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The Road to Bella Coola




By Erica Blair

When I awoke the sun was below the mountains, and clouds filled the sub-alpine bowl like a tumultuous mist. I could hear the crashing of the falls miles away, and I took some photos of the scene while the sun slowly rose and chased away the clouds, or morning mist.

Except for the birds and the falls all was quiet. The nearest human being besides my sleeping camping companion was at least 30 km away. During the night we thought we had heard wolves, which was a little scary, but now the mountain bowl we were in was bright and enchanting. We were several thousand feet above the Bella Coola valley on Mt. Nusatsum.


There are two ways to get to Bella Coola by car from southern BC. One is a 1000 km trip by road, and the other is by BC Ferries. My own advice is to go one way by road and the other by ferry. With the price of gas the ferry ride isn't much more than the road trip, and it makes a great circle route that takes in a substantial portion of the province.


We took Highway 99 from Vancouver heading through Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton. It is by far the most relaxing route, and we took our time camping at wilderness spots, and enjoying the fabulous mountain terrain. We stopped at Duffy Lake for a swim and picnic. It is relatively pristine, considering the road runs right along it.


The route continues through hot, and arid Lillooet. The views are absolutely remarkable, with canyons, lakes and deep river gorges, and the elevation is high - perfect locations for a movie Western. And there is a Western with Randolph Scott called Cariboo Trail which had Americans on a cattle drive through where we were going up to the Chilcotins. We camped at Lake La Hache, where we met a lot of colourful local people and had trout over a campfire for supper.


ChilcotinsThe next day at Williams Lake we hung a left and headed west. The sign said Bella Colla 450 km, so we settled in for a long pleasant drive. The plateau is relatively flat, like rolling countryside really, except it is mostly untouched by human endeavours, although there are huge ranches in the Cariboo and Chilcotins. We saw a lot of wildlife, including several bears scattering about; too shy or impatient to sit for our photo ops.


We stocked up in Alexis Creek with provisions and filled up the tank, as the next stop is Anahim Lake, and that is even smaller. Alexis Creek takes one minute to drive through, although we also stopped in at the Chilcotin Hotel for a cold beer and a sandwich, so it took us an hour. Further down the road is Puntzi Lake where the first battle of the Chilcotin War took place. We watched a man in a boat reel in a 5lb Rainbow, and later a pelican landed on the still waters like a water-skier. Ten minutes after that the sky clouded over with a dark omen, and it hailed thunder and lightning for an hour or so. Then a rainbow out of a story book. Then sun again. The sort of occurrence one sees in the prairies.


The Chilcotins is a vast plateau, sparsely populated, but it is and has been home to the Tsilhqot'in, (formerly called the Chilcotins), and other First Nations for thousands of years. It was on these rolling hills, swamps, lakes and grasslands that British Columbia's only war was fought. The Chilcotin War started on the Homathko River in Homalco territory in 1864 and went on for a year as BC's first army of irregulars traipsed hundreds of miles back and forth across this territory searching for a band of Chilcotin First Nations led by Chief Klatassine. The Homathko River source begins near the majestic Chilko Lake, and 17,000 hectares in that area are protected under the Homathko-Tatlayoko area agreement. Rainbow Mtns


From Anahim Lake the road is secondary, that is, not paved, but it's fine in good weather. The next stop was Tweedsmuir Park, which is surely one of the most beautiful areas on Earth. The Rainbow mountains have an extraordinary majesty and seem to hang on top of the Bella Coola Valley like ancient gods. The park is one of the greatest places for wilderness camping, canoeing, fishing and hiking. We decided to hike the Rainbow Range Trail, which is moderate in difficulty, and about 14 km there and back. The trail took us through forest into alpine meadows with great views of an ancient glaciated volcano and surroundings. For experienced back-packers this is just the start of many different trails that Tweedsmuirs offers.


Back in the car we now faced 'the hill' (as locals call it). It switches back and forth down from the mountains into the valley and is quite long and a little scary, especially when local pick-ups drive by you at 60 or 70 klicks. Once down though, the valley is lush and lovely. We stopped at the first camp site on the Atnarko River. We were half-unpacked when Lorraine noticed a sign saying that Grizzly bears had been seen there recently.

After a slight freak out, we headed up a logging road to Odegaard Falls. We found a spot which we used as a base camp for a couple of days. There are a number of good day hikes in the area, the obvious one being to the river where there are great views of the falls (left). The Bella Coola Valley is bear country and it's a good idea to talk while you walk to let the bears know you're there. Bear attacks are usually because the bear is startled.

Other, longer treks in the area are the trails to Hammer Lake and to Ape Lake. The Hammer Lake trail is about 4 km and goes through sub-alpine forest to the lake. From there it is another 2 km to an unbelievable vista of Purgatory Glacier on Snowside Mountain, and the Noeick River valley below. To go any further we were told requires a map and compass. However, the 12 km hike there and back was an exhilarating day for us.

Back down in the valley, Hagensborg is a pleasant little place settled by Norwegians from Minnesota in the 1890s, who were probably pining for the fjords. There are about a thousand ancestors of those pioneers living in the valley, and the architecture of many of the old buildings reflects Scandinavian influences. The whole area is Nuxalk First Nations ancestral territory, who since Mackenzie's time when the voyageurs came upon the Friendly Village were called Bella Coola.

The village that bears that name is small, and also charming. The people are especially warm and down-home. There are cultural and historic sites, including the Silyas Gallery, with Nuxalk art and carvings. A guided hike at Thorsen Creek to see to petroglyphs, which are at least 5,000 years old according to scientific evidence, was an awesome and spiritual experience. There's also a variety of accommodations. The ferry terminal is 4 km west of town, and the dock there is the place to charter boats to go out to the open ocean for fishing or whale/marine life watching.


Bella Coola was a small settlement even in 1864 when troops came through chasing Chief Klatassine and his band. But before that the valley, which had several villages, was a corridor of trade between the Nuxalk and inland First Nations. Called 'Grease Trails', items from the sea such as salmon and especially eulachon were traded for furs and other articles from the plateau. It was one of these grease trails that Alexander Mackenzie was guided along from the Fraser River (now a long hiking trail) to the Pacific.


BelColRiverWe canoed parts of the Bella Coola River, which Mackenzie wrote about enthusiastically in his journals of the 1793 expedition, and we paddled into North Bentinck Arm. However, the water got a little too choppy for the canoe and we turned back before reaching the rock with Mackenzie's famous inscription. We had wanted to canoe the entire section of the river that the voyageurs had, but it became impractical. Canoeing the river though was fun. It is swift flowing, relatively wide, and of a light green colour. It reminded me of the Pitt River, and it is similar in width and flow, and probably as treacherous. I would not recommend it to novices. The Bella Coola River is one of the best salmon and trout rivers in BC, and we saw many anglers on the river and its tributaries during our stay there.

Ours was a summer sight-seeing trip as much as anything, and we travelled a lot of terrain. Nonetheless, I intend to return and spend more time exploring the area, and backpacking into Tweedsmuir Park. I would also like to kayak the Discovery Coast and especially the Hakai Luxvbalis Conservancy Area, which is the largest marine park in BC, an archipelago of marine life, and rated one of the best kayaking experiences in the world.


To get back by BC Ferries we were told to make reservations, and we had. Unfortunately, we had not done everything we had planned. Well, next time. This is not a luxury cruise, by the way. The Queen of Chilliwack is a working ferry joining the villages and hamlets around Discovery Passage. But the scenery is fantastic with marine life, eagles and sea birds, and the occasional pods of whales, which the ferry slows down for. By the time we sailed into Port Hardy it looked like a big metropolis compared to anything we'd seen in the last two weeks.

Port Hardy is at the top of Vancouver Island. From there we drove down to Nanaimo, and another ferry took us back to Vancouver. We'd seen a great deal of the province, its rural people, other cultures and a variety of wildlife in this circle tour, and highly recommend it.


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