Vancopalypse: Travel to Bella Coola Without Leaving Your Couch (Couch Wanderings 3)

Bella Coola Harbour, Bella Coola, BC | Treensbert Churchmouse, 2018

I knew absolutely nothing about Bella Coola before we went there, except that it was a place I wanted to go to (purely from photos I saw on the internet), and because it was far away from the city. I learned a few things on this trip, which I think is the kind of trip that sticks with you. If you ever decide to come here, you won’t be disappointed.

Bella Coola is a very small town nestled in the Bella Coola Valley, which encompasses a few other towns and communities as well. When I say Bella Coola now, I’ll mean the area itself because I won’t only refer to the town. There is a whole lot more to this part of the land.

If you find Bella Coola on Google maps, you’ll see that the town sits between the mountains halfway up BC, and that the only way to reach this place is by land through the Chilcotin-Bella Coola Highway (Highway 20) or via ferry coming from the North Bentinck Arm. The Bella Coola River flows down into the North Bentinck Arm, and so gently maneuvers its way through the valley between the wrinkled mountains standing in an impeding way all around it, where it eventually breaks off into the Atnarko River. There are camping options here, hiking and trail options, and fishing options. It’s a truly beautiful area.

We came here with the idea to camp around (and to be precise, in a tent). We took the route from Vancouver to Williams Lake, where we learned what it was to get a cracked windshield in the storm and rain (for the record, when the crack starts to grow right in front of your eyes and the rain is beating like hell on it, the windshield might not immediately burst on your face). We (that is, I) grew some nervous twitches until we reached the town, where they had plenty of windshield-repairing options for some reason. After a night there, we drove from Williams Lake and down the Chilcotin-Bella Coola Highway, which took us to our destination.

One of the parts of the trip that had me a little more nervous was reaching The Hill on this highway. If you look at a map, the Chilcotin-Bella Coola Highway essentially snakes its way up and down until it reaches this area, however it doesn’t show you the angle of descent when it gets to one specific part of it. The Hill is about a 20 km stretch of road that drops about 4,000 feet at a grade of up to 18 percent. If you read about it online, people’s descriptions will scare you to death like it did me (hence the nervousness upon approaching it). It zig-zags until it reaches the valley, about 20 minutes later or so. I’m not saying it’s easy or nothing to worry about, I’m only saying, to quote one of my beloved authors, don’t panic.

At the time, when we were going down the hill, we saw huge RVs going down it too, as well as huge construction trucks (they were extending or paving or doing something to the road there). The latter barreled down the Hill like it was as straight as an arrow, which was insane to see. (I do not suggest anyone actually do this.) But when we reached the end, it was actually not so bad at all. It’s doable. If you’re a new driver, however, maybe be sure you can do this or have someone with more experience drive, just in case. There were no rails that I noticed at the time.

Because I apparently managed to hide every possible photo I’ve taken from our journey here, I’ve located two more blogs that did describe this route. The below are two photos taken from them, one older and one newer. Both describe the route better if you need to know it, adding to the one link attached to the Hill.

(1) The Hill along the Chilcotin-Bella Coola Highway, (2) A road along The Hill, both from Bella Coola area, BC | (1) From Bella Coola Blog website, 2010, (2) From blog website, 2016

We went here with the idea to take up some trails and to fish as well (for which one needs a freshwater license), of which we fished, but did not much take up the trails. This is primarily because I learned one new thing about myself: apparently, I’m deathly scared of bears. We also camped in a wimpy little canvas tent, which does not help when one apparently gets very twitchy around these animals. From the moment we had even left Williams Lake there were signs about the wildlife, so you have an idea that the area is populated with more than only humans. The trees were beautiful, but not as empty as they looked.

There were two groups of people that were very helpful while we were there, especially for someone like me (an evident city-dweller). They are ones I would look to for guidance, for more than one reason. I’ve never seen such steadfast workers in my life, compared to those who I’ve seen around BC, anyway. I will certainly go off on a slight tangent now, but it’s required to explain what these people do.

One group were BC’s park rangers. Those at the at the bottom and top of the Hill were all in their element, and very helpful. On our way towards the Hill, we stopped at a gas station to refill our tank where a ranger truck stopped as well. I heard that they had been, or were, battling a wildfire in the area.

Wildfires in British Columbia had gotten increasingly worse over the years. We hear about them on the news when we live in Vancouver, and over the last few years we’ve seen evidence of heavy wildfires from other parts of our province: the air quality in Vancouver itself would drop due to the smoke being billowed towards us (thanks to the wind). That signs of these fires reach even the coast is harrowing. Sometimes, for weeks on end, the world would become yellow and the sun orange. It literally looks like the apocalypse during some summers.

In the meanwhile, the province would be burning up in other regions, due to climate change, due to people being careless, or due to storms setting off fires by lightning and hitting very dry parts of BC. Communities or towns are often evacuated and helicopters would be sent out over enormous, blazing flames to try extinguish them. I met a woman who had a farm in the upper parts of BC who had to evacuate along with her neighbour. I still can’t imagine how, as she had every animal imaginable, and in multiple numbers, for one. This, sadly, is the future.

Trees still standing after a wildfire, inner BC | Treensbert Churchmouse, 2015

The government has been good about trying to keep people informed by putting up information on wildfires, and during the busier seasons also giving people information about campfire bans when they are in effect, since we have many visitors and locals who go camping or RVing. If you’re driving around BC, you’ll also see huge signs displaying campfire bans or warnings, so you will know this way, too.

On the day that we had passed these men and women at this gas station, they had been already hard at work at keeping a nearby fire at bay. The weather had been dry and stormy, and already churning (the kind that might produce lightning, and had been doing so, I learned). Later, when we reached the Bella Coola valley, the rangers seemed to know every bear personally, because they would appear at the most random times and warn you if there was a bear coming. They were very involved in this part of BC.

The other group, I had thought at the time were rangers, but had later realized were not at all. They helped us keep informed when we were there and kept track of what was going on in the Bella Coola valley (and I read later, a bit further out too, though we only experienced it in this area), and they did their part meticulously. The first thing that happened when we reached the bottom of the Hill and had entered the Bella Coola valley, looking for a spot to fish, was that we were stopped by an official-looking truck and were welcomed by two men from the Nuxalk Nation.

They welcomed us to the Bella Coola valley politely and told us that we were on Nuxalk territory, and asked us to be mindful of the land and area, among other things. What I didn’t know then (but had learned later), was that we had just met two of the Watchmen. They are part of the Coastal First Nations Stewardship Network comprised of several coastal First Nations who are taking into their hands the reins of guardianship to watch over their individual territories. I read a little bit about this network and a little bit about the Nuxalk Nation later, and found a quote on the Nuxalk’s website made by one of their elders, Elsie Jacobs.

“You can put on your dancing blanket and say that you’re proud to be from the house of the grizzly bear, or you can put on your dancing blanket and say that your grandfather was a raven, or you can say that you are proud to be a killer whale… but what is happening to the grizzly bear? To the raven? To the killer whale? They’re getting kicked out of their house… what are you doing about it? And you put on your blanket and say you’re proud? I don’t think so. It doesn’t work that way.”

When we were up in Bella Coola, I can safely say that the Nuxalk Watchmen were certainly doing something about it. They appeared equally or more so than the rangers in the area. We drove back and forth to see the area, and enjoy the nature (and fish), and they were everywhere. I spied them driving from one place to another, talking to tourists and locals, keeping track of the animals in the area, as well as warning people about them. I was amazed at the amount of work put in. I haven’t seen any other group of people this invested in the land and the surroundings in BC before, and I’ve camped all over the province multiple times.

(1) Carving of bird, (2) Real bird, both in Bella Coola, BC | Treensbert Churchmouse, 2018

I found their knowledge and expertise, from the Nuxalk Nation and the rangers both, incredibly helpful when it came to the wildlife. As I’ve mentioned, it appears I’m terrified of bears. I didn’t think I was, until Bella Coola. The Bella Coola website has a bit of useful information as to how to handle any wildlife you come across, which should be meticulously followed, by the way.

For my part, we have researched and read about the area and had done as instructed, so I will pass on a couple of pieces of advice. My first piece of advice is very simple: bring bear spray. The BC Parks website has some good information on what to do when you see a bear, which I would look at. There are some useful links from there on (how to use a spray, what to do when attacked, etc), but I will not add any more links. My second piece of advice is this: research on your own. I found that breaking myself by researching and reading actually helps in the learning process, so I think that an excellent thing to do. Research and read before you get there. Learn to use the bear spray. Learn when to use it. Learn how to behave in bear country.

Bear country is a real, serious thing. If you’re from somewhere like Europe, and perhaps from the part where the one animal they still have becomes famous once sighted (like in Germany – I swear that every time a wolf comes by, he ends up in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, a big newspaper there), well…it’s not like that. You will see wildlife. When we were there, we saw many creatures, as well as three very close-up bears (which is a lot when you live in a city). The bears, though.

The first was a black bear, and he seemed to have, simultaneously, the slowest gait and the fastest moving ability I have ever seen, or not seen. When we saw him ambling by the river bank, we of course started scuttling back whence we came from. Incidentally, the people swimming somewhere further down the riverbank started screaming and whooping like mad, because you should make sound when you see a bear so he knows you’re there – they don’t much like to be surprised.

What was nuts was how quickly he reached where our car was and perked his head up over a boulder to look at us. That was when all sense flew out of my head and I continued walking backwards the rest of the way to get into the car. My partner said that I ran (you should not do this if you see a bear), and he said I wasn’t walking backwards (you should not do that either), though it felt like I was moving backwards and walking – in other words, I was panicking (also what you should not do). The bear, luckily, was far enough away that he didn’t get closer, and more precisely, didn’t want to get closer.

We drove away slowly down the road after that, where one of the rangers appeared out of the woods. We slowed because he wanted to speak with us. He asked, “did you see where that bear went?” in what I thought a fairly manly way, and when we told him (a little confused, as it seemed he had come out of the trees themselves and very randomly), he thanked us and continued on in that direction. He didn’t wear spurs, or a gun, or wear a vest with a cowboy hat, but it had still looked like something out a wild west movie.

After that we had a similar experience, but we were warned ahead of time, about two grizzly cubs that were ambling up in our direction. We walked to the car (I still maintain I had been walking), and the cubs appeared almost immediately. The good thing here was that these cubs were spending their first year alone without their mother – something we were told of earlier (when I said the rangers and Watchmen were involved, I meant they were really involved).

So we got into the car (the two bears appeared really quickly) and waited for them to pass fully. If they had been with the mother, I would have been way more nervous, as mothers, as some of us might now, could be formidable creatures when unknown tourists are staring at their offspring and taking pictures of them. In the city, they call the police. In Bella Coola, they eat you. That said, I can’t imagine visiting Bella Coola without the Nuxalk Watchmen or the park rangers being there. They were incredibly helpful and I was very grateful for it!

Before the Hill, however, and the wildfires, and the Watchmen and rangers and bears, we had come here to see the area. That, thanks to my newly-found manic fear of bears, turned out to be a full-out fishing trip only, but it was alright. There are salmon running in the rivers here (also why the bears might enjoy the area) and we put it to good use. The area itself was beautiful, whether or not there were fishing rods in the way (at times).

The air somehow smelled fresher, the trees were quieter, the nature itself had the kind of beauty I remember when I had been a child at my grandparents’ house in the country. It was not in the mountains, but in a very small, somewhat poor, village, but the feel was the same: wild. The world around you grew however it wanted to.

There is a specific feeling you lose when you grow up in the city, where you have a certain comfort and security you don’t realize you actually end up needing. When you leave the city and this comfort is gone, then you feel it. I’m talking about that feeling when you go camping in the trees and very carefully put your food away lest something is attracted by the smell; where you sleep at night and then hear small feet pattering, or need to go to the bathroom, but hold it as long as possible. I’m pretty sure everyone has had it at some point.

I had that in Bella Coola, but not in a bad way. Though the bear aspect frightened me, I felt it was a good dosage of remembering where we had come from. Living in a city does tend to shave off certain parts of nature that resorts to us needing paperwork and internet to live. After a few days of camping in Bella Coola, I remembered more the way it had been at my grandparents’ house in the country and a little less of the feel of not being secure enough. It was horribly refreshing.

On our last day there, the weather turned. We had tarps enough, but they were ridiculously difficult to put up (our campsite was slightly misshaped and it left us crouching or lying down, were we to use this method of staying dry), so we gave up and asked the owner of the campsite to rent one of their cabins. That said, if you don’t much like camping on the ground, there are hotels, AirBnBs and all the rest, and some campsites also have cabins. This one was naturally rustic, but was enough for us. We only needed something to keep dry. The rest of our time was still spent outside (overhanging roofs are good for that kind of thing).

My personal preference is staying in the outdoors and enjoying the sounds and smells and sights that come with it. Bella Coola is a sharp contrast to the city with its fancy coffee shops, and traffic, and skyscrapers, and people in fancy business suits. You’ll see the kind of nature you see in postcards and experience a proper breath of fresh air. Getting to it and coming back from it are a journey, certainly, but worth it. It reminds you a little more about what else is important.

Sources & Links:

Bella Coola – official Bella Coola website || Bella Coola’s Hill – various blogs describing the journey: Freedom Road | Bella Coola Blog | Highway 20 || Bella Coola By Land – getting to Bella Coola by land | Bella Coola Wildlife Viewing – describes the safe way of viewing wildlife in the region | BC Ferries (Bella Coola) – information for transport around Bella Coola | BC Freshwater Fishing website – links to getting a Freshwater license and other information || BC Wildfires: BC Wildfire Status – official government site with information | BC Campfire Bans – official website showing current campfire bans || BC Bears – describing information about getting around bear country || Coastal Guardian Watchmen: Coastal First Nations website | Nuxalk Nation Watchmen website || Nuxalk Nation – official website of Nuxalk Nation

Tell me when there’s more!

Published by Treensbert Churchmouse

I'm a European-born individual, raised on the west coast of Canada in beautiful BC, and a Vancouverite at heart. I love the world of city, sea, and mountain we are lucky to have, thanks to many years of some proper tectonic plate action. Vancouver is a vast, thriving west coast city, balanced perfectly with the peace of the wild surrounding it. That said, I love to explore, but also to escape! I'm a writing and travel enthusiast and have a good foot wedged into the tourism industry (it only follows, if one is a travel junkie). I hope to share what I see and learn about my experiences with those who might like to try the same.

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