Spectacular By Nature
Fjord-streaked shorelines and dense woodlands bristling with wildlife fringe the sawtooth crags of British Columbia’s breathtaking mid-coast region. Gateway to the rugged Great Bear Rainforest, it’s easy to believe that Mother Nature is the only resident here. But from Bella Bella to Bella Coola and beyond, independent-minded locals have been calling this area home for centuries. And they love welcoming curious visitors to a remote yet accessible backcountry swathe long-regarded as one of Canada’s must-see wilderness wonderlands.
Tahirih Goffic: natural inspiration
When artist Tahirih Goffic vacationed with her parents in the Bella Coola Valley as a child, she found her imagination fully engaged. “I remember playing in the creeks and roaming the forests,” she says. “The mountains and cascading waterfalls made it really easy to believe that trolls, fairies and Sasquatch were living here. I vowed that when I grew up, I would live here as well.”
Since 1995, that childhood pledge has been a reality for the painter and her young family. And the region she fell for all those years ago is now an ever-present muse for her evocative canvases, mostly works in oil plus occasional forays into acrylic and watercolour. “I’m known for my realistic wildlife scenes but I also love painting candid people pictures – especially children, musicians and the elderly.”
Five years ago, Goffic put down even deeper roots by opening Dragonfly Studio Gallery alongside her home in Hagensborg, 16km along the valley from the main Bella Coola townsite. “It’s just a short commute down the stairs for me,” she jokes, adding that the gallery sells arts and crafts created by herself and other locals, including pottery and cedar-woven jewelry. There’s also a rustic onsite cafe famous for its scratch-made cakes and hearty housemade sandwiches.
Once visitors are fully fueled, she says, there are several ways to tap the valley’s artsy side. A farmers’ market on summer Sundays showcases the work of local creatives, while must-see art spaces include Petroglyph Gallery and Copper Sun Gallery. And July’s annual Bella Coola Music festival is the perfect way to hang with the locals and enjoy some toe-tapping fun.
But while Goffic suggests hungry travellers should also sample sushi at the Bella Coola Valley Inn; “fantastic burgers” at the Valley Restaurant; and dinner at Bella Coola Mountain Lodge, the area’s tastiest dish will always be its great outdoors. “Where else can you look across an apple orchard at a huge mountain streaked with waterfalls, while bald eagles circle overhead and a grizzly walks by?”
It’s this profound natural connection that Goffic says makes the valley truly special. “I’m fascinated by the minutiae of nature: the moss, the ferns, the little mushrooms, the smell in the rainforest and the creatures occupying it – it expands my imagination and puts me in a peaceful place to create. And being near the sea also helps me feel connected to the rest of the world: that big ocean touches a lot of places.”
Kyle Artelle: wildlife advocate
When Ontario-born biologist Kyle Artelle began visiting Bella Bella to investigate regional bear populations in 2010, he fell head-over-heels for the area’s breathtaking natural beauty. “After each field season, I would always try to put off going back to my studies at the University of Victoria. But in 2014, I finally made the move.”
Now combining a UVic postdoctoral fellowship with a Raincoast Conservation Foundation position, Artelle is engaged on a multiyear research project alongside five regional First Nations and a clutch of universities around the world. The area’s tooth-and-claw ursine residents are the project’s fundamental focus.
“We’re non-invasively monitoring the black and grizzly bear populations,” explains Artelle. “And we’re asking a host of questions: how salmon numbers might affect them; how different populations are connected; how populations are shifting over time. We’re basically putting our thumbs on the pulse of the local bear populations.”
But why choose this particular region? “This is largely a place where bears can still be bears. They’re feeding from the same streams they’ve fed from for thousands of years and they can still travel along the same routes. Studying this area allows us to glean insights on what a healthy bear ecosystem looks like.”
It’s also a region where the locals know exactly how to live alongside their wild and tenacious neighbours. “There’s an incredible wealth of wisdom and knowledge about bears here. Luckily, I’ve had great mentorship and teaching from my colleagues and collaborators from the Heiltsuk and neighbouring Nations,” says Artelle.
Despite that knowledge, there’s still plenty of groundwork to be done. The project’s study area covers more than 22,000 sq km and the team has to visit dozens of monitoring stations, often by boat or helicopter. “We collect tiny hair tufts to identify individual bears and infer their movements. This helps us estimate population sizes and asses whether these might be increasing or decreasing.”
The work is exhaustive but it hasn’t diminished Artelle’s sense of wonder about local wildlife. “A while back, I was shooting photos of a bear walking on the shoreline from a respectful distance. Looking over the pictures later, I found there’d actually been two bears: another had popped from the forest, photobombed the first, then receded back into the trees. I guess even bears enjoy a good photobomb!”
First-time visitors, Artelle adds, are often hungry for animal encounters like this. But rather than heading out alone, he suggests booking local tours or guides. “For guides, contact Louisa at the Qqs Projects Society (www.qqsprojects.org) – she’ll connect you with Heiltsuk charters. Further afield, consider making the trek north to Spirit Bear Lodge in Klemtu.”
Chris Nelson: Nuxalk storyteller
“Originally, we were just going to run walking tours but then a last-minute decision was made to open the Copper Sun Gallery as well – with only a month to launch it!” recalls Bella Coola-based cultural tour guide Chris Nelson, whose Nuxalk First Nation name – Xawisus – means copper or metallic sky. The tours, operating out of the gallery, are an ideal introductory activity for visitors, he adds.
Well-known in the community (alongside identical twin brother Lance), Nelson has been familiarizing out-of-towners with Nuxalk culture for more than 15 years. “It’s an opportunity for us to show the world we haven’t forgotten our traditional ways and that we can tell our story with our own voice. We show guests the sights but we also want them to leave understanding some of our culture and history,” he says.
Copper Sun’s Walk of the Totems Tour weaves around a host of intricately carved local landmarks, ending with a visit to master carver Alvin Mack. “We also stop at the Chief’s house, telling the story of his Chieftainship and how it’s passed down to his son,” says Nelson. “And we visit our Band school, where there are totems carved by students and staff – the school was built to look like a traditional longhouse.”
The forest tour to the Thorsen Creek Petroglyphs delves deeper, he adds, exploring the often-tumultuous story of the Nuxalk people, from the creation to the arrival of smallpox and from the potlatch ban to the present day. “It’s very important to talk about this history. But while the sacred rock petroglyphs remind us why we’re here on this earth, I also like to tell people the earth is always changing and always will.”
Nelson has witnessed many changes to what was once a thriving fishing and logging community. But he says visitor initiatives like his tours – plus Copper Sun’s new river rafting excursions – provide valuable local employment. And the gallery enables area artists to gain fair prices for their paintings, carvings and jewelry. Many of the works it displays feature a distinctive vibrant blue hue – a Nuxalk hallmark.
Understanding this culture, says Nelson, adds context to Bella Coola visits. But the secret to a great stay, he believes, is to get to know the people who call the area home. “There aren’t many places you can drive down the highway and notice everyone waving at you,” he says. “My ancestors passed down their knowledge over thousands of years here – and visitors will see that we’re still living that knowledge today.”
Rene Morton: grassroots historian
When Cliff Kopas opened his general store in 1930s Bella Coola, he aimed to meet the community’s pressing grocery and hardware needs just like the area’s original Hudson Bay trading post had done many years before. Fast-forward eight decades and the old trading post is a historical footnote but Kopas Store – now run by daughter Rene Morton – remains a beloved cornerstone of local life.
“We still sell some of my father’s old black and white photo postcards to collectors,” says Morton, adding that the gable-roofed store’s product mix has evolved over the years to include everything from souvenirs to sporting goods and from regional books to local art. “Guests are always pleased that our staff are all longtime residents happy to help with their inquiries,” she adds.
The only daughter among four brothers, Morton started behind the counter aged just 13. But her affinity with the region goes far beyond retail. “I was always really interested – like my father – in hearing stories about the locals,” she says, adding that her father wrote two books on the area, including Packhorses to the Pacific, a colourful account of his 1933 journey to Bella Coola from Alberta.
Local history, she adds, is a passion she never tires of. “There are so many interesting stories here,” she says, mentioning a set of 13,000-year-old fossilized footprints discovered in the Calvert Island area in 2014 as well as the intriguing tale of Frederick Seymour – first governor of the united Colony of British Columbia – who died unexpectedly on a ship here in 1869.
Visitors, she adds, often share her interest in the area’s past. And while she sends many out-of-towners to popular spots including Clayton Falls and Walker Island Park, she often points history fans to the “must-see” Thorsen Creek Petroglyphs. “Research dates it to approximately 10,000 years ago. Its artists or scribes are unknown but I recommend seeking a Nuxalk guide to escort you to the site.”
It’s not Morton’s only visitor tip. “You’ll find a tourist information centre in town on MacKenzie Street. And one block west is the very informative Bella Coola Valley Museum, open during the summer months. As for accommodation: book ahead during the ferry season.”
And don’t be surprised to find yourself falling in love with the place during your visit, she adds. “This area is special mostly because of the pace we keep. And while it’s refreshing and exhilarating to live this close to nature, there’s also a real sense of independence: it’s comfortable and secure here but it also feels very free.”