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
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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
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.