The Bella Coola Valley is a gem of natural beauty within the Coast region of British Columbia. Wilderness abounds and beckons nature lovers and soft adventurers who wish to get off the well-trodden tourist path. It also has an alluring history: the First Nations Nuxalk (nu-halk) people date back 10,000 years thriving here alongside the salmon-filled rivers. The valley was part of a trade corridor between coastal and interior native groups, where furs and leather were exchanged for salmon and eulachon oil - obtained from the rendered fat of a small herring-like fish that was valued for its calories and vitamin content - and transported along so-called "grease" trails.
Bella Coola itself marks the western terminus of Alexander Mackenzie's trek from Saskatchewan to the Coast in 1793 - the first crossing of North America by land. Situated at the western edge of the Bella Coola Valley across from the towering 2,438-metre-high Mount Nusatsum, it was once the site of a Hudson's Bay fur-trading post.
The village of 900 thrives today on fishing, logging and tourism and as a full-service hub for the area's tiny outer coastal communities. It is also a key gateway to what is widely known as the Great Bear Rainforest, a 64,000-square-km expanse that represents one of the largest remaining tracts of unspoiled temperate rainforest left in the world.
Bella Coola lies some 456 km (283 mi) west of Williams Lake on Hwy 20. Journeying to the Bella Coola Valley is an adventure. The Valley stretches 80 km (50 mi) from Bella Coola on the North Bentinck Arm, to Stuie at the base of the "Hill" on Hwy 20. Driving westwards, the "Hill" descends from Heckman Pass along a 30-km (18-mi) stretch of sharp hairpin turns and switchbacks with grades of up to 18 per cent and may not be for those afraid of heights.
Bella Coola can also be reached by scheduled and chartered air service, by private boat and BC Ferries seasonal service.
The museum reflects the eclectic history of the Valley from the early explorers to the coming of the pioneers up to 1955. Formerly a schoolhouse and a surveyor's cabin, the museum is housed in a heritage log building that dates back to 1892. On display are items brought by Norwegians to the New World, and artefacts and photographs that tell tales of the early trading days when the Hudson's Bay Company thrived.
After visiting the museum, take a self-guided tour of the town and see the Hudson's Bay manager's residence, the House of Noomnst with picturesque totem pole entryway, and a tiny cabin that was the community's original jail. The walk should also include the historic Kopas Store which has a wonderful folksy ambience.
Located in nearby Clayton Creek Park and accessible from the road, it is an easy stroll to the falls. The tumbling curtain of frothy water mesmerizes the visitor and typifies the Bella Coola Valley.
The cannery reflects the history of a thriving canning industry that began in the late 1890s. To get there board the Ladybug to cruise 3 km (2 mi) across North Bentinck Arm to visit the cluster of red buildings nestled at the base of Mt. Pootlass. Flash back to the 1940s and '50s as you wander through the cannery office and general store. For those interested in old equipment, there is everything from canning machine parts to old boats that the owner is constantly upgrading and happy to tell stories about.
There are many trails in the Bella Coola area. One such is a Nuxalk guided hike to the petroglyphs at Thorsen Creek, which archaeologists have dated to between 5-10,000 years. Follow the guide along the magical forested route and immerse yourself in this ancient culture.
Extensive hiking trails are located in Tweedsmuir Park including the colourful, volcanic Rainbow Range and Hunlen Falls, one of Canada's highest waterfalls. From the Bella Coola Valley, you can take a day hike on a section of the famous Alexander Mackenzie Heritage Trail/Nuxalk-Carrier Grease Trail. Follow a trailhead uphill from Burnt Bridge Creek at the park's western boundary. A 1.5- hour loop showcases fabulous views of the Valley and Stupendous Mountain.
Check out the cliffs above Firvale and the area around Assanany Creek, west of Firvale to spot mountain goats. During early summer, drive high in the alpine regions on forest service roads to see black and grizzly bears before they migrate to the Valley floor for salmon season. In the fall the river banks and coastal areas that contain salmon are frequented by bears. During July and August, from the highway bridges at stream crossings between Bella Coola and Hagensborg watch and revel in the phenomenal spawning process of the Chum and Pink salmon. In spring, take a guided tour or hire a boat to explore the wildlife-rich estuary and keep alert for bears on the shoreline, soaring eagles, a variety of waterfowl and seals. Harbour seals, Bald eagles and Blue heron are commonly seen at Clayton Falls Recreation Park (2 km west of the public dock). For the best wildlife viewing, hire a guide.
The Bella Coola River system is one of the finest places to cast a line in British Columbia. Along with the Atnarko River (both are easily accessed from Highway 20) and dozens of streams, anglers can try for Cutthroat and Rainbow trout, Rocky Mountain whitefish and Dolly Varden. It is easy wading into Thorsen Creek, scenically splendid as it meanders through a mossy forest, to fly fish for Cutthroat trout and Dolly Varden. As well, Chinook salmon run mid-May to mid-July, Coho salmon in September and October, Chum salmon in late July and Pink salmon in late July and August. A guided river trip is a must for avid anglers
The North Bentinck Arm provides access to salmon, halibut, cod, red snapper, ling cod and rockfish. Cruise the gorgeous mountain-enclosed fjord or head for the open ocean. Optimum fishing conditions peak in July and August. Book a saltwater excursion as local fishing guides know these waters well.
Sign up for a river drift or eco-tour. It's a magical combination of phenomenal scenery, a chance to view wildlife and learn about the Valley's unique ecosystem from a professional biologist. Drift peacefully on either the Bella Coola or Atnarko River, enjoy spotting eagles, waterfowl, kingfishers, heron and songbirds that inhabit this lush temperate rainforest. There are a variety of small mammals such as otter and mink as well as deer that may be seen along the shoreline. These river trips, which are ideal for family and people of all ages, are perfect for bear watching. You may see black bear in summer and fall, and when the salmon spawn in late August and early fall, grizzlies arrive to feast on the fish. You can even snorkel with the salmon.
Some of the best outdoor recreation takes place here in the winter. High above the Bella Coola Valley's temperate rainforest are the glacier-laden peaks of the Central Coast Mountains. This region straddles two idyllic climatic belts that meld the snow-rich storms from the West Coast with the sunnier and much drier weather of the east Chilcotin Plateau, and presto, you have wondrous powder. The outstanding heli-skiing and heli-boarding are complemented by the camaraderie of world-class guides.
Explore the snow-covered forests and meadows by snowmobile or step onto your cross-country skis for a tranquil time in the woods. If you have your own snowshoes, a guided tour is available.
The rodeo is one of the largest amateur rodeos in Western Canada, taking place annually on the Canada Day weekend in July. The rodeo attracts contestants from Alberta and the northern states and in this small community is a wild event, as cowhands show their skills kicking off with a gymkhana, and competing in bronco riding, barrel racing, calf tie-down, team roping, bull riding and the infamous cow patty bingo.
This annual family event held in July showcases rock, blues and folk music backdropped by a stunning coastal landscape. As well as music, the Valley is alive with the sounds of merrymaking at this eclectic festival, which has children's events, crafts, workshops and food.
Background Photo Credit: Destination British Columbia