Note for new readers: View Out the Door has been on the road for three months, traveling throughout coastal British Columbia. After a six week stint on Quadra Island, we made passage North to Bella Coola- a small community nestled in the mountains at the interior of a long fjord. This post covers our travel to and settling in to this new place. Current view out the door: A coniferous forest edge with a heavily bear-proofed garden.
The nineteen-hour journey to Bella Coola was both sensational and aggravating. The enormous ferry we were on passed by an almost endless stretch of snow-capped mountains looming over forested valleys, some baring granite cliff faces weeping snow-melt. We traveled around and among dozens of islands, some no more than barren, wave-lashed rocks, others that were dozens of miles in length. A few small pods of porpoises or dolphins passed by far off from the boat, and as the sun dipped towards the western horizon, the sky began filling with clouds. The temperature outside dropped with the sun, and Tara and I made ourselves comfortable inside our snug ferry cabin.
At 1:00am, we arrived in the small, primarily Heiltsulk First Nations community of Bella Bella on Campbell Island. We were supposed to then board another, much smaller ferry and head off to the ports of Shearwater, Ocean Falls, and Bella Coola. Instead, we spent the next 2.5 hours sitting in our overstuffed car in the cold because they had overbooked the ferry and needed to drop some vehicles off at Shearwater before returning to collect us. Finally, the lights of the ferry appeared in the thick black of the night, and we piled on to the small boat (only a few cars and passengers could fit aboard). We pulled our sleeping bags and pads out and tried to get some sleep on the benches inside the passenger cabin. After a few fitful hours of sleep, my senses slowly came back online, and I looked out into the early dawn.
Our ferry was slowly making its way through a narrow fjord called Cousins Inlet, and when I looked towards the front, I could see we were approaching a small community located at the very end of the inlet. The town of Ocean Falls sits between the fjord and Link Lake, and seems unsure whether it is ready to slide into history. A few year-round inhabitants remain in this incredibly remote town, which is only accessible via boat or float-plane. At one point, the town held almost 4,000 residents, and even had an enormous hotel. But with the closing of the paper mill, which was the largest mill in BC for a number of years, the town faded, and now most of the buildings are gone or decaying.
Once we had exchanged a few passengers, we were on our way again, heading further inland among the maze of fjords and mountains. The grey sky was turbid and sat close to the mountain peaks. We pushed slowly through the calm, dark waters of the inlets, watching the scenery and a rich array of wildlife. Humpback whales appeared a few times, puffing out a few clouds of CO2 and water before disappearing back under the oil-slick-like surface. We passed by loafing harbor seals, a few dolphins, and many hundreds of surf scoters staging in the coastal waters before heading inland to breed on boreal ponds. During our 7 hour journey from Ocean Falls to Bella Coola, we saw one small fishing or prawn boat, a few abandoned buildings, and no other signs of humans. No signs except those left by the logging industry, that is. Huge swaths of forest had been cleared in many of the places we passed, although most were in some stage of regrowth. Some were probably 10-20 years old, others closer to 50 or 75 years. Much of British Columbia is a “working forest” which means that it is actively managed for lumber, as well as other natural resources and outdoor activities. Many places operate a rotational wood-block system in which they clear a block, replant it, move on to the next block, and anywhere from 40 to 60 years later, they return to the original block and log it again. Some areas have been logged 3 or 4 times already.
Around 1pm we rounded a corner of the inlet, and the first signs of human habitation began appearing. We passed a few aquaculture facilities, some buildings, and then began approaching a small harbor. A few docks, some parked cars and container buildings, and a dirt road was about it. But beyond the dock an immense valley spread out before us, bounded on all sides by mountains. Some mountain-tops were jagged spires, etched with snow and ice, while others had been worn down by the eons to softer, more rounded summits. Many mountain tops were wrapped in clouds, and not visible at all. The Bella Coola and connected Atnarko valleys sit between two mountain ranges—the Coast Range and the Rainbow Range. The Rainbows (so-called because of their mineralized, colorful appearance) are part of a massive 8-million year old shield volcano that has been worn down by glaciers. The Coast Range mountains here are also volcanic in origin, but they still sport sharp, granite peaks that loom over the valley. At the far end of the valley, the road climbs steeply up “the hill” to Heckman Pass, and an elevated interior plateau still blanketed by snow.
After we picked our jaws up from the deck of the ship, we gathered all our belongings, bundled ourselves into the car, and headed off on the dirt road towards town and the valley beyond. Near the edge of Bella Cool town, we stopped at a path that led through a thick Douglas fir and cedar forest to the estuary. One of the Bella Coola River channels passed by the trail, and the staccato chatter of a belted kingfisher rang out as we approached the water. We had our cameras, our binoculars, and our bear spray with us as we ventured further in, thrilled and a little unnerved by the knowledge that we were in the thick of grizzly (or brown) bear country. It was pretty quiet in the estuary and nearby forests, however, and despite the beauty of the surroundings and the excited calls of some ruby-crowned kinglets, we were both tired and ready to see our new home. We got back to the car, and began our ascent up the valley.
The town itself, with its lone grocery store, was gone before we knew it, and a few miles later we drove by the edge of Four Mile, a Nuxalk (nu-halk) First Nations community. We passed by and through forests and farms, crossing numerous creeks and winding sections of the Bella Coola River. The town of Hagensborg, with the only other grocery store and gas station in the valley, was another 10 miles or so up the road. The Bella Coola River guided us along our slow ascent up the valley, weaving its way across the valley floor. The road led us through the town of Firvale, and then, after about an hour’s drive from the estuary, we hit the edge of Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. At this point, our river companion was now the Atnarko, which joins forces with the Talchako River a little ways down valley to create the Bella Coola. We turned off the main road (the two-laned Chilcotin-Bella Coola Highway) onto our side street, and slowly made our way to our new home – welcomed by towering columns of old growth Douglas fir, cedar, and hemlock.
The small drive led us to a bit of an opening in the forest. As we emerged from the woods, we passed a good-sized garden on our left, encircled by a split rail fence, and reinforced with electric wires (to keep the bears and deer out), Madeline cabin (our new home) on the right nestled under a large birch tree, and then a smattering of other log cabins tucked in between the firs and cedars. A larger cabin, set against the backdrop of the Coast Range Mountains and cottonwoods trees, sat a little further in, and as we pulled up, Katie and Dennis came out to greet us. They moved here about 40 years ago, and have a deeply rich understanding of, and connection to, the natural and human history of the valley. They had prepared dinner and apps for us, and after we unloaded some of our belongings into Madeline cabin, we were treated to a wonderful feast of food and stories at their place. We talked late into the night before we retired to our cabin, happy and full, for our first night in the valley.
I don’t want to use the cliché that coming to this valley is like taking a journey back in time, because it’s not really accurate. There are heli-skiing operations, wireless high-speed internet, cars, logging, depleted fisheries stocks, etc. But this valley provides glimpses into what once was. Strands of 600 year old forest remain in places, and when I walk among those sentinels, with their massive trunks and towering canopies, I feel a sense of euphoria tinged with melancholy. The thrill of being among these ancient giants is tempered by the sadness of how rare an experience this is. I work to put the sadness out of my mind to enjoy the moment, and to immerse myself in the surroundings. I want to see and know everything about this place, which means that it can take me hours to go anywhere. Almost too-small-to-see blue-eyed Marys poke up among the conifer needles on sandy forested slopes. The Calypso, or fairy orchid, produces a single, ground-hugging leaf in the fall, which overwinters before sprouting a short stem that bears a solitary bright pink flower in the spring. Birds abound, and the woods are full of the songs from varied thrushes, Pacific wrens, kinglets, warblers, sparrows, and more. And of course, there are the bears.
The valley is home to a healthy (~50) grizzly bears, and probably hundreds of black bears. The reason for their abundance is also the lifeblood of the valley’s ecosystem—the salmon. The rivers are home to five salmon, plus cutthroat and stealhead trout, and the dolly varden. The bears are supported by the bounty that runs up from the sea every year, although some of those runs are disappearing, and all have declined dramatically. There are no fish runs at this time of year, however, and the bears are out looking for fresh grass and horsetail shoots to munch on. Sharing the forest with these bears is thrilling (bird watching here has an extreme sport feel to it), but is not an endeavor to be taken lightly. There are very real human-bear conflict issues in the valley, and I want to be sure I don’t contribute to that. I see at least one bear on most of my trips into the forest, but we don’t even have to leave the house to have a close bear encounter. Last week, Tara and I were working in the cabin when we heard a sound as though someone were scraping the side of the house. Tara looked out the window over our bed to see a large, brown-colored bear a few feet away. The bear shuffled over to a patch of grass outside the front door, and began grazing away. Only when it went to munch on some planted pansies did I knock on the window to shoo it away. We initially thought this was a young grizzly bear, which made the encounter quite thrilling, but it turned out to be a large, brown-colored black bear with some distinctive scarring on its face. The encounter was a good reminder that we are visitors in their home, and that we have an obligation to be aware of our surroundings whenever we’re outside.
We’ve now been here for two weeks, and the wildlife sightings have been prolific. New birds are migrating into and through the valley on a daily basis, and we’ve taken a few trips up to the pass where winter still reigns, but is slowly giving ground to spring. I’m excited by the prospect of witnessing the emergence of spring up and down the valley, and sharing that here.
Next week: A Mother’s Day Special!
About the author:
Loren grew up in the wilds of Boston, Massachusetts, and honed his natural history skills in the urban backyard. He attended Cornell University for his undergraduate degree in Natural Resources, and received his PhD in Ecology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has traveled extensively, and in the past few years has developed an affliction for wildlife photography.