Bella Coola Valley: One of the Last Great Wilderness Areas

June 21, 2020   No Comments »

Bella Coola Valley: One of the Last Great Wilderness Areas

June 16, 2020 No Comments »

I’ve always had a thing for communities that lie at the end of the road. There is no way out except back in the direction you came. People tend to learn to get along when they can’t avoid each other. In my experience (Crested Butte Colorado or Norddal Norway), it’s normally a formula for a hidden gem. You have to want to go there, there is little possibility of accidentally ending up there.

The dirt road affectionately called ‘The Hill’ was built in 1953 by local residents (more about that below!), and features a 9+ mile descent from the Chilcotin plateau to the valley below. I find that when the journey to get there is hard, the destination is worth it. Bella Coola Valley in the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast of BC Canada was no exception.

I spent a week in the valley looking for bears out on the water, in the rivers, on the trails, and in the forests. But it only took me a few minutes of seeing this exotic wilderness and meeting this unique community to fall in love with it. This is one of the earth’s last great wilderness areas.

Bella Coola Wilderness

Why go to Bella Coola Valley in Canada

Bella Coola has all of the makings of one of my favorite destinations; it’s remote, few people know about it, it has an intriguing mix of people, and quite frankly, it’s one of the most beautiful wildness areas I’ve seen in the world. The valley is surrounded by steep granite mountains with a river that meanders through the valley and into the Central Coast’s maze of inlets and fjords.

It’s referred to as the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest; it’s rich with history and life. People have lived in the valley for 10,000 years!

Bella Coola History

The first Native People who lived in villages along the rivers and coastline were known as Bella Coola or Nuxalkmc (later shortened to Nuxalk) people. They occupied the area thousands of years before settlers moved in around 1894. Norwegian settlers moved to the Valley from Minnesota and other US states suffering from a recession. Most were farmers and they settled around what is now known as Hagensborg. They were given free land and took ownership of it after living on it for 5 years. These two cultures were not always harmonious; similar to much of the history with First Nation people and settlers.

The region has undergone a lot of change from fur trade to logging to fishing to tourism. But it’s still chugging along and you can see signs of its varied history everywhere.

bella coloa wharf

You could easily miss the town of Bella Coola; the only way to know you passed it is that the road ends. Bella Coola is only about 3 blocks long! The current population of the entire valley is 2,010 spread out across a number of small settlements. The small town of Bella Coola (aka the townsite) at the end of the road is home to only 148 people.

You can learn more about the fascinating history of the region at the Bella Coola Valley Museum and the Norwegian Heritage House. Do know that these are small community museums – it’s best to call ahead and make sure they are open before you go.

8 Things to Do and See in Bella Coola Valley

I spent 5 days in the valley with a local photographer; the perfect amount of time to get a good feel for the region, meet locals, learn my way around, and eat at every restaurant in the Bella Coola Valley! I didn’t just go bear watching, I found many interesting things to do in the region. Here were my favorite things to do in Bella Coola Valley.

1. Hug an Ancient Cedar Tree

There’s something humbling about walking through a giant grove of cedar trees that have been there for hundreds of years. Far from the outside world, it’s easy to get enveloped in their smell, texture, and wisdom; I felt as if I was transported into the heart of Mother Mature. I ran my hand over their moss-covered bark as I walked around the big trunks. I had a ‘tree moment’.

There are many ‘tree moments’ to be had in the Bella Coola region.

Visitors can walk the trails that meander through old growth forests with giant cedar trees, Sitka spruce and cottonwoods at Walker Island Park. The area is a First Nations sacred site. Cedar bark is used in ceremonial items, baskets, and clothing. The bark is stripped from the trees in long sections and if done right does not kill the tree. It grows back and the entire forest continues to thrive.

I also visited the region’s oldest tree simply called – Big Cedar Tree. It’s said to be over 1,000 years old; so big that 12 people holding hands fit around the whole thing. Its branches were as big as individual tree trunks. I was in awe – it was the coolest tree I ever met. It was more impressive than the Great Pyramids to me.

2. View Ancient Petroglyphs and Learn about the Nuxalk Nation

The woods in Bella Colla are full of heritage and stories. There’s no one better at telling those stories than Chris Nelson, owner of Copper Sun Tours. He took us into the woods to tell us stories of the petroglyphs and the Nuxalk people. Not only was I mesmerized by his voice and his ability to capture our attention and feelings through stories, I was also mesmerized by the forest and petroglyphs.

The area was magical, surrounded by towering, mossy trees accompanied with a constant background noise of running water through rocky streams. I felt more like I was on a meditation walk than a tour.

However, the real showstopper were the petroglyphs. The rock carvings are estimated to be over 5,000 years old. It’s understandable why this is a very sacred and spiritual place for Nuxalk people.

“Listen, the stones are speaking.”

Chris Nelson
bella coola petroglyphs

Chris walked us through the petroglyphs explaining their meanings and stopping to tell us stories or sing Nuxalk songs. There were stories of the creation of the world, stories of journeys, stories of moral dilemmas. The stories felt like a mix of mythology and biblical stories with an emphasis on nature and wildlife characters such as the Raven responsible for the beginning of the world.

Chris had a soothing, calm tone to his voice that was slightly lyrical as he talked. It lulled you in as he recited oral stories that are shared and taught throughout the Nuxalk nation. He was a master storyteller; he’d pause just long enough to have you hanging on for the next sentence.

These stories are the foundation on which the Nuxalk existed; it was moving.

3. Take a Boat Trip Through the Fjords

Daniel had a head of moppy, curly, reddish hair. He was young, but wise. You could tell he knew his way around the boat and navigating the fjord.

“We’ll see if we get lucky,” he said as he was pulling up 100 feet of rope. After 2 to 3 minutes – he finally pulls up a round flat cage with about 7 crabs in it writhing around. We all cheer in excitement – looks like we’ll have a delicious seafood lunch after all!

boat trip bella coola

The full day boat tour with the Bella Coola Grizzly Tours Wilderness Resort is a must when you are visiting Bella Coola Valley. It gives you the chance to get out and experience the deep fjords, emerald islands, beaches, hot springs, wildlife, giant cedars, and First Nations villages speckled along the coastline where no cars can go.

It was one of those rare, perfect travel days – full of awe and beauty. A day that makes you so happy to be alive and embracing this incredible world. Never mind that it started out pouring rain. It is the Great Bear Rainforest, you should expect rain.

Don’t Forget Your Rain Gear!

When I go to rainy environments, here’s what I take with me to stay dry and happy!

The good thing about the rain and overcast is that it’s fabulous for photography; making every image ooze with drama.

The weather seems to change ever few minutes, but no matter how cold it got, Daniel was always happy in his shorts and a wool sweater – he never even seemed phased from the cold – while the rest of us were in layers and a down coats!

When we were dropped off at the natural hot springs, we were all pretty excited to warm up a bit! The hot springs were the most beautiful natural springs I’ve ever soaked in. The view was incredible, and it felt even better knowing that we were in such a remote place. While we relaxed in this springs, Captain Dan cooked up our fresh crab that we pulled up from the traps that morning. We came back to the boat and a feast laid out in the back of the boat; fresh fruit, sausage, cheese, shrimp, and fresh crab.

Captain Dan pointed out wildlife, took you right up next to waterfalls, and we even got off and hiked to the Big Cedar tree.

The fjords rising out of the water were just as beautiful as anything I’ve seen in New Zealand or Norway. And we never saw another boat the whole day. It could be Canada’s best kept secret.

4. Visit the Abandoned Tallheo Cannery and Guesthouse

Looking for a cool, unique place to stay while in the Bella Coola Valley – how about an old abandoned cannery only reachable by boat?

tallheo cannery bella coola

Tallheo was built in 1916 and specialized in the processing of Sockeye, Coho, Pink, Chum, and Spring Salmon. It was one of a thousand commercial salmon canneries that dotted the west coast of North America. Many of the workers and their families lived on the property in bunkhouses or cabins during the busy summers.

Thanks to advances in refrigeration and better transportation from the Valley, the industry faded out in 1948, but Tallheo Cannery still had a fleet of about 100 gillnet boats in 1954 and continued to operate as a net loft, machine repair location, fuel dock and store into the 1980s.

I met Garrett Newkirk and his dog at the Bella Coola harbor. Garrett’s dad, a boat mechanic who worked at Tallheo in the 70’s, bought the place back in 1980 after it sat abandoned for years. He turned this unique piece of property, just two miles across the inlet from the Bella Coola wharf, into a Bed and Breakfast.

You can stay in the guesthouse or simply go over for a tour of the old buildings. Garrett walked Michael and I around the property telling us stories about his dad and explaining the fishing industry.

The buildings have been left as is for the most part. It was like stepping into a time capsule or an alien abduction where everyone was suddenly taken. My favorite building was cannery. Upstairs there were aqua colored fishing nets hung everywhere.

fishing nets tallheo bella coola

Garrett showed us how gill nets work to catch salmon and then let me just have fun taking pictures with the sunlight streaming in through the wood slats in the cannery. He also showed us the machine shop his dad worked in as well as the general store and offices. Walking through the building was like a giant treasure hunt. You could see the receipts of what people were buying in the store; toilet paper, boat maps, rubber gloves, batteries.

In the office we looked at the timecards and payroll books from 1945. A native woman, Mrs. Johnny Hall made 62 cents per hour mending nets. Hans Johnson made 76 cents per hour for the same job…not surprising.

I could’ve spent hours just looking around the offices and books. We now have Google that records a history of everything we do and where we go. But physically thumbing through these invoices, and paybooks was like a disjointed Google historyx giving you a glimpse of the stories and lives of the Bella Coola people in the 70’s.

You can simply go for a tour of the property or stay overnight at the B&B. The guest house had creaky wooden floors and pot belly stoves to keep the house warm. The rooms are simple with shared bathrooms. But the character of the place and the setting is worth the stay!

Stay at Tallheo Guesthouse
Read Reviews of Tallheo Guesthouse on Trip Advisor

5. Experience the Carving Culture

Stop in at the Copper Sun Art Gallery to get an understanding of the Nuxalk language of art. I was able to meet Nuxalk master carver, Alvin Mack at his studio. He is the best known artist from the area, his work is known worldwide. He not only carves wooden masks, creates totems, but he also does jewelry.

Even though his work is amazing and an important part of carrying on the Nuxalk culture, it is Alvin, the person, who is one of a kind. As we walked through his childhood home turned carving studio he shared intensely personal stories. But in his honesty, he had so many lessons to be learned and nuggets of inspiration.

Alvin Mack Carver Bella Coola

He showed up various beautifully carved masks, and his designs for totems explaining the stories and tradition. He told me the story of how he came up with the Residential totem on the corner – a beautiful piece of work that would capture anyone’s attention. He explained each character and section; there is a novel’s worth of stories and feelings on that pole.

His drive is fueled by his (now deceased) mother and father for what they had to go through having their language and cultures ripped away from them. The whole purpose of his art is to pass it on to the yet unborn keeping the stories, dances, and songs alive. “They are what separate us from all the different nations in the world,” he said with a smile.

When I left him I felt as if I had just had my own spiritual journey.

6. Drive the Famous Bella Coola Hill

The Hill is the most talked about feature of the Bella Coola Valley. It refers to the only road that goes to Bella Coola; connecting the valley to the interior plateau. It’s also known as Highway 20 or the Freedom road. The locals built it in the 50’s because the government refused to, claiming it was too expensive to build a road for so few people.

That didn’t stop the locals. They sent a telegram to the Department of Public Works in Victoria telling them they were going to build their own road – and that’s just what they did.

This was no easy feat. The hardest part of the project was getting from Heckman Pass to the Valley floor. This was not only steep (5,465 feet high), but it meant blasting through the mountains. They had 2 Caterpillar tractors; in September of 1952 Alf Bracewell and George Dalshaug climbed onto their tractors and began the road. They started on opposite ends and over a year later the two tractors and minimal crew met in the middle! Spectators (locals) gathered to watch the uniting of the east and the west. The Hill is the community’s pride and joy.

It also keeps people out of the area too in a weird way because it’s not easy to traverse. You have to really want to get to Bella Coola if you are going to drive this dirt road with no guardrails and nerve-wracking drop offs.

Since I flew into Bella Coola airport, I didn’t have the opportunity to experience this unique feature of Bella Coola. However, one morning Michael and I decided to drive up it and back down just so I could see this engineering miracle! It’s a nail-biting drive – but that’s what makes it so fun!

7. Bear Watching

One of the most popular things to do in Bella Coola is bear watching. You can read about my 3 ways to do bear watching in Bella Coola here!

bella coola valley bear watching

8. Bella Coola Hiking

Even though I’m an avid hiker, on this trip I didn’t hike at all! I was too busy doing other things. However, there are many great trails around the area for all hiking levels. There are a mix of old trails and more recently established trails from strolling through old -growth forests to challenging alpine adventures.

Extensive hiking trails are located in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park and around the valley.

How to get to the Bella Coola Valley

The journey to Bella Coola is incredible no matter which way you come – plane, boat, or car!

Car
You can come by car on Highway 20 over The Hill and into the Valley. From Vancouver, Bella Coola is approximately 620 miles north. Some sections of The Hill are single lane. It’s a good idea to take note of the many pull-offs in case you need to let another vehicle pass and stay in low gear as you descend.

Ferry
Arriving by sea is a great way to slow down for wildlife sightings and to take pictures before arriving at the public wharf. BC Ferries runs from Port Hardy to Bella Coola on a reduced schedule only in the summer. Be sure to check out the schedule here.

By Air
I flew into the little Bella Coola Airport nestled between the steep mountains – it’s not for those scared of flying! Pacific Coastal Airlines has daily flights from the South Terminal of Vancouver Airport (YVR) to Bella Coola (QBC), year-round & 2x daily in the summer. Flights typically take 1 hour.
If you fly in, check out the car rentals at Bella Colla Grizzly Tours Wilderness Resort.

Where to Stay around Bella Coola Valley:

Bella Coola Grizzly Tours Wilderness Resort Reviews

Tallheo Cannery and Guest House Reviews

Tweedsmuir Lodge – A more upscale choice for the valley, yet still rustic nestled among the mountains.
Read reviews on Tweedsmuir Lodge

Nimmo Bay Resort – Go further into the Great Bear Rainforest to experience this one of a kind floating lodge. I stayed at Nimmo Bay Resort a few years ago on a bear watching trip and it’s one of the coolest resorts in the world!

PIN IT FOR LATER!

bella coola valley wilderness
bella coola valley wilderness

Disclosure:

I was a guest of BC Canada during my time in Bella Coola.  However all opinions expressed here are my own.


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