternate route lies through Troup Passage and Troup Narrows (Chart 3720 inset), then south along Johnson Channel to Fisher Channel and northeast into Cousins Inlet. Minimum depth in the Troup Narrows fairway is about 3-4 fathoms.

If you're arriving from the south and have long-range fuel capacity, you can continue up Fitz Hugh Sound into Fisher Channel, then into Cousins Inlet without stopping at Shearwater or Bella Bella. If you're putting in at Bella Coola with a trailerable boat, head south in North Bentinck Arm to Labouchere Channel, then south into Dean Channel to Cousins Inlet.

CIRCLE ROUTE One of our favourite variations from the standard route is a "circle" tour that leads northeast from Fitz Hugh into Burke Channel, then north through Labouchere and southeast into Dean Channel (Charts 3729, 3730, 3781). The area along the east side of Burke Channel between Restoration Bay and Labouchere Channel has some of the most spectacular scenery along the Discovery Coast-scenery whose full impact can best be appreciated when traveling just 50-lOO yds from shore. The high granite cliffs are natural paintings, some mauve, some ochre or violet-hueed; some striated and heavily glaciated. Here and there, tiny plants and trees poke through fissures in the vertical rock, a remarkable testimony to their survival capabilities.

Just 13 miles north of Cousins Inlet in Dean Channel, you can visit Sir Alexander Mackenzie Park which commemorates the first recored walk across the North American continent. (By coincidence, Mackenzie just missed meeting Capt. George Vancouver, who was on his first sailing expedition to the area.) A 43' obelisk on the point makes a good landmark. With a pair of binoculars, you can view the rock along shore inscribed "Alex Mackenzie from Canada by land 22nd July 1793." However, it's a lot more fun to go ashore and scramble around the rocks looking for the message. In settled weather, it's possibe to anchor off the little beach south of the point, but with any wind or a questionable outlook, you should anchor at the head of Elcho Harbour and zoom down in your tender. A forested trail leads northward a short way to an attractive campsite for kayakers and small hoaters.

Whichever route you choose, once you enter Cousins Inlet, slow down and take time to enjoy the scenery. Not far from the entrance, on the east side of the inlet just around Benn Point, head closer to the shore of Wallace Bay for a look at the decaying old cabins which once served as summer homes for residents of Ocean Falls. You can anchor here temporarily but, as you leave, be careful to avoid Guns Rock at the north end of the bight.

FRIENDLY GREETING Once you've moored at the pleasure floats, chances are you'll be greeted by Jim Owen, who was born and raised in Ocean Falls. He runs the general store in Martin Valley, a 15minute walk from the dock. The store is a treasure-trove of details about the town, whose history dates from the early 1900s when the site first came to the attention of investors looking for the ideal location for a saw and paper mill.

Cousins Inlet was deep enough to accommodate large ships, and the impressive cascade spilling down from Link Lake provided abundant power. Last but not least, it was surrounded by great stands of timber that would provide the fibre for paper. During its first decade, Ocean Falls led a boom-and-bust existence, but by the end of the First World War, a dam had been constructed over the falls for year-round power, the mill was turning out newsprint and wood for airplanes, and a bona fide town had begun to take shape. Later a new dam would be constructed, along with rows of neat houses and apartments, a hospital, a hotel, schools, tennis courts, a theatre and an Olympic-size swimming pool. The town swelled to over 3,500.

Stroll around now, however, and you'll see plenty of evidence of the ghost town: vandalized apartment complexes, old wooden houses with peeling paint and shattered window panes, ancient fire engines, tractors and trucks, many looking as if they were abandoned in haste. Wildflowers grow in abundance through cracks in broken asphalt and concrete. The 400-room Martin Hotel-billed, in its day, as one of the largest in B.C.-is locked and inaccessible. The paper mill whose drums once spun out thousands of rolls of newsprint for newspapers as far away as Los Angeles is padlocked, and broken glass is strewn about its concrete pad. Signs warning visitors of danger are posted along the bridge to the mill. You won't find a trace of the swimming pool where international award-winning swimmers once trained; it's been filled in, and weeds and rusting machinery hide all evidence of its existence.

MEMORIES Greg Gibault, who was born in an Ocean Falls hospital in 1948, still recalls with warmth his 15 years as a resident. "There was a bond between people; it was a very friendly, social, but casual place. Everyone knew everyone-if not by name, at least by sight. And we never locked our doors."

Teenagers didn't have time to get bored. For adults and children alike, there was too much to do. deer or goat hunting, shooting competitions, Boy Scouts, oil painting, ceramics, and swimming in the pool (funded, as the story goes, out of profits from the town pub). Much to the dismay of the residents, there was even a red light district which catered to loggers, fishermen and skippers. Gihault recalls crossing the inlet to what was known locally as Pecker Point. When he discovered a bunch of bedsprings strewn along shore, he asked a relative what they were about and got a quick lesson in sex education.

In 1965, Gibault's father, who had worked for Crown Zellerbach for 20 years, saw the economic handwriting on the wall. The mill was beginning to downsize, and the family moved south to the Vancouver area. Other families would do the same and, in 1972, the company announced a phase-out plan for its facilities. An attempt by the B.C. government to run the mill wavered for the next eight years and, in 1980, it closed for good. "Normalization" of Ocean Falls (the government's euphemism for demolition) was begun with houses and buildings bulldozed by the dozens. Fortunately, the structures in the "centre of town" were spared, as well as many of the houses in Martin Valley, Ocean Falls' residential area. The lovely old Heritage House where guests of the mill had been accommodated is slowly being renovated. The old courthouse above the dock now houses the post office, the public library, a clinic, and the office of the Ocean Falls Improvement District. The former hospital has rooms for rent, a cafe, a self-service laundromat and showers.

REBIRTH The community is doing its best to make tourism its main industry and, slowly, it is succeeding. Souvenirs of Ocean Falls are sold near the ferry dock and guided tours are offered. Visitors who want an easy warm-up can take a one-hour "walkabout" that includes a visit to the dam whose function now is to provide electricity to Ocean Falls, Bella Bella and Shearwater. Those who want a more strenuous workout can follow guide Chris McNalley on a 7km hike to the top of Mount Caro Marion, site of the BC Tel microwave tower. (McNalley took it upon himself last year to clear the trail.) Several fishing lodges cater to sportfishing enthusiasts, but if you prefer freshwater angling, Jim Owen will haul your tender up to Link Lake for some first-rate trout fishing. A new licensed pub, Seggo's Saloon, has opened in Martin Valley and real estate prices are creeping up again.

The residents who still call Ocean Falls home live there hecause they love it. Their enthusiasm and sense of humour are infectious, and no question, they welcome visitors. Cousins Inlet is pure recreation these days: you won't hear the drone of chainsaws or see log booms compete with the fishing fleet for facilities. In short, Ocean Falls is open for visitors' business.

Ocean Falls and the newly charted area of Spiller Channel and Roscoe Inlet are described in detail in Exploring the North Coast of British Columbia by the author and her husband Don Douglass. For more on the history of Ocean Falls, readers can order Rain People: The Story of Ocean Falls from Ocean Falls Library Association, Ocean Falls VOT I P0.

Reanne Hemingway-Douglass is a frequent contributor to PY. Her best-selling book Cape Horn: One Man's Dream, One Woman's Nightmare was recently published in French.

 

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