In 1793, a 29-year-old Scotsman named Alexander Mackenzie - accompanied by seven French Canadian voyageurs and two First Nations porters - paddled into the Dean Channel near present-day Bella Coola to complete the first crossing of North America from the far prairies to the Pacific. Before returning east, the explorer scrawled an inscription on a rock using a reddish mixture of bear grease and vermillion: "Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, 22nd July 1793." Today, the rock still bears his words, later permanently inscribed by surveyors.
Mackenzie could not have picked a more awe-inspiring spot to conclude his epic journey to the Pacific Ocean. The mist-draped coastline is lined with jagged, snow-crowned peaks, massive icefields and the world's longest fjords. The regions' solitude and wild beauty draws artists, photographers, naturalists and tourists looking for big adventures and the freshest seafood. The ocean around Bella Coola offers unforgettable sea kayaking and wildlife-viewing adventures.
Fishing enthusiasts flock to Rivers Inlet in the southwest, with an impressive history of producing some of the largest Chinook salmon in the world. Trophy coho, consistent catches of steelhead, pink, chum and sockeye salmon provide further variety. And giant Halibut cruise the floor of the inlet; near the reefs, ling cod can be caught.
Long before white explorers arrived, First Nations of the central coast thrived, living off both land and ocean and trading with interior tribes. More than one-third of the Coast's population today is still native - in Bella Coola, primarily the Nuxalk (nu-halk), who are well known for their carvings, masks and paintings that can be seen throughout the valley.
The two main towns in the region - Hagensborg, a community settled by Norwegians from Minnesota in 1894, and Bella Coola, the service hub for the region - are located 17 km (10 mi) apart at the western end of Hwy 20. This section of the valley features many attractions, including 10,000-year-old petroglyphs, historic hiking trails, a salmon hatchery, drifting the Atnarko River, galleries specializing in West Coast native art and outdoor adventure companies offering grizzly bear tours, river rafting and flightseeing excursions.
Entering the Coast region from the east by road offers some amazing views however the trip may not be for those afraid of heights. Hwy 20, the "Freedom Highway" descends from Heckman Pass into a 30-km (18-mi) stretch of sharp hairpin turns and switchbacks with grades of up to 18 per cent. Located at the bottom of the Freedom Highway's infamous "Hill" is the tiny hamlet of Stuie. From here, one can access 980,000-hectare Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, the largest provincial park in British Columbia. Aside from encompassing some of the most spectacular scenery in North America, Tweedsmuir is a magnet for outdoor recreationists whose favourite activities include fishing, hiking, horseback riding via wilderness trails, camping and canoeing the Turner Lake Chain.
South Tweedsmuir also contains stunning terrain, notably the multi-hued peaks of the Rainbow Range, their astonishing spectrum of reds, oranges, yellows and lavenders created by the area's heavily mineralized volcanic lavas and sands. The weathering effects of glaciers on these volcanic mountains combined with the warm and wet influence of the Pacific has also resulted in lush alpine meadows and a tremendous abundance of wildflowers.
In 1996 BC Ferries launched its Discovery Coast Passage service which connects the community of Port Hardy, at the north-eastern end of Vancouver Island, with Bella Coola, at the head of the North Bentinck Arm, making regular stops along the way and providing access to this amazing coastline including the 123,000-hectare Hakai Luxvbalis Conservation Area which is considered one of the finest kayaking playgrounds on the entire coast.
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Background Photo Credit: Destination British Columbia