Into bear country
With eggs left stabbed and oozing on my plate after two attempts to get them properly cooked, we checked out and caught a cab back to the airport. The YVR South Terminal is located away from the main airport and among other things, services coastal routes such as the one that would be depositing us in bear country for the next few days.
These planes are typically smaller and ours necessitated one to hunch over to half one’s size and shuffle forward down a skinny aisle. On the plus side, pretty much everyone got a window seat. Being the exemplary day it again was, this meant stunning views over the Coast Mountains.
Bella Coola, 70 minutes flying time from Vancouver, is a remote community in the Bella Coola Valley. It’s possible to also reach it by road, a couple of days drive from Vancouver, or ferry from Vancouver Island, which depending on the time of year and scheduling could take most of a day.
Tucked away in the mountains it may have been, but we’ve had bumpier descents into Queenstown. Upon arrival at the wee airport we were awed by the sheerness of the mountains we found ourselves surrounded by. We located the keys to our 4×4 rental and went to find our accommodation.
Bella Coola Mountain Lodge is about 17km away from the main town in a little(r) settlement called Hagensborg. Not very North American sounding? The Norwegians were early European settlers here, though First Nations peoples were the original settlers many thousands of years before.
For a small place there are plenty of accommodation choices around: despite its remoteness it is a popular destination for much of the year (though services have been closing down now that peak summer has finished). Right now it’s salmon season which means bear season! Once the snow comes, heli skiing is big business here too.
For the afternoon Mike had planned that we’d head up into the hills for a couple of recommended walks. We stopped at the supermarket to purchase bear spray (!) and found the necessary road a short distance beyond Bella Coola town. It’s a forestry access road and a rough one so the 17km took about an hour.
Those views though!
Near the summit we found the trailhead for what was a relatively short walk through alpine forest to a lake and viewing point. Acquainting ourselves with the bear spray procedures, we set off. The sun was warm and it was just very pleasant.
Then about half-way to the lake Mike suddenly called “BEAR”.
He had been a few steps ahead of me just out of sight around a corner, and once back to me explained that the head and shoulders of largeish black bear had popped up out of bushes, bear and human mutually startling each other. We looked back at where Mike had been. No bear but our confidence was shaken and we abandoned the walk, intent only on making it back to the vehicle.
We walked more rapidly than you’re probably supposed to in such circumstances but we took heart in the fact that the bear wasn’t following. Adrenaline compensated for my impaired state of fitness and so it was with heaving lungs and limbs and more than a little relief that we arrived back at the vehicle.
There was more to see up this road though. We carried on up and over the pass (the literature says that in a normal season it closes for snow mid-Sept; not a risk of that right now though some of the mountains have a smattering of white stuff) and down a few more kms down to some lakes.
Trails are available down here too but I wasn’t keen to explore further in such a remote location with no one else around and no cellphone coverage. And lots of delicious berry bushes for hungry bears!
We drove out.
Given this expedition proved much shorter than expected, we had time to head out to the bear viewing platform about 60km away (40km from our lodge) – a road we would become very familiar with!
A bonus feature along the way is the young moose hanging out with a herd of cows. It was quite the local talking point over the next few days.
Open from 7am-7pm the viewing platform is a superbly located and well-managed facility on the banks of the Atnarko River. This stretch of river has some shallow areas with rapids making it perfect for salmon to spawn – and for bears to fish. As you might expect there are a number of rules at a place like this including no food, no loud talking, no sudden movements, no flash photography.
One of the first impressions was the stench of dead salmon! Now and then you’d get a very strong whiff and over the coming days we’d see a massive number of carcasses, the majority a natural consequence of the spawning process but the others a natural consequence of hungry bears.
The other main impression was the huge number of big cameras on tripods!
Ultimately it’s a game of patience; early morning and evening are purported to be active feeding times but there’s no telling which part of the river they’ll be on. We were in luck with some bears popping up down river from the platform. Too far away for my humble cameras!
Tomorrow we would be going out on the river.
Bears seen: 3