Narrow road

Narrow Highway 20 road to Bella Coola needs paving, groups say


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Melvin Gurr, the last surviving member of the provocative crew who built Bella Coola’s so-called Freedom Road in Anahim Lake 63 years ago, snorts at the suggestion that the steepest and most dangerous part should finally be paved.

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“I don’t see how that would make a difference,” said Gurr, 84. “It’s good like this.”

His wife Elaine, however, is driving now and she has other thoughts.

“I’ve been at Bella Coola for over 50 years and still don’t like driving The Hill,” she said.

The Gurrs speak of a legendary steep, narrow and twisty section of Highway 20 that descends 6,000 feet from the Chilcotin High Plateau through three switchbacks through the coastal mountains to Bella Coola. It is a gravel road so white that on occasion tourists who have ventured there have refused to return. Their alternatives: fly or take the infrequent ferry service.

Melvin Gurr had a lot to do with this section of the road. It was his dynamite, neatly packaged in the hard rock walls along the Atnarko River Road, that created a small trail for an old TD18 International bulldozer to weave through a narrow road. He was among a group of Bella Coola residents who decided to build the road after the province stopped construction of Highway 20 from Williams Lake to Anahim Lake, just before the mountains. To walk the last 76 kilometers to the ocean was found to be too difficult and expensive.

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But the locals disagreed and, relying on the same gut courage that allowed them to colonize the wild Chilcotin, they drove a road in just over a year at a cost of $ 62,000. , all of which except $ 4,000 was eventually covered by the province. At today’s value, it’s just over $ 570,000. By comparison, the simple paving of a single kilometer of gravel road is now estimated at $ 400,000.

Today the road is wider in many places and the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure has built a decent road base. The province paved all but 42 kilometers of the road between Williams Lake and the coast. But much of those unpaved miles belong to The Hill and a section leading to Lake Anahim.

The road is not for the faint of heart. Unpaved in the narrowest, winding portions, the vertiginous section of Tweedsmuir Provincial Park defied attempts to tame it. It is still a single lane road in some places, and there are no guardrails on the edges of the precipice.

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The three local central coast tourism associations, Chilcotin and Cariboo, as well as the Aboriginal Tourism Association of BC, have pushed for much of the unpaved section of the highway to be improved. Between difficult road conditions and the recent degradation of ferry service between Bella Coola and Port Hardy, the area has not experienced the same tourism growth as other parts of British Columbia.

Last month, a group of First Nations, tourism associations and tourism operators, the Mid-Coast BC Ferry Working Group, presented a report to the government showing that although Indigenous tourism has grown by more than 100% across the province, transportation problems in the mid-coast and Chilcotin had limited growth to just 15-20 percent.

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“I think it’s in the best interests of Canada, as well as British Columbia, to improve this access to Bella Coola,” said Pat Corbett, president of the Cariboo Coast Chilcotin Tourism Association and co-chair of the group. job.

“There is no reason they shouldn’t pay the road to the top of The Hill and we want it to be done,” he said. “I think it’s a forgotten part of the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure.”

Each year, the highway attracts tourists who use it to access the Great Bear Rainforest, the now protected large strip of the central coast. Many come from Germany, Holland and the Scandinavian countries. But it also attracts Americans. Last month, North Carolina lawyer Donald Pevsner wrote to Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Todd Stone asking why the Hill was not yet paved. Pevsner plans to drive Highway 20 this summer and was annoyed that some sections were still dirt.

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“I am appalled that the most difficult 35 miles of this 284 mile long road is unpaved dirt, through Tweedsmuir Provincial Park,” he wrote. “I find it totally incomprehensible and inconceivable that your ministry did not pave this section of the road 20 decades ago.”

In an interview, Pevsner said he had driven in British Columbia before and didn’t understand the logic of leaving a big road unpaved.

“I love driving on exotic roads, but I don’t understand why they haven’t paved the rougher part of the park,” Pevsner said.

Norm Parkes, the province’s executive director of highways, says there’s a good reason The Hill remains gravel.

“It’s very subject to weather conditions. It ranges from the dry Chilcotin plateau to sea level. It is a very coastal climate. If we were to pave it, it would become an ice rink in winter, ”he said. “We keep gravel for safety reasons. “

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The entire highway has undergone more than $ 50 million in upgrades over the past eight to ten years, he said, and this year an additional $ 6.2 million will be spent on repaving some sections outside of Lake Anahim and Bella Coola.

Parkes said there were no plans to pave The Hill, but some sections at the top could be paved in the future, time and budget permitting.

Despite all of its legendary betrayal, The Hill does not have a high crash history, according to locals and the ministry. Over the years, a few people have been killed or injured, but less than the average for other highways. Parkes has a theory as to why.

“I think people respect the road. When I drive it, I certainly do. It is a difficult road and you have to respect it, ”he said.

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