Grizzlies, salmon, and waterfalls: behold the Bella Coola Valley

If you’ve ever flown into the Bella Coola Valley on BC’s central coast, you’ll know that it’s both a spectacular and stomach-churning experience.

Your journey begins at the low-stress South Terminal of the Vancouver International Airport. There, you’ll climb into a tiny Pacific Coastal Air propeller plane that will bounce you and a dozen other hardy souls up the coast for an hour or so. You fly so close to the craggy Coast Mountain peaks it feels like you could reach out and touch them. At least that’s what my wife said. I was too busy grabbing for the barf bag.

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And then there’s the descent. My musician wife is from Ontario, but has lived out here in BC for eight years. She considered flying into the Bella Coola Valley her most mind-blowingly beautiful experience this province has offered so far. (My wife was the reason we made the trip; she was performing at the Bella Coola Music Festival).

Really: it’s as if you’re on the flight into Jurassic Park, rollicking into a narrow, green valley banked by sheer mountainsides. The mountains themselves are grandiose-nature supreme, and so too are their countless waterfalls, some cascading hundreds of feet to the valley bottom. Holly Willgress, owner of the Bella Coola Mountain Lodge and Kynoch Adventure Tours, has unofficially dubbed the entire area “The Valley of the Waterfalls”. Tourism BC would be wise to get on that.

Not counting the flight, it was Holly who took me on my first adventure, rafting down the meandering and massive Bella Coola River, one of the most noteworthy waterways on our coast. It was on this very this same river that Scottish-Canadian explorer Alexander Mackenzie became the first white guy to cross the continent of North America over land in the summer of 1793 when he was just 29 years old. In the 223 years since, the view from the river has barely changed. 

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Chris Nelson of Copper Sun Journeys. - Grant Lawrence photo

Another highly recommended Bella Coola Valley experience is Chris Nelson’s Copper Sun Journeys. Chris leads small tours to a sacred cedar grove high on the cliffs above a roaring creek. That’s where his ancestors from the Nuxalk First Nation carved myriad petroglyphs into the rocks thousands of years ago. The carvings are incredible.

In order to experience the vastness of the valley at your own pace, it’s strongly recommended to rent a car. Enter Steve Waugh, the friendliest car rental guy you’ll ever meet. You’ll find him at the Bella Coola airport, tucked into a very unassuming office.

Just like the South Terminal at YVR, Steve’s rental car company is refreshing for its complete lack of procedure. There’s no upsell, no threats, no BS. Just produce your license and credit card and Steve will toss you a set of keys and a waiting 4x4. Added bonus: our rental car had Adele’s 21 permanently jammed in the CD player for a soaring soundtrack as we played Carpool Karaoke, Bella Coola style, up and down Highway 20.

Foodies beware: while the Bella Coola Valley in the late summer is bountiful, with farms full of ripe fruit, rivers chock-a-block with salmon, and grizzly bears feasting on them in droves, it’s probably those giant bears who are eating best. Culinary options are few and far between, especially in downtown Bella Coola. Your choices are pretty much the hotel dining room, and a nearby restaurant called… “Restaurant.” 

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Gwenyth Anderson of Little Nook Café. - Grant Lawrence photo

Our favourite find for great coffee, sandwiches, and yummy fresh baked goods was Little Nook Café, located at – you guessed it – the airport. Owner Gwyneth Anderson pours a lot of love into her tiny kitchen. Half an hour up the road, it’s worth stopping, if not staying for a month, at the Tweedsmuir Lodge on the edge of the park.

The stunning Central Coast is definitely worthy of your time, despite the potential for an upset stomach. And don’t pet the grizzlies.

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