The Great Bear Rainforest is a vast area of coastal rainforest that is pristine habitat for brown bears. In late summer and autumn, the salmon move up the rivers to spawn, causing a feeding frenzy for the bears, which is exactly why we wanted to visit. The most accessible area for us was the small village of Bella Coola, which sits beside a glacier-fed bay. It's in a fairly remote area, so transportation isn't easy or cheap, so our options were a 10-hour ferry ride from North Vancouver Island, or a 500km drive along the Freedom Highway, which climbs an extremely steep mountain pass. with gravel included. We decided to take the ferry over there and then head back to "the hill" and form a loop. Although the ferry was very expensive at $700 for us and the van, it was still cheaper than paying for a half day grizzly bear tour and we were able to take our time.
We had to get up at 5 am to check in the ferry and then sail through a dark sea. On the first section, we passed dozens of wooded islands and occasionally saw humpback whales bursting out of the water. As we moved northeast, we entered bays where sea otters lay on their backs and more humpback whales were visible around us. We drove up a bend in the bay towards Bella Coola and gradually the sea began to change color until it was completely milky turquoise from the glaciers high up in the coastal mountains.
At 5 pm we arrived at the small port of Bella Coola and it was better than I expected. Mountains rose from the sea and low clouds rolled in, and we found a quiet campsite a short drive down a gravel road. We stopped to see a waterfall and then walked along the shore where picnic benches were set up right next to the water and seals came out to give us a look.
The next morning, we excitedly drove into the village to check out the grizzly bear situation at the visitor centre. However, we didn't get the information we expected, apparently the salmon runs were not good this year, they were late and should be very small compared to previous years. She said there just aren't as many grizzly bears as usual, and we've just sat there and deflated like deflating balloons. We've just paid $700 for a ferry to a pretty guaranteed spot to see wild bears and now we've been told we might just be out of luck. However, we tried to stay positive and walked up the valley to a lookout point. The switchbacks took us through the forest but I didn't feel like we were going to encounter a bear, there was no skat and the forest looked pretty lifeless. We had a nice (if somewhat limited) view of the bay and valley, but it wasn't anything special. There are amazing views from a nearby rough dirt track, but a 4WD vehicle is required. Indeed, many of the region's stunning landscapes are difficult to access, there are glaciers and dramatic waterfalls in the brochures, but some of them involve river crossings or even helicopter flights to reach them. Fortunately, we were quite impressed with the landscape of the valley itself.
We stopped at a river to water our solar shower and as we walked along the rocky shores I noticed a salmon swimming upstream. We never saw salmon spawning and when we realized there were dozens more we were very excited. But there was also a dead one rotting on the beach, so Craig suggested filling the water upstream. It's pretty funny now that we look back as within a few steps we realized there wasn't just one dead fish... there were hundreds so I kept teasing Craig "let's keep tanking upstream... in rotting water carcasses and fish sperm" .” So we gave up on that plan and found a tap in a nearby village.
But it was good news that there were fish around and it stank too so we figured there must be bears around. There are four different types of salmon that spawn in the Bella Coola Valley rivers and they come at slightly different times, so these are the buddies we saw. It's kind of ironic how people say that fish have small brains and are dumb, but it's true: they are born in a tributary of a river that can be hundreds of kilometers from the sea. They remain in this area for about a year as they grow and then swim out to the vast Pacific Ocean where they live for a few years. Then something tells them "it's time" and they manage to locate the main river that leads to its tributary, swimming upstream the whole time, in rapids and stretches so shallow they can barely move their bodies over them, but they are determined guys and they they don't stop until they get to the exact same spot where they hatched so they can lay their own eggs - that's quite remarkable. Imagine a human being crossing the ocean in a boat and having to locate the same river without technology would likely end up in Hawaii instead of Alaska. Once the females lay their eggs and the males squirt them all over the place, they only die about 5 days later, their job done. We didn't know this, but apparently the salmon isn't eating as it travels home, so it's actually not a tasty fish for humans, as it has lost weight and nutrients.
We continued along the road towards Hagensborg, which I was quite excited to visit as it is known as a small Norwegian village. In 1894, a group of mostly male Norwegians from Minnesota arrived in the remote Bella Coola Valley with promises of land if they would clear and build a house. These dwellings were built as traditional Norwegian 'hytten' (huts, log cabins) and soon their families started a new life there. I expected to see strong Norwegian evidence, but there was only a wooden hut and a flag flying outside. But the environment was totally reminiscent of Norway, especially the southern landscape of the country. The mountains were so steep and rising all around us, with bright green grasslands below us. I was in awe and starting to feel that if I didn't see bears it wouldn't be a totally wasted trip as the scenery was breathtaking.
We took a short walk among giant cedar trees and finally came across the biggest bear shit we've ever seen. We started to wonder if it was horse poop but the color was wrong it was too black and I wish I could see how big the bear dropped this!
After another short walk we found another stream full of salmon swimming upstream and there were more dead fish. The smell was something like cod drying on shelves by the sea in Norway - maybe another reason Norwegians like it here! The fish were piled on the banks and caught on the branches, but we also saw some that didn't die naturally. There was obvious evidence that a bear had eaten them, as some were resting on gravel islands with their bellies ripped open, while others were missing their heads. When the salmon is full, the bears do not bother to eat all the fish, not even the dead ones lying on the shore, but go fishing to catch a fresh one, and feed on the most nutritious cuts - the roe and the pith.
We were walking up and down the bridge looking at the fish when all of a sudden I looked over and saw a bear! ! We couldn't believe it, a brown bear came out of a bush on some kind of island in the creek and was fishing. My god, we were like a bunch of kids trying to control themselves in front of our idol. The bear ran up and down the rapids and splashed everywhere. But he was an agile bear, having learned to trap fish in eddies where he could catch them most easily.
He managed to catch a fish near the bushes but it was hard to see what was going on and he carried it out of sight. We wait for his return, which he did on the other side of the bush. He then looked directly at us and lifted his nose in the air to take a good sniff and give us away. We had our bear spray just in case, but we still felt too close and headed back to our van. If the bear wanted to, he could walk up the bank and down the river to us and we barely had time to blink, so we decided to get in our van and try to park a little closer, but when we did, a car drove by and we couldn't. our vans back in time and instead of driving casually he honked his horn aggressively and of course the bear got away. There were no signs of trespassing everywhere, which we respect, so aggression wasn't necessary, but it was clear that locals didn't want tourists to see the bears - an odd scenario considering this was bear rage tourism for the area.
Anyway, the bear disappeared, so we just parked back in our original spot and walked across the bridge again. Suddenly I saw the bear, but a car was driving over the bridge, so I had to wait before I could cross. In fact, it was the conservation officers who stopped to talk to us. They saw the bear and knew we were watching from the bridge and just advised us to be careful crossing the road so it was nice to know they didn't mind that we were there. But then I looked out the window as we were talking and I screamed because the bear caught a salmon in the middle of the river. The officers said goodbye and let's try to take a picture, but it was too late, I was a little disappointed, but we stayed there and waited for the next unlucky fish ... or at least I hoped there was another one.
Fortunately our perseverance paid off and the bear returned and we were delighted to see him fishing again. He managed to catch a slippery salmon, hold it to his face, take a bite and let it slip away. Then the bear turned its head towards us and literally looked like a warrior - its face was painted with the blood of its victim! It was amazing. As we watched the live documentary, a car honked loudly again and another revved its engine, more aggressiveness from the locals, which was really disappointing. Conservation officials stopped by a little later and apologized for messing up our photo of the fishing bear, which was kind of them. We spoke to them and the men asked us if there were many other people around when the bear was outside as someone had called the officers hotline to say there were people very close to the bear. I explained that at one point about 6 of us were watching the bear but no one approached the animal and we all stayed on the bridge. The officers were totally in agreement with where we were seeing the bear from, further proof of how upset the locals were. Too bad, some locations have tour companies that offer grizzly tours, so they want your money (although it's 100% doable on your own - AS LONG AS YOU RESPECT THE BEARS (I think it's important to say this because there are a lot of people there who don't care too much with the place of animals and just their photo, and these people can fuck off and go to a zoo instead of disturbing wild animals)). There are also places that have grocery stores, gas stations, hotels and most importantly the tourist board and are happy to receive tourists because they benefit from us. Then there are the locals who never wanted tourism and I understand would hate to build a house in paradise just to make it a tourist mecca and then it gets dangerous with bears in their gardens etc. But they live in Grizzlyland and their gardens are literally home to the bears. Gardens with children's swings adjoin rivers with spawning salmon. We even saw a dog come out of the yard to eat a dead fish on the bank of a river while a bear fished 10 meters away. But it also bothers us that feeling very unwelcome in a place leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Some locals were delighted and very excited to meet foreigners, while others just looked at us as if to say “What the hell are you doing in MY valley?”
The next day we visited some other areas to look for brown bears and found a meadow where we regularly saw bears migrating back and forth. The observation was from quite a distance, but we could still see a sow with two cubs and even a lone bear walking parallel to them, which didn't make the mother very happy. Once we saw a bear at the edge of the forest and then he ran like mad across the meadow. It's amazing to see how fast a bear normally walks, let alone run.
We saw a few more bears upstream and then the main action seemed to start in the early evening - whenever the light wasn't great. Our bear was fishing and this time we saw him catch a few more fish. We were over the moon to witness this and most of the time we were the only people there. Eventually a few tourists joined us and we saw the bear grab a great friend and desperately try to dig its claws into the slippery body just to hold on to the damn thing.
Occasionally he would disappear from view and we would keep an eye on him, but when I turned around another bear ran after the other touring car and after Craig and the other two people straight into the woods. We expected a confrontation between the two bears, but it seems that one was more dominant and chased the other away. The tourists left too, but we stayed and could usually tell when the bear was coming back as we sat in our van watching the swell upriver. The sun had gone down, but in the last light of the day the bear returned and we crouched by the bridge and watched it go up and down the river, determined to catch a particular salmon.
I was curious about the bear we were observing, as it had short, dark claws for a grizzly bear, and Craig and I suddenly wondered if it really was a black bear. It had a hump on its back and gray fur (hence the name) where the tips were a lighter color, but its claws were neither white nor as long as they should have been. Perhaps he was a hybrid, if such a thing exists?! He also had an ear tag, so I asked another conservation officer if they tag brown and black bears, as some parks put tracking devices on grizzlies. She said that bears are only tagged in this area when they are relocated, so she was very keen to see a tagged bear.
She looked at our pictures and confirmed it was definitely a grizzly bear, in fact it was one she recognized as she was responsible for capturing and relocating the bear herself. Apparently he was prowling around the First Nation village in the valley (from what we hear the locals aren't very aware of the bear which we thought was weird so they throw smelly pieces of fish on the ground and that's why the bears come and cause problems). So the officer set up a cage for the bear and she showed us the most moving video of this bear sitting like a teddy bear in a metal cage with all four paws pressed against a fenced door. He was moaning and making such sad noises so we said 'I think you just drugged him' and the cop said no he wasn't doing drugs at that point he was really sad and alone disappointed. She said the only thing that saved this bear from being put down was that he didn't show any aggression and she was very happy to see that he was fine and walking near the river instead of the village. Bears only have one real chance of being relocated, because if they end up where they shouldn't, there's nothing they can do to keep them away, so they'll inevitably be killed. So with this one chance they are taking advantage of it creating a really dire situation for the bears. Our bear remembers the trauma of being trapped in this village. He will remember feeling absolutely sick from the drugs he was given and the pain in his ear when the Marker went in. Authorities just hope those painful memories are enough to teach a bear not to return to that area.
The next morning, we saw no recent evidence of freshly dead fish. But we wait ALL DAY just to get a look at the bear at dusk. We felt that the salmon run was coming to an end for this river. Every day, fewer fish swam and more rotted on the edges. We decided to go up the valley and try our luck there, maybe the pink salmon had made it there...