I’m no wildlife photographer.
I don’t have the patience to sit and wait for hours on end in the hope of glimpsing the vague behind of some animal.
But I do want to see wildlife, and thus usually find myself in a conundrum.
I want my wildlife to casually stroll by, creep out from the underbrush or take a relaxed sip at the lake completely nonplussed about my presence. I want my wildlife presented on a platter (well, not a literal one).
And to top this, I want this to happen when I’m ready to take a shot. Not when I’ve put my camera away because I’m either running out of patience because of all the no-shows or when I’m taken by surprise by something blitzing across my path.
But alas, my wildlife encounters rarely happen on a platter.
BEAR CHASING IN CANADA
So when we decided to return to Canada last year, one big ticket item was to see bears, ideally grizzly bears, ideally not as a tiny speck in the distance, ideally with camera ready, and ideally not when hiking.
This last trip was characterised by a decided lack of planning (mostly due to the unpredictable wildfire situation), and although bear viewing was high on our list, I wasn’t mentally in a position where I was happy to spend three days at a remote (and pricey) lodge in, for example, the Great Bear Rainforest.
In the end, we settled on the remote-ish Bella Coola Valley, about 450km from William’s Lake towards the Pacific coast.
As Highway 20 is the only road that takes you across the Chilcotin plateau and down into the Bella Coola Valley, we decided to take the ferry route out to Vancouver Island to make it a circuit trip back to Vancouver.
WHERE TO SEE BEARS IN THE BELLA COOLA VALLEY
The Bella Coola Valley in BC is a great spot for seeing bears. It’s prime bear habitat, both for grizzly and black bears.
It’s also super popular with wildlife photographers, especially during autumn (Sep-Oct) when the salmon run and the bears come to the rivers to gorge themselves on fat, tasty fish.
I’d heard of some viewing platform somewhere in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park but beyond that we simply talked to locals. I’m not super keen on doing wildlife-watching tours, mostly because it feels weird to me to pay to see wildlife but I was willing to spring some money to spot a few bears.
So here are a few places you could try for viewing bears in the Bella Coola Valley.
1. BELARKO BEAR VIEWING PLATFORM, TWEEDSMUIR PROVINCIAL PARK
At the bottom of the (in)famous ‘Hill’ on Highway 20 that takes you from the plains into the spectacular valley, you’ll find the Belarko Wildlife Viewing Platform. It’s right next to the Atnarko campground, and hard to miss given that there’s only one road (= Highway 20) in and out of the valley.
The viewing platform is open only during September but if you’re planning on camping at Atnarko during that time, you can forget that. The campground gets closed around mid-August when the bears start coming to the Atnarko River for fatty pre-hibernation meals.
We didn’t really know what to expect from the bear viewing platform but picture it as a free-entry, staffed, cordoned off (wooden + electric fences), small gravel area that allows you to safely view bears coming to the the river shore and hopefully spear a salmon or two.
The platform offers two sheltered tables but unless you rock up early in the morning, you’re likely to find the tables laden with photography gear and thermoses.
Photographers arrive early and many stay the whole day. And the next. And the next.
We stopped at Belarko two or three times over the course of three days, and only saw a couple of bears on our last try (around 6:30pm). One of them hung around for a while and so did we until the viewing platform closed at 7pm.
Where to find it: Just off Highway 20 in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park; about 13km from the western boundary of Tweedsmuir PP or roughly 60km from Bella Coola
2. FISHERIES POOL CAMPGROUND, TWEEDSMUIR PROVINCIAL PARK
About 3km down the road from the Belarko Viewing Platform is the Fisheries Pool campground, a wholly uninspiring gravel lot that’s really only suitable for campervans / RVs with nothing but bear expectations.
As far as I can fathom, why people do stay there is that the “campground” is right along the Atnarko River, and you’re in a great spot for viewing bears (or perhaps salmon fishing).
Unlike at Belarko, there’s no safety in the sense of fences or knowledgeable staff but there’s safety in numbers. Each time we had a look around, there were at least 10-15 photographers milling about patiently.
According to a ranger I overheard, bears are known to wander through the campground, especially in the morning. There are frequent ranger patrols here, and a couple of the hiking tracks near the campground remain closed during September.
If you don’t mind the carpark feel, this could be a great spot to hang out for a few days and wait for a grizzly to stroll past your campervan window in the morning.
We were actually lucky enough to spot a grizzly bear pouncing around the river with its claws out to spear fresh salmon. Truly mesmerising to see these giants splash around the water with agility and incredible strength.
Make sure you stay well hidden and away from these mighty and glorious beasts while observing.
Where to find it: Off Highway 20 in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park; about 3km from the Belarko Viewing Platform (towards Bella Coola)
3. RAFTING TOUR
A really popular option for bear viewing in Bella Coola is a rafting tour down one of the rivers in the region.
Depending on what kind of rafting was involved (= calm-ish, gentle), I was relatively keen to do that. Of course, neither of us realised that you would need to book such an adventure well in advance, and by that I mean several months. Hm. This is just not how the husband and I travel.
We weren’t sure when exactly we’d arrive in the Bella Coola Valley and booking a rafting tour in advance seemed overkill to us. Well, that meant that with only one outfitter in town offering river rafting tours in September, we were a bit stranded once we found out that they were completely booked out for the remainder of the season.
So, what were we to do?
And it was brilliant!
Not only for the cultural exchange with local Nuxalk guide Jesse but also for drifting down a glacial river with spectacular mountain ranges on both sides. Plus, we spotted some forty or so bald-headed eagles swooping in and out of the river.
But the highlight, of course, was slowly drifting past a mumma bear and her cub. Absolutely adorable.
Slight side note for photos: The rafts aren’t super stable so taking non-blurry photos can be a bit of a challenge, especially with a heavier lens. I cranked up ISO and shutter speed but still had heaps of trouble getting sharp and focused images.
Where to find them: Kynoch Adventures are located on Highway 20 in Hagensborg, offering a range of activities, including rafting; indigenous-operated Copper Sun Journeys are at Mackenzie Street in Bella Coola and also offer rafting excursions as well as a couple of different walking tours around town.
4. ACCOMMODATION VIEWING PLATFORMS
Another cool option, but one we didn’t make use of, is to simply book yourself into accommodation that is located next to one of the rivers, and where they’ve cleverly built a viewing platform within their property.
On the pricier end is Tweedsmuir Park Lodge right along the Atnarko River and offering all sorts of luxury stays. At the more affordable level is Rip Rap Camp, an RV park in Hagensborg that also offers a few rustic cabins. We floated right past their viewing deck on our rafting tour on the Bella Coola River, and it looked cozy enough.
TIPS FOR BEAR VIEWING IN BELLA COOLA
There’s a few things I wish I’d known about seeing bears in the Bella Coola Valley (or anywhere, really) beforehand.
- The tourism season in the Bella Coola Valley is very short (May/June-Oct). Everything pretty much shuts down after that (well, for tourists).
- September is a great time for seeing bears come to the rivers as they slowly make their way down the mountains. In spring and early summer, you may also be able to spot them foraging on the ocean shorelines and some of the estuaries around Bella Coola. And of course, there’s always the chance of meeting one hiking in the stunning mountains surrounding the valley and on the plains.
- Like with any wildlife, if you’re trying to spot bears at lunch time, your chances won’t be very high. Early morning and evening are usually best. That said, we saw the mumma bear and cub at around 10am, and on our 2016 trip we saw a grizzly male going for a meander at about 3pm. So you never know.
- If you’re not on a bear viewing platform or raft, make sure you give them space and don’t surprise them. You don’t want the bear to feel threatened and either run off (our experience) or charge (fortunately, not our experience).
- Expect photographers with ridiculously large telephoto lenses who will not appreciate noise, sudden movements or flash photography.
- If you’ve got patience, hang out at the viewing spots for a while. You’re more likely to be rewarded than Miss Ants-in-her-pants.
- If you’re keen to do a rafting tour with Kynoch Adventures (they go down the Atnarko River), book well in advance. Some people we spoke to had booked their tour in September back in May (we’re just not that organised…).
- Copper Sun Journeys / Rafting Adventures go down the Bella Coola River, and beyond the chance of seeing wildlife, you’ll get the chance to meet some local indigenous guys. They offered anything between 2-4 hours to us, and I think it took us about 4 hours to raft down from Bailey’s Bridge back into Bella Coola. Dress warmly!
- Bella Coola Grizzly Tours offer multi-day excursions into the Great Bear Rainforest during spring and summer. We didn’t go on a tour with them (since they don’t go down the rivers) but we camped out at their Adventure Resort in Hagensborg. Both Leonard, the owner, and his son were incredibly friendly and helpful with tips on where to spot bears.
- If you haven’t had any luck at the viewing platforms or don’t want to take a bear watching tour, just drive around the area. Get up early and explore! We managed to glimpse a bear along one of the bridges but he scampered away as soon as we spotted him.
It is a truth universally acknowledged (at least by some) that Australia is incredibly deadly and you’re unlikely to leave alive again if you venture out into the bush. After almost 20 years in the country, let’s just say I’m still alive.
But while Australia does have its fair share of dangerous, if not deadly, critters, knowing how to stay bear-safe was obviously not something either of us was particularly familiar with prior to roaming around Canada. Which is perhaps a slight problem when you’re dead keen on seeing bears in the wild.
On our first trip to Canada, I developed a keen passion to collect whatever information I could find about bears, bear behaviour and bear safety. Coming from Australia, we didn’t have a first clue about how to hike safely in bear country or how to spot tell-tale signs of bear activity. Delving into an assortment of pamphlets seemed a good way to educate myself.
We tried to stay safe (and did) but in hindsight we realised how incredibly close we got to bear encounters a couple of times. One time we quietly examined steaming piles of pink bear scat for 20 minutes wondering what it was. This is possibly not the smartest thing to do.
So during our first trip we developed a healthy respect for bears, but on our last one, our respect became even healthier. Once you see a bear move with speed and agility, you realise you stand little to no chance if a bear ever charged.
MORE POSTS ON SEEING WILDLIFE IN CANADA
While hiking Sheep Creek Trail in Kluane National Park in the Yukon, we were incredibly lucky to see two Dall sheep meander slowly past us. A very special experience.
Our first attempt to see bears in Canada’s wilderness remained fruitless for a fair few weeks. Find an account of the ‘chasing bears’ tale.