I saw it out in the green field, a blackish-brown dot in the distance. A few people started gathering looking in the same direction. I knew this was it – good things come to those that wait.
You see, I have a Grizzly bear curse.
No matter what I do, I’ve been unable to see one in the wild.
I know – most people wouldn’t call that a curse, they would call it lucky. But I’ve always wanted to see and photograph a grizzly – in a safe situation of course. I’ve seen Polar bears, and even a couple of black bears; but never their brown cousins.
But recently, I finally managed it!
If you’re curious about bear watching and viewing bears in the wild safely, this guide is for you. I’ll tell you about my experience bear watching in Bella Coola, touch on some bear safety tips I learned, and show you 3 different ways you can go bear watching.
My History with Grizzlies and (failed) Bear Watching
Like most people I am terrified of grizzlies. They’ve been haunting me my whole life. I still remember when I was 11years old on a road trip with my parents and we arrived in Glacier National Park right when a woman was hiking and was killed by a bear. It was all over the news and it freaked me out.
Of course, my parents still made me go out hiking, and I remember being terrified at every turn of the trail. Luckily, I never saw one on that hike.
Later, there were 4 times I was expecting to see grizzlies in my travels, and they never appeared.
I’ve been to Nimmo Bay in the Great Bear Rainforest, Lake Clark National Park in Alaska (hello…bear heaven), and went floating through a salmon river with Canada’s self-described Bear Whisperer – and never saw a bear. There was even a time when there was a Grizzly in captivity at Kicking Horse Mountain in BC Canada, and he never came out when I was there for 2 days.
Each of these trips were in bear season – Sep/Oct – and yet no bears!
Seriously – how can anyone have that bad of bear watching luck?
All of my hosts on these trips couldn’t understand how I could be so unlucky. So that’s why I decided I was cursed.
Read about a couple of my past close but failed attempts:
But they say you should never give up – and that’s exactly what my friend Geoff believed.
Geoff was the person who invited me to go out with the Bear Whisperer in BC Canada. When we didn’t see any bears – he was of course disappointed, but he never gave up.
I saw him a year later, and he was determined for me to see a bear, this time around his home – the Cariboo Chilcoten Coast of BC Canada.
“This will happen,” he said unwavering, “we’ll send you to Bella Coola and you’ll definitely see a grizzly there.” He proceeded to give me a big bear hug (yes – that pun was intended), and started planning the logistics.
Bella Coola, BC, Canada – The Heart of the Great Bear Rainforest
Bella Coola Valley is considered the gateway to the Great Bear Rainforest; a temperate rain forest on the Pacific coast of British Columbia, Canada comprising 6.4 million hectares. The valley lies 62 miles inland from the Pacific through a maze of beautiful fjords. The entire valley is remote and wild with only small populations of First Nations Nuxalk and long time residents.
There are a few ways to arrive in the remote Bella Coola valley; by Hwy 20 from Williams Lake, by scheduled flights from Pacific Coastal Airlines, or by BC Ferries or private boat. Any way that you arrive guarantees scenic views.
I arrived by chartered plane.
As the small plane broke through the dense clouds I nearly jumped out of my seat in shock – there were big mountains on both sides of the plane – and we were landing in the narrow area between them. I suddenly felt claustrophobic. My adrenaline spiked. If I get this nervous landing, I thought, how will I ever handle seeing a grizzly bear!
The plane came to a bouncy landing on the little runway, I loosened the grip on my seat and let the blood flow back into my fingers. As I got off the little plane and stepped down onto the tarmac, I looked up in awe at the towering, jagged Coastal mountains, blue sky, and fluffy clouds…I like Bella Coola, I thought. I was here for grizzlies, but hell…it was love at first site with these landscapes, and this was only the airport!
Local photographer, Michael Bednar, met me with a big smile at the tiny airport building. He would be my guide for my 5 days in the Bella Coola Valley.
We drove the short distance to our cabins at Bella Coola Grizzly Tours Wilderness Resort and settled in reviewing our plan for the week.
Bella Coola Grizzly Tours Wilderness Resort
The resort is made up of a handful of Aspen log cabins nestled in the woods, with full kitchens and big porches.
This family-owned business is just what you expect to see in this remote part of the world. No chain hotels, no big businesses. Owner, Leonard Ellis, has been guiding people to grizzlies in the region for decades.
Like many people in the region, he started as a Grizzly hunting and fishing guide in the region. However, as regulations have changed in the region, he transferred his incredibly acute Grizzly spotting skills to the growing business of wildlife viewing and photography.
Leonard is a good guy who has figured out how to make lemonade out of lemons, and I really enjoyed his company and his immense amount of knowledge about the wildlife and region.
Know Your Bear Safety
Before any good bear watching outing, you’ll want to ensure you’re comfortable going out into the wilderness and potentially encountering a bear. Maybe ‘comfortable’ is the wrong word, because I’m never totally comfortable with it. ‘Prepared’ is probably a more accurate word.
The thought of accidentally running into a bear or surprising one is a big fear of mine. However, because I learned my bear safety, I know what I’m supposed to do if I encounter one in that situation. Namely – don’t run!
Michael went over Bear Safety 101 with me before we went out the next morning.
Then he got out something I had never seen before in my previous bear safety talks – a bear spray test canister.
I know bear spray seems pretty simple – pull out bottle and spray – however I had always wondered if I would be able to at the time when I needed to. You don’t really want to be learning how to use your bear spray while one is charging you!
The training can of spray was just like the real thing, but with no agitating or harmful product dispensed. You can get the feeling of how to take off the safety and how to use a sweeping motion to spray a charging bear.
How to Use Bear Spray
3 Ways to See Bears in the Bella Coola Valley
There are 3 different ways you can view bears in the Bella Coola Valley. During my 5 days there, I was able to try them all with varying degrees of success.
1. Bear Watching Platforms
Bear watching platforms are timber platforms built at good spots by the river where you can safely watch grizzly bears fish or move around.
They normally have some sort of electric fence protection around them. Plus – grizzly bear watching platforms are less intrusive to the bears.
Seeing my first Grizzly Bear at Tweedsmuir Park Lodge and Platforms
Tweedsmuir Provincial Park is one of the largest parks in BC Canada and it’s a great place to do wildlife viewing. The lodge inside the park is not your typical park lodge – it’s quite high-end – but still rustic. The buildings are all made of timber with red roofs. The lodge sits in the middle with a number of chalets arranged in a semi-circle looking out onto a grassy field, the river, with the steep Coastal mountains in the background.
They have two sets of platforms built right on the river. You do need to be staying at the lodge to use their platforms. However, I had special permission from them for this outing since I was being hosted by Cariboo Chilcoten Coast Visitor Bureau.
I was sitting on the lodge porch admiring the view and waiting for Michael and suddenly I saw the brown figure in the thick green grass in the field in the distance. At that same time a lodge guide also saw the bear and we all slowly walked out a little way from the chalets to watch it.
It felt surreal to finally see a grizzly. I was giddy as I pulled out my camera gear trying not to move too fast, and thinking about my bear spray lessons. I was ready! However, the big bear just went about its business eating and ambling along.
Suddenly it stood on its hind legs and looked across the field. Our eyes followed its gaze and we saw a second grizzly entering the grassy field. I’m not an expert on grizzlys, but I do know enough about them to understand that they are solo creatures…and territorial. I suddenly felt like I was back on the plane doing a bumpy landing, my whole body tensed up.
The two grizzlies watched each other and slowly took a few steps towards each other. I got my camera settings ready, sort of hoping I was going to be able to catch a confrontation on camera. However, in the end, they basically had a stare off until the dominant bear won and the other left. No bear fights today.
The guide decided it was safe to walk slowly out to the platform by the river. Up until then we had just been watching this whole scene from the lodge area. This meant leaving the safety of the lodge and walking in the open. We all followed the guide onto a wooded trail not saying a word and on high alert. I felt as if we were walking along where we just saw the 2nd bear, however I also trusted the guide that she knew the area and the directions the bears went.
We made it to a small little platform up in a tree that overlooked the river. I don’t think I was ever so happy to make it to a tree before! We set up our camera gear and like clockwork the bear we saw earlier started ambling into view in the river. I was amazed that the guide knew the bear patterns so well as to situate us right where the bear was heading.
It was as if we had the box seats in a posh theater. The bear put on quite a show, catching fish right below us, and sitting to eat them one by one. I was in awe of its big claws reaching down to pick up the fish; making fishing look so incredibly easy. It would stick its nose and eyes in the water looking for salmon and suddenly just scoop one up, as if it was as easy as opening the refrigerator door and getting a snack.
Provincial Park Viewing Platforms
The Provincial Park also offers platforms that are manned by rangers and protected by electric fences. Actually, they were more like viewing areas instead of raised platforms. We visited a couple of these in addition to the platforms at Tweedsmuir Lodge. They weren’t quite as comfortable, but totally adequate. There were more people there to try to see and shoot around. However, they were free for anyone to use!
BC Parks is encouraging the use of the Platform to alleviate the stress on wildlife and keep people safe.
The Platform is staffed from 7am – 7pm daily and is managed collaboratively by BC Parks and the Nuxalk Nation September 1st to 30th. Hosts are on duty at all times to inform visitors of the proper viewing procedures and ensure people are kept safely within the boundaries of the electric fence.
Learn more about the Provincial Park Platforms for Wildlife Viewing
Staying at Tweedsmuir Park Lodge
It’s a beautiful lodge in a stunning setting and definitely worth staying a night or two there!
Read Trip Advisor reviews of Tweedsmuir
The lodge’s grizzly bear watching trips are recognized by Destination Canada as a Signature Experience that showcases authentic, immersive and engaging tourism experiences for travelers from September to mid October. Prices start at $3,800/adult and is all-inclusive. More Info.
2. Self-Drive Grizzly Bear Watching
Michael and I were driving down the main road in the Bella Coola Valley, coming back from lunch to take a little rest before we went out for more bear viewing that afternoon. Suddenly Michael pulled the truck over and pointed to someone’s house. “There…in the tree!” he said.
I saw it – there was a black bear in the crab apple tree right in the front yard of a person’s house! We got out of the car and watched it from a distance. Strangely there was an electric fence around this tree; the owner was trying to protect it – yet somehow this cunning black bear figured out a way in and was enjoying a smorgasbord of apples.
Self-Driving with a Local Guide
When I talk about self-drive grizzly viewing, I’m not necessarily talking about this kind of crab apple thing, though obviously sometimes it happens that you’ll see one along the main road in someone’s yard.
What I’m actually talking about is, if you have a 4-wheel drive vehicle with high clearance, and a local guide who knows what they’re doing, you can make your way back on some of the fire roads deeper into the wilderness near the rivers and spot bears that way.
Since Michael and Leonard were locals, I was lucky enough to have them lead the way in this endeavor. The three of us drove out on a remote fire road that skirted the river. Leonard directed us down the extremely rough road to a bend in the river. There, we stopped at some old hunting cabins.
“This is a good spot for bears,” Leonard said calmly. Michael stopped the truck and put it in park. They both started to get out of the truck. I was mulling this over as if I was skydiving out of a plane at 10,000 feet. My brain was telling me to stay put, but my momentum was already moving me out of the truck.
I followed their lead – they were experts at this – right? I put my hand on my container of bear spray on my hip just to make sure it was still there. Leonard, on the other hand, walked around with no bear spray and seemed to be completely at ease. I guess that’s what decades of tracking bears will do to you!
I was nervous…trying to recount my bear safety tips. It’s a really vulnerable feeling walking on foot in bear territory – next to a river full of salmon in September. I tried to take cues from Leonard and remain calm, but it’s not an easy thing to do!
Leonard looked for tracks and surveyed the area and the grass like a detective. We found a pile of bear skat and all stood around and examined it. He turned around and said – “Let’s go a bit further.” – as if he knew something we didn’t.
The road got worse and worse as we continued to inch along the river. Suddenly Leonard remarked, “There he is!”, pointing to thick brush across the river. There was a big beautiful boar grizzly in the deep brush looking at us.
For some reason this was one of the most exciting sightings I had. It was certainly the biggest bear I had seen and it’s coloring was an ombre of dark chocolate brown to auburn. He had a big round head and looked at us curiously, but not with any real interest.
“That’s a healthy looking bear. Look at it’s coat, he looks really great,” Leonard said with a sense of relief and pride in his voice.
This is one of the things that ran true about the whole region. The locals have a genuine concern about the bears and wildlife in the region. They want to see the bears healthy and fishing. As I talked to locals the main topic was the concern about the salmon run which seems to be decreasing each year. The general thought was that Bella Coola bears were the end of the line of a long series of parties that are also after the salmon, namely the fisherman. If you are going to go bear watching in Bella Coola, it’s not just about bear watching, you learn about the whole ecosystem.
Sadly, it was nearly impossible to get a shot of the big bear through all of the brush – so I just stopped trying and enjoyed watching him amble along the bank. We followed him for a bit until it was getting too dark, and we turned around and slowly made our way back out on the bumpy road. We even got lucky and saw a young grizzly on the river bank on the way out!
You can Self Drive by renting a Jeep Grand Cheroke if you are skilled enough to do this yourself. But you really need to know where you are going and know your bear safety. Or you can hire Leonard to take you out in the valley for a Wildlife & Sightseeing tour in Sep/Oct during bear season. More info
3. Viewing Grizzly Bears by Boat
You can also take to the water for a marine wilderness adventure and grizzly watching in fjords and river mouths. Start out at the Bella Coola harbor and head out into the North Bentinck Arm and be surrounded by tall granite walls. Here you’ll find many rivers and their estuaries where grizzlies feed on the spawning salmon.
Boat Tour with the Bella Coola Grizzly Tours Wilderness Resort
One day I was there, I went out for a day trip with Leonard’s son Daniel. This is much more than just grizzly watching! We had a seafood feast, soaked in hot springs, saw seals, experienced waterfalls, and hiked to the biggest cedar tree I’ve ever seen in my life. And check out these fjord views!
We didn’t see any bears on our outing, but it was still one of my favorite days I spent in the region, and it gave me a more well-rounded sense of the culture there.
You might want to check out Leonard’s 3 day, 2 night marine tour where you get off the boat to walk upriver searching for bears. I sadly didn’t have time for this on this trip, but it would’ve been spectacular!
Float Down the Atnarko River in Search of Bears
If you want to really hone in on grizzly watching on the water, then consider a float down the river. Copper Sun Rafting Adventures offers guided trips down the river giving you the best chance of viewing bears on a 2 hour float with their experienced local guides.
As I got in the raft and hung all of my camera gear around me; I was excited. We were going to head right into the grizzly bear’s pantry – the Atnarko River. This is the exact same river where, from the safety of a platform a few days earlier, I watched bears feast on salmon. But this time I would be floating down the river in search of bears. I know – that sounds a bit crazy, but the idea is that the bears are way more interested in the salmon than the raft.
The raft had no motor – just paddles, and an experienced guide. The current took us down the river at a slow pace as our guide steered.
The views of the mountains were gorgeous, but we weren’t seeing any bears. After more time, I knew that we were getting close to the end of our float and I started to feel defeated. However, as we rounded one of the last bends, there he was…a young grizzly in the water.
Our guide put the ‘brakes’ on and tried to position us safely along the opposite bank.
It’s a whole different perspective than being above them on a platform or protected in a car. We were right at their level.
We watched as the grizzly caught a big salmon and took it back in the tall grass to devour it. He’d stop for a moment and look at us. Those times when they lock eyes with you always make me shiver. And even more so in our weirdly precarious position in the raft. We were anchored on the opposite bank as the bear – so it still felt ok.
It finished the salmon snack and came back into view and into the water. He knew we were there and he started walking back upstream to search for the next course. That’s when Hank, our rafting guide, actually started to paddle us backwards back up the river! At first I was surprised that he could even do this, but let’s face it, I had become greedy….I wanted to see bears all the time now.
We were able to get some great shots and perspectives on the bear and his fishing technique, and we felt closer than ever on the river.
I was still excited every time I saw one – but the amount of footage I took was less than the first for sure. Sort of like how you take a million pictures of your first child every moment you can, fill out their baby book, and keep every memento, but by the last child, you’re not as crazed about picking up that camera.
PIN IT FOR LATER!
What Photography Gear Should You take With You to Bella Coola?
I’m no longer a Bear Virgin!
The curse was broken! Bella Coola delivered on a goal I have been working on since 2014!
In the end we saw 10 grizzlies, 3 black bears, I met a ton of cool local people, and I was mesmerized by the beautiful views of the Bella Coola Valley.
How can 5 days go so fast? I’ll tell you how – when you are having the time of your life, time flies!
Follow my Travels
I was a guest of Cariboo Chilcolten Coast Tourism during my time in Bella Coola to watch bears. However, all opinions expressed here are my own.
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