BELLA COOLA —”What did you think of The Hill?”
It’s a common question travellers hear when they first arrive in Bella Coola.
Locals aren’t referring to a bucolic little ridge on the edge of town that shows off the region’s beauty.
They’re talking about a notoriously steep, unpaved stretch of Highway 20 that connects the Chilcoltin Plateau to the Bella Coola Valley. The 43-kilometre road descends some 1,800 metres with grades as steep as 18 per cent and there are no guard rails to prevent motorists from going over the edge.
For drivers familiar with backcountry roads, The Hill may not be too intimidating, but for tourists from Europe and elsewhere who travel to B.C.’s central coast, it can be a nerve-wracking experience. Locals tell stories about travellers who made it down The Hill and then refused to go back up, leaving their rental car or RV behind and choosing to leave by ferry or plane.
Other visitors commemorate the ride by buying a T-shirt at a local store that says “I survived The Hill.”
While there have been calls to improve the road over the years, locals say The Hill doesn’t appear to prevent tourists from accessing the Great Bear Rainforest. In fact, some travellers appear to welcome driving the stretch of Highway 20 that looks nothing like a highway.
“We’ve tried to balance it over the years to present it as an adventure without being intimidating,” said John Morton, a Hagensborg resident whose father-in-law — Cliff Kopas — helped build the road. “It’s a fine line. We get a lot of people who say, ‘I’ve heard about it. I wanted to see it myself.'”
Over the years, there have been calls to improve the road, with some suggesting that it should finally be paved. Morton says there is no need for drastic changes.
“There’s always room for improvement but there’s nothing dramatic that I see that’s critical at the present time,” he said. “All our freight still moves over that road, huge semis, tour buses. There’s nothing that can’t traverse that highway pretty much 365 days a year.”
What’s it like to drive The Hill?
For motorists accustomed to city roads, The Hill can be intimidating. You slowly descend down a steep, gravelly path that features narrow stretches where passing is dicey. There are also some blind corners that you have to approach with caution.
Locals say they are confident but not complacent when they drive The Hill. They know they have to pay attention, especially on the way down — lean on the brakes too hard and your wheels could slip out from beneath you. Do that on a narrow stretch and you could find yourself in trouble.
For all its nasty reputation, locals say they The Hill is relatively safe. One local first responder told Global News that he knew of only two fatalities on The Hill over the years.
British economist Gordon Tullock once mused that the best way to prevent car accidents is to have a metal spike sticking out of the steering wheel, his thinking being that the threat of injury would force motorists to be extra careful.
Similarly, The Hill forces drivers to be cautious. Even if there were cellphone reception, there probably wouldn’t be many distracted drivers on The Hill. The narrow road forces you to keep your hands on the wheel and have your wits about you.
Of course, if you pay too much attention to the road, you could miss out on the incredible scenery around you. So if you do find a wide enough stretch of road to stop, it’s worth pulling over and taking in the view.
While commonly known as The Hill, the route has another name: Freedom Road. That’s what residents christened the roadway after a hearty group of locals built it in the 1950s.
The province decided to end construction of Highway 20 at Anahim Lake, saying it was too costly to build the road out to the Bella Coola Valley.
“The highway engineers said it wasn’t possible so consequently there was no government plan for building a road,” Morton said.
Locals thoughts otherwise. In 1952, the local Board of Trade, led by Cliff Kopas, assembled a band of volunteers to carve out a road between Anahim Lake and Bella Coola.
“It was a time, I think, in rural communities when people just stood up and got things done,” Morton said.
Volunteer crews started with bulldozers at the top and bottom of the hill with the hopes of meeting somewhere in the middle.
They managed to quickly cut a path from Anahim Lake to what is now the top of The Hill, which caught the eye of Minister of Highways Phil Gaglardi, who offered to cover some of the costs.
“Even though the engineers said it couldn’t be done, he had a suspicion that these guys in Bella Coola were going to pull something off,” Morton said of Gaglardi. “So he actually set aside some cash and doled it out a bit at a time. It wasn’t ever upfront. They’d keep going back and say, ‘We’ve just got a few more miles to go’ and he’d give them another $2,000 and they’d push it forward a little further.”
Melvin Gurr, 84, is the last surviving member of the crew that built Freedom Road. He had just gotten his blaster’s certificate and signed on to help build the road that his father Elijah helped design.
It was dangerous work at a time when safety standards were much different than they are now.
“We didn’t even wear hard hats. No one knew what they were,” he said from his home in Hagensborg.
Gurr said he would often hide behind trees to protect himself from the blasts.
Decades after Gurr worked on The Hill, much of his handiwork still stands although the path has been widened in many spots.
Some might say it’s time to finally pave The Hill but Morton says that doesn’t make sense. The community, he says, would much prefer that the province focus on improving ferry service to the area.
“Locally, nobody thinks it should be paved,” Morton said. “That original section from Anahim Lake to the top of The Hill, sure, we would love to have that paved but it’s not critical to the usage of the road.”
“As for The Hill itself, you’d have two issues right away: most likely people would drive faster, which would not be a good thing to do. Secondly, it would be much harder to maintain in winter. It’s a lot easier to maintain a mountain gravel road in winter than a paved road.”
Gurr agrees there’s no need to pave The Hill, adding that he’s proud to have played a small role in helping open up the area to the outside world.
“Some of the elder people here at the time, that was their first chance to actually get out of the valley,” he recalls. “I opened it up a little bit.”