The Bears of Bella Coola

The Bella Coola Valley is one of North America’s least-known adventure travel destinations. Sort of a ‘lost world’ tucked into the north-central coast of British Columbia, the valley and surrounding mountains offer an abundance of wildlife, incredible scenery, spectacular hiking, kayaking, river rafting and more.

But what the Bella Coola Valley is best known for is it’s bears, and grizzly bears in particular. For the wildlife enthusiast or photographer it can be one of the best places to experience these magnificent animals in a setting that isn’t overrun with human gawkers. Besides grizzlies, one can find wolves, cougars and black bears frequenting the seemingly endless forests of this off-the-beaten-path paradise.

Of course, care has to be taken when venturing off into the wild areas of the valley, including following common-sense bear safety protocols or having an experienced guide with you.

A Long Road and a Small Boat

There are two main ways of getting into the Bella Coola Valley. One is a grueling twelve-hour drive from Vancouver, the final 60 miles on a dirt/gravel portion of Highway 20. About 100 kilometers before Bella Coola, you’ll enter massive Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. Here, near Heckman Pass, a beautiful 16-km roundtrip hike to Rainbow Ridge leads into the aptly-named Rainbow Range, one of the premier hikes in BC.

Once you pass through the park, you start to descend “The Hill,” as it’s known to most locals. The ‘crux’ of the descent is a 5.1 mile section of road that twists and turns with steep drop-offs to one side, and sheer cliff faces on the other. It’s mostly a one-lane road that has portions of 18-19% grades with pull-outs to allow people coming up the hill to pass. It sounds worse than it really is.

The Freedom Road
The Freedom Road

The road, known as the “Freedom Road” was famously constructed in the early 1950’s by locals determined to forge an overland connection to the interior of BC after the provincial government refused to build one, citing the precipitous terrain as unsuitable for road construction.

As you descend from the Chilcotin Plateau into the valley you feel like you’re traveling into another realm. Clouds and swirling mists hang in the mountains, glimpses of the rivers peek out below, and very few signs of civilization are visible. The entire valley has a population of less than 2000 inhabitants according to the last census in 2011 and the town of Bella Coola itself has around 600 people. The wildlife certainly outnumber the residents, and you get used to waving to the people you see when you’re on the roads.

The other way to get into the valley is via the BC Ferries system, arriving in Bella Coola Harbor on a twice-weekly basis (mid-June to mid-September) from Port Hardy on Vancouver Island. The last leg of this nine and a half hour trip –  from Bella Bella to Bella Coola – is on The Nimpkish, a vessel that holds only 16 cars. It’s important to book early and make sure you have a reservation.

Unfortunately, this greatly diminished ferry service has caused an economic downturn for the town of Bella Coola and the surrounding area, hampering efforts to replace declining logging revenue with eco-tourism dollars.

Bears and Salmon

Log Rolling
Log Rolling

September is the start of the spawning season for Chinook salmon and the end of the run for Pinks. It’s when you’ll see most of the bears coming down to the water to load up on calories and gain weight for the coming winter hibernation. There are many areas along the rivers or in surrounding mountains where you’ll be able to see bears.

One of the best locations is at the Belarko Wildlife viewing platform in Tweedsmuir. It’s staffed by park rangers and volunteers to help answer questions and insure visitor’s safety in case any bears happen to wander too close. Nearby is the Fisheries Pool campground, a popular fishing spot,  where there are a few locations to view bears.

Perhaps the best way to get up close and personal with the bears is to take one of the guided rafting tours offered by a number of companies in the valley. They all operate in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. Start in the area of Belarko platform and travel six kilometers down the river. When the conditions are right you’ll be able to see mothers with cubs feeding and cavorting along the shore.

What may seem like innocent play really is more intensive training to prepare the cubs for when they’ll eventually be out on their own. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t having fun doing it. The bears I saw certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves.

The tours generally last about three hours. I signed up for a tour run by the Bella Coola Mountain Lodge and Kynoch Adventures, run by Fraser Koroluk and Holly Willgress for the last 13 years. Adventure touring runs deep in the family as Fraser’s father Les was one of the founders of bear touring in the Bella Coola Valley, and at 73, the patriarch is still running tours for the Tweedsmuir Park Lodge.

The bears here aren’t quite as large as their counterparts in Alaska – the largest male (boar) I encountered was about 850 pounds, typical for the area. In Alaska 1200-pound bears aren’t uncommon. The sows, or females are around 200 pounds lighter. But take my word for it:  An 850-pound grizzly bear is an impressive sight.

Standing Tall

In addition to camping in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, there are a number of local campgrounds available. The most popular are Bailey Bridge and Rip Rap campgrounds, both are located on the Bella Coola River and offer their own views of grizzly bears from time to time. Rip Rap has its own viewing platform along the river and a private fishing area on the other side of the river from the campground. Each campground has a limited number of cabins along with their full-powered and non-powered sites.

I decided to forego the amenities provided by the commercial campgrounds and lodges to camp a little closer to nature and stay in one of the less-traveled campsites along the Atnarko River. Sleeping here in soft-sided enclosures (tents) is not recommended due to the very real possibility of bears or other wildlife coming through your camp. I observed a plethora of animal tracks just 25 feet from my campsite, including those of a grizzly and what looked to be wolf tracks in the sand along the river bank. Owing to its location off the beaten track, I usually had the camping area to myself. I kept my bear spray close at hand.

While waiting to see bears I encountered a group of people traveling down the river, some wading, others in wet suits and wearing snorkels. September is when the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans does it’s river survey, counting the salmon. They search for fishery tags on fish that have been released previously and have returned to the local waters. They also harvest eggs from some of the salmon for use in their breeding program.

A member of the group told me that they have a fertilization success rate of 90% from the collected eggs. The ‘fry’ salmon are then introduced back into the environment so they can become imprinted on the river and know where to return when it comes time to spawn. 

The Best Two Dollars

After a week of living off the grid, and getting clean by pouring water over my head I was happy to learn that showers and laundry services can be had at the nearby Gnome’s Home Campground. For a $2 coin or “tooney” you can get a shower or run a load of laundry.

Karl Osmers, the owner of Gnome’s Home explained that the tooney would buy me a ten-minute shower. “If it takes you longer than ten minutes to get cleaned up,” he added, “I don’t want to know what you were rolling in”.

There is something about getting into a hot shower after you’ve been camping for long stretch. As that hot water poured over me, working out the kinks from standing long periods, sometimes in the rain, it seemed the best $2 I spent the entire trip. That ten minutes passed much too quickly and found myself walking naked across the room to grab a coin for ten more minutes of therapy, and I hadn’t even rolled in anything. I no longer smelled like a bear though.

Stupendous landscapes
Stupendous landscapes

September in the Bella Coola Valley is also when the mushroom hunters are out in force, combing the hillside for matsutake pine mushrooms. You’ll see a number of cars parked along the side of the roadway, where the hunters working in teams will disappear into the bush. Occasionally, you’ll hear the fungi hunters making their own distinct sounds coming from deep in the forest. It’s their way of signaling to each other that they’ve found mushrooms.

These mushrooms are so sought after that the hunters can earn eight- to ten-thousand dollars during the month they’re available, making the endeavor worth the risk of foraging through the forest in close proximity to the bears.

On my last day in the area I took my usual trip down to the river bank and was greeted by the chittering, squeaking sounds of a family of minks playing on the opposite shore. Emerging from their den, they were searching for their morning meal. There was a moment when all five lined up on a downed log, looked up at me, and as if choreographed, one by one dove into the water. It was a lasting memory and a sad reminder that I was going to have to pack up, hit the road, and head home from this magical valley.

Bear Tours in the Bella Coola Valley

Bella Coola Grizzly Tours               

Bella Coola Mountain Lodge     

Great Bear Chalet                            

Tweedsmuir Park Lodge Tours     

Wild Earth Adventures                   

adventures_nw_bella_coola_bears-4484-2Scott Melnick grew up in New York learning to love the outdoors, a gift from his father who was also an outdoor writer/photographer. He moved to Washington State in 1991 to explore the wildlife and outdoors that the area has to offer. An avid hiker, kayaker and motorcyclist, his main pursuit is wildlife photography, but recently he has returned to his roots as a live music photographer.

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