2015 is one of the first years since my travels began that I have spent Fall in the Northern Hemisphere. As I sit here overlooking the seals playing in the inlet of the North Bentick Arm, the colours are reminiscent of a Caribbean sunset. Burnt oranges, bright yellows and the deep greens still hanging on from the previous season surround the bright blue glacial waters that Canada is so famous for.
This year I am not seeing these colours with my toes digging into white sand beaches, or my hand loosely grabbing an icy, overly alcoholic cocktail. Although the ocean smells pretty similar, I am cold; make that really soggy and cold. Everywhere there are reminders that winter is fast approaching the Great Bear Rainforest. The biggest indicator is that the all the tourists have gone and for once, I am not one of them. It feels like the valley has been deserted and it’s actually amazing.
The Bella Coola Valley stands 100km inland from the outer Pacific Ocean, stretching for 80 kilometers of almost untamed wilderness. With just under 2000 inhabitants in the off-season (October to May), a visit to the valley can feel like your own private oasis, where you can ditch the big crowds enjoying their city breaks and explore everything the wilderness has to offer…just wrap up warm!
The following are some of my favourite things to do in this vast and stunning valley in September and October, after the tourists have ventured to warmer climes:-
- Take a bear viewing trip down the Atnarko River
Bear viewing is one of the greatest tourist draws to the valley during August and September. The Bella Coola valley is one of the few places left in the world where it is possible to see bears in their natural environment, unaffected by hunting or human habituation. Both Black and Grizzly bears (as well as a plethora of other animals) flood to the valley to feed on the dead and dying Salmon, who made their way to the rivers to spawn during the world famous salmon run. Taking an eco-rafting trip allows you the best chance of spotting these magnificent and wildly underestimated creatures at river level. There is a big drive in the valley for sustainable tourism and many are working tirelessly to ensure the unique environment in which the rainforest, wildlife and humans thrive remains harmonious and protected so that everyone for generations to come gets to see this amazing part of the world.
The best time for a tour is mid to late September. The salmon are filling the river and river banks and the bears are still busy fattening up to bed down during the winter months.
A trip can last up to six hours and will cost around CAD$150 including all transport and equipment. More information can be found at bellacoolabears.com
It may be an obvious choice, but I genuinely don’t think there is anything better (except maybe the aforementioned overly alcoholic cocktail) than hiking. I have always loved exploring and hiking wherever I go, but my absolute favourite has to be hiking through the ancient growth rainforest on a cool autumnal morning, then getting back to a wood fire and hot chocolate. There are literally thousands of hikes to be found in the area, however heavy rainfall (synonymous with October) makes a lot of the steeper trails not so much fun. The Saloompt Forest Trail is a great interpretative hike with ancient ceders and firs up to 1500 years old. The views over the Bella Coola River are also stunning from this short trail.
Up and down the valley there are trails just begging to be explored. While the trails are for the most part well maintained, you won’t find any paved sidewalks, handrails or benches round here. Most of the time the walker is left to decide where to go with a few colourful trail markers on trees for guidance.
Other great walks to do in Fall include:
Clayton Falls – a short walk through a recreational park overlooking the inlet, culminating at a stunning waterfall.
Walker Island and the big cedar trail- interlinking trails around a rodeo ground. Very old growth flat forest meandering round the river, streams and ponds.
School House Falls and the Hagensborg loop – if you stumble on a dry day or two, School House falls trail is one of the best in the area, but very steep. A great alternative is the Hagensborg loop, not as steep but a great trail through a pine and fern filled forest; one of the best places to be after it rains due to the overwhelmingly beautiful aroma of fresh pine…not like your car air freshener would have you believe.
For more information on trails in the valley, visit bellacoola.ca.
3. Driving up ‘The Hill’ just to have a look (and say you have done it)
I should start by saying that there are 3 ways to get to the Valley; a ferry from a remote part of North Vancouver Island, a flight with Pacific Coastal from Vancouver South Terminal, or by road. From September onwards, the ferry service is a lot less frequent and subject to adverse weather conditions coming in the inlet. If, like many you chose to fly in to the valley (there are flights most days year round), then you will be missing out on one of the great adventures and the chance at undoubted bragging rights; driving ‘The Hill’.
Also known as the Heckman Pass or the Freedom Road, ‘The Hill’ was built in 1953 by a group of volunteers with no governmental funding and minimal equipment. They exhibited sheer bravery, determination and will power to provide the valley’s inhabitants (comprised of the Nuxalk first nations and Norwegian settlers) with transport links over the previously impassable coast mountains. To this day, the road is not paved (although is part of the provincial highway system), and provides much excitement to all who drive down into the valley from the Chilcotin above. You will be met by twists, turns, switchbacks, sheer drops and the occasional RV trying to be brave.
I can’t imagine a better time to do this drive than in Fall, the colours will be spectacular and, most importantly, the road will be quiet and devoid of tourists wondering if it was a bad idea to use the gas pedal as their RV creaks and the smell of burning tires overpowers the A/C system. On the way down, you will be met with only peace and quiet as you slowly descend 40miles into the rainforest below. Going up, if you decide to keep driving when you’ve reached the top, you will find the road peppered with small towns such as Anahim and Nimpo Lake over the Chilcotin Plateau and out of Tweedsmuir park. A 5-6 hour drive will take you to the main town of Williams Lake another 6 hours will take you to Vancouver.
The drive from Tweedsmuir park to Bella Coola itself, even if you choose not to ascend the hill, is stunning.
Car hire in the valley is reasonable and can be found by emailing: email@example.com
4. Take a Cannery Tour and stay overnight in Tallheo Cannery.
Tallheo Cannery is now the last remnant of a Salmon Cannery and company town, isolated on the shores of the inlet. Accessible only by boat, this B&B offers guests an unmissable and unique chance to stay in and explore the 160+ acres that once played a pivotal role in the Canned Salmon and fishing industry from 1901 to as recent as the 1980s. There is a museum on site, with endless artifacts of the cannery’s heyday including canned food (other than salmon), pay cheques, accounting logs and even keys to the now dilapidated staff housing. My last visit to this patch of off-grid paradise was at the end of September, just days before the place was locked up for the winter. There was a definite chill in the air but Garret and his lovely family made sure we had everything we needed, we were the only ones in the whole B&B and it was perfect!
As well as owning the cannery, Garrett has a business called Inner Coast Inlet Tours, not only does he ferry people back and forth from the Cannery to Bella Coola harbor, he also takes people on tours of the inlet and to places only accessible by boat like the Tallio Hotsprings, or to see the biggest Cedar Tree on the west coast. As it was nearing the end of the season and the heli-skiing season was still months away, we had the hot springs to ourselves and the clouds descended just enough to make for one of the most atmospheric and beautiful days out I have had since I flew here in June.
5. Visit Art Galleries and the best coffee shop in town
Lastly, a vacation wouldn’t be complete without finding the hidden gems wherever you go. In the Bella Coola Valley, the hidden gems are art galleries and coffee shops. The First Nations art from the Nuxalk people can be found in galleries and museums all over the world. Here in the valley you can visit the artists who have been perpetuating highly skilled traditions such as carving and painting, using traditional materials such as sustainably sourced Cedar bark. Copper Sun Gallery downtown has a great selection of art work, they also offer guided tours of the town and local Totems as well as the wealth of stories and history attached to the valley.
As for getting the best of both worlds, Dragonfly Studios on Highway 20 between Hagensborg and Bella Coola, is a family run art gallery and coffee shop, serving the best in old fashioned malted milkshakes, baked goods and unique coffees (try their Mayan Mocha with chilli in, definitely a winter warmer!). In the summer months this place literally has queues out of the door, but come October the crowds die down and there is a great local vibe. On a rainy, cold day, this is my favourite place to grab a chai latte, a book from their lending library, cosy up on their big red sofa and relax.
The main question I get asked working here (the accent must blow my cover that I’m not a local) is how on earth I ended up in such a remote place (the answer is workaway.info, look it up!). The Second question that immediately follows is: ‘yes, but you aren’t staying the winter are you?’. This year I am proud to be able to say that I am planning to stay for the winter and that so far, the Great Bear Rainforest is my favourite place possibly in the entire Northern Hemisphere. I couldn’t imagine spending this beautiful season anywhere else.
Getting and staying here: Pacificcoastal.com has some great flight deals this time of year. A return will cost be around $300 from Vancouver. There are also loads of places to stay in the valley on a budget – try couchsurfing, workaway.info or rent a cabin for a real isolated wilderness getaway.
Or for a treat, have a look at bellacoola.ca for different accommodations and resort packages. There is genuinely something for everyone, from backpacker hangouts to luxury all inclusive resort rentals.
Hope to see you here soon! 😀