easoned eco-tourists Susan Rhind and Murray Ellis were impressed with the Bella Coola Valley as an eco-tourism destination but not with BC Ferries

Ferry trip “fabulous”, but BC Ferries not, say eco-tourists

Ferry trip “fabulous”, but BC Ferries not, say eco-tourists

Once the pride of the province’s transportation system, BC Ferries is an object of harsh criticism from a pair of Australian eco-tourists who recently visited the Bella Coola Valley.

Susan Rhind, PhD,  and Murray Ellis, both wildlife biologists and seasoned travelers who roam the world’s remote places observing wildlife and wilderness habitat, sometimes volunteering for various organizations, came in on the Nimpkish “Discovery Coast Connector” for the last week of their two-month 2015 adventure.

While praising the Bella Coola Valley as the highlight of their trip and describing their cruise on the MV Nimpkish as “fabulous”, the couple recounted their adventure for the Coast Mountain NEWS.  Their experience with BC Ferries might have discouraged less determined travelers, but they were undaunted on what they estimated to be a $16,000 venture ($2,000 of it spent in the Valley).

They had returned to the northeast Pacific after a previous voyage down the Inside Passage on Alaska’s “marine highway” while volunteering on a two-month trip to Alaska and Costa Rica.  Two years ago, they created a similar two-month eco-tour starting in Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland, then Nova Scotia, a short time in BC, and on to Churchill, Manitoba to observe the polar bears of Hudson Bay.  Their work-travel has also included Viet Nam, and for Rhind, a two-year stint in Africa.

This summer, acting on a recommendation by a fellow researcher living in Kamloops, they settled on a week in the Bella Coola Valley to end this two-month trip.  They knew prime grizzly season was later on, but they came, hoping to see bears anyway.   “We looked up Bella Coola (on the Internet) and went WOW!”, said Rhind.

Then the difficulties began.

They decided to take the ferry so they could experience the voyage.  The couple found the BC Ferries website “impossible”.  “Once we disentangled it all, we were uncomfortable about whether we were booking what we thought we were booking,” said Rhind.  The website was so “awkward”, that they contacted the travel agency in Bella Coola, who restored their confidence, but they were still left with questions.

Being seasoned international travelers used to making their own arrangements, the couple turned to “Trip Advisor” and other social media reviews to get a picture of what to expect.  This included looking up the MV Nimpkish.

“The reviews were absolutely damning,” Rhind said.  They saw newspaper articles that reported on the dismal 2014 season (the first year of the new “connector” service involving the Nimpkish.)

They read about “a politician saying what a glorious trip he’d had.” Ellis claimed, “It seemed he (the politician) was manufacturing his own version of reality.”

“People don’t just go to BC Ferries and see what BC Ferries says about themselves,” Rhind said.  “They also go on the Internet, where I saw everything was bad.  Everything I could find out about this vessel told me how terrible it was.”

Nevertheless, because they weren’t encumbered by a vehicle, they were able to get reservations as foot passengers on the “connector” (sold out for vehicles), and booked their two-month trip:   Starting in Hawaii, then Alaska, and down the Inside Passage to Vancouver.  There, still curious about the amenities on board the Nimpkish, the pair went to the BC Ferries Vacations downtown head office to ask what they should expect in order to prepare.  They got no answers.

“We were confused,” Rhind said, adding that they weren’t asking in order to be critical.  “Our questions were genuine questions.  We wanted to know if we were taking the right stuff.  But they couldn’t give the information to me.”

The trip continued: Up the Sunshine Coast, over to Vancouver Island and Tofino, then to northern Vancouver Island where they spoke to other BC Ferries staff and got no information about the Nimpkish amenities. The couple told the NEWS that everywhere they went in their BC travels, people complained about the ferry service – about reservations, about getting information, about fares, about schedules. They said this hadn’t been their experience when they were here just two years ago.  (That was before the government’s cost-cutting measures were implemented.)

At Port Hardy, because of what they had read on-line, Rhind and Ellis packed cushions, water, food, and raingear.  “We knew this (the Nimpkish) was a bucket, a tub, but that wasn’t going stop us.  We were ready for anything,” Rhind said.  “We had already lowered our expectations. We just needed information.”

North they sailed on the MV Northern Expedition, heading into the Great Bear Rainforest to Bella Bella, where they transferred to the Nimpkish. Once aboard the little vessel, the couple learned of the complimentary food and beverages only when other passengers appeared with refreshments in the lounge where they had gone. No information had been provided to those going to the second lounge.

“You had to be resourceful and able bodied,” Rhind said. They had to find the washrooms for themselves and be able to squeeze between the RV’s occupying the center overheight lane to get to the lounge serving water, tea, coffee, soft drinks, and a boxed lunch.

Rhind expressed special concern about safety.  “You need to be physically really strong to open the doors,” she noted, and this, coupled with the sills underfoot, could cause an accident in which case, “BC Ferries would surely be dragged through the courts, and would not win because it is absolutely obvious that it’s very dangerous.  If you are frail, overly tall, or have a pot belly, you probably can’t go on that ferry, and it’s certainly not safe.” She sees this as an “equity issue”, adding a more suitable vessel should be employed for this service.

From their Nimpkish experience, Rhind and Ellis said they have invented a new English verb:  When they are uniformed about what to expect, they say they have been “Nimpkished”.

As for the journey itself, Rhind and Ellis raved about the trip and the effort the crew put in to point out landmarks and entice the dolphins cavorting alongside.   “They turned around, and were joined by hundreds of dolphins.    Every single person on the boat was delighted.   It was the highlight of their trip.”

The pair remarked on the “intimacy” with the other passengers afforded by the small vessel.  “Everyone got talking to each other. We were going remoter, so everyone took their time.  Delightful. In calm conditions where the weather was pretty good.”

Would she recommend the trip?  “Absolutely.”  “It was a fabulous trip, even on the Nimpkish: if you know what to expect and you don’t have physical disabilities that would make this a worry for you.”

Rhind and Ellis said they enjoy going to “emoter places, as far away from busy-ness as possible.  The remoter and wilder the place, the better. “However,  I don’t want to spend three weeks back-packing to get there,” Rhind added. They love small communities and getting to talk to locals, bumping into people over and over again.

The couple said the Bella Coola Valley was the highlight of their 2015 eco-tour. It rivals the wonderful Canadian Rockies, but it doesn’t have the human pressure. “It’s not designer wilderness,” said Ellis.

Rhind, whose work involves a large amount of published writing and editing, was highly complimentary of the Visitor/Trail Guide produced by Bella Coola Valley Tourism. “It’s the best guide I have ever come across,” she said, except that the “difficulty rating” of the trails makes them to appear easier than they really are.

Her final criticism of BC Ferries: “The Bella Coola Valley is simply so spectacular that it just sells itself. But BC Ferries isn’t selling the journey.”