This place is special and this trip has been planned on the time we wanted to spend in Bella Coola.
We don’t actually stay in Bella Coola, but in the valley which is at the end of Highway 20 aka the Freedom Road after descending the Heckman Pass otherwise known as “the hill”. A steep, winding, narrow in parts gravel road that descends from 5000ft to the valley floor in just over 21 kms which takes about an hour to travel. There are places which are only one vehicle wide and while downhill traffic is supposed to give way to uphill traffic, they don’t! The drops are breathtaking and I was much happier when our lane was closest to the mountain side. We only had to pass one truck which happened to be in a wide section, all the other vehicles were cars.
As we passed the Provincial campground at Fisheries Pool, we stopped outside and I walked in to see if there were any vacancies. As I was walking down the pot-holed dirt road overhung by trees, I realised that was I was doing was really, I mean really stupid. I’m in bear country with no bear spray; they could be anywhere. There were three camping spots and as Lindsay had walked in too, I didn’t have to walk out and stayed behind to mind our spot while he went out and got the truck and trailer. This campground is usually packed with fishermen, but luckily for us, not this year. I was really happy to secure a spot here. It meant that Lindsay could go out first thing in the morning looking for bears without me and it also cut out two 40km drives from and to Hagensborg each day, double that if we went back for lunch. Then of course we could go back to our trailer for cups of tea during the day. The only downside was water. There is a water spigot here but the water comes from the river and while it was okay for showers, it is not fit for drinking.
It was pretty slow going photographically as there weren’t many bears. Was it the fires? Were there too many fish? – which means they can fish anywhere – who knows? We saw six bears – a sow and one cub, a sow and two cubs and black pants. There was a sow and three cubs but she was up the Tote road that was closed off. If we had been caught going up there the ranger’s could throw us out of the national park. There was only one day that we didn’t see any bears at all and five minutes after we left Fisheries Pool; one came past (don't they always).
In between waiting for bears you get to know your fellow photographers and there were people from all around the globe – USA, other parts of Canada, Spain, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Syria and surprisingly a few from Australia. We met some really nice people. We had planned our trip to coincide with the time our Dutch friends Connie & Dirk were going, so it was lovely to see them again too.
There are only two places that you can see the bears – at Belarko platform aka the kindergarten as they treat us like children. It’s just a big playpen with an electric fence around it. And Fisheries Pool where we were staying. On the first day we were there a new ranger was saying she wanted Fisheries Pool closed down to photographers as they didn’t have the manpower to monitor it. Luckily that didn't eventuate.
Another way of seeing bears is to take a float. We had booked one on two different days. Connie and I did the first one and then two days later, Lindsay and Dirk did the other. We figured that by splitting up we would get different photos. Doing a float was no guarantee of seeing a bear but it did better your chances as they could be anywhere on the river and didn’t always come to where the people were. The sows tend to come near the people to protect their cubs from boars, but not always.
While we both saw the sow and two cubs, the boys were held back by another boat in front of them and by the time they got there, the light was in the wrong place and the pictures weren’t any good. Fraser who thinks he owns the river has the most boats; he floated down the river first and sat on the bears for half an hour, so that anyone behind him missed out. His floats tend to be fully booked so you could have up to six to eight people in a boat. We couldn’t get a ride with him, but in a way with that many people we wouldn’t want to. Connie and I had a couple from Brisbane while Lindsay and Dirk had the boat to themselves. We went with Tweedsmuir Lodge and also negotiated that the spouse who wasn’t on the river could stand up on their private viewing platform which overlooks the river.
We booked a tour a few months ago with Eco Tours which is located in a rainforest. We were to have three full days of bear viewing. Before we arrived we rang to get directions and asked if they were seeing many bears. She hesitated but said yes. Mmm. Connie and Dirk had booked but not paid for Chilko Lake Lodge. When they found out that there was only one bear being seen up there they cancelled. We couldn't cancel our trip as we had paid for it some months beforehand as was required.
On our first day Gary took us north for an hour and a half by boat. The fog was thick and we couldn't see more than a few metres in front of us. He had to use his GPS to navigate and actually got Lindsay to guide him at one stage. Just before the Mitchell River we transferred into a flat bottomed boat. It was quite exciting. We motored up the river and then drifted down. But excitement turned to disappointment as we went up and down the river seeing evidence of bears - paths, footprints and half eaten dead fish. But no bears. It was pretty cold, I had feet and hand warmers, beanie, and many layers of clothes. Gary went into the bushes and saw about 20 dead fish stockpiled. As we were motoring out we did come across one sow and cub but as soon as they saw us she growled and they scampered off into the bushes. We didn't even have time to raise our lenses. The two Australian girls had been on a walking tour the day before and seen nothing. The following day we did a walking tour too. Donned waders and walked across the river a couple of times and waited and waited. Penny the border cross collie was with us as she is excellent security between us and the bears should we be so lucky. Ryan told us a story of how he had been working on his chainsaw while clearing a trail for guests and Penny had warned him of a bear and then acted as go between warding the bear off. Ryan has never had to use bear spray to avert an attack, he has always managed to talk his way out of one. We told lots of stories that day but not while we were waiting on the side of the river for the bears as we had to keep still and quiet. Oh, so boring. He tried a few other well know places but nothing. The bears are staying in the bushes. A black bear ran quickly across the road in front of us, but I didn't see it. I'm not interested in adult black bears anyway as grizzlies are my favourites. Another group went up the river and saw one bear for a nanosecond, it too rushed off as soon as it saw them. The bears are really skittish. It might have something to do with the fires, was it the recent eclipse, was it too warm? They had 40°C this summer when their average is 25°C. Something is very wrong. Winter is coming early, yet the trees haven't even completely turned. Tornadoes in Texas, earthquakes in Mexico. Mother Nature is confused and angry. We actually left a day early, Lindsay decided that nothing was going to change, so what was the point in sitting on a boat in the cold, freezing our toes and fingers off. This was his trip, so it was his choice as to what we did.
Driving back south we stopped on the side of the road for the night but could see smoke not far away. The fires were too close for comfort so we drove a bit further so at least they were on the other side of where we needed to go and couldn't block us in.
Fast forward ten months and there was an article in the news about a ranger being attacked by a sow with cubs in Bella Coola. It was Jordan, one of the rangers we had talked to regularly. He had heard a noise outside his back door, went outside and found himself between the sow and her two cubs. She attacked him and understandably he dropped his mobile. He fought her off and managed to get inside but couldn't call anyone so he had to drive himself to hospital all the while telling himself not to pass out. His injuries were horrific, so it is a sad reminder about just how careful you need to be.
07/9/2017-16/9/2017 Bella Coola, BC
18/9/2017-20/9/2017 Eco Lodge - Likely BC