Spawning salmon and fishing grizzlies in the Bella Coola Valley | Canada

The Great Bear Rainforest is a vast area of coastal rainforest which is pristine habitat for grizzly bears. During the late summer and autumn salmon come up the rivers to spawn, creating a feeding frenzy for the bears and that’s exactly why we wanted to visit. The easiest area for us to access was the tiny village of Bella Coola which sits beside a glacial fed inlet. It’s set in a pretty remote area so transport there isn’t easy or cheap so our options were a 10 hour ferry from northern Vancouver Island or a 500km drive along the freedom highway which involves an extremely steep mountain pass over gravel. We opted for the ferry there and then we would drive ‘the hill’ back out, creating a loop. The ferry was bloody expensive though at $700 for us and the van, but it was still cheaper then paying for a half day grizzly bear tour and we could take our time.

We had to wake up at 5am to check in for the ferry and then we set sail over a dark sea. The first section we passed dozens of forested islands and saw the occasional humpback whale blasting water up into the air. As we moved north east we entered the inlets where sea otters were laying on their backs and more humpbacks were visible around us. We veered up a bend in the inlet towards Bella Coola and gradually the sea began to change colour until it was totally milky turquoise from the glaciers high up on the coastal mountains.

By 5pm we arrived at the tiny port of Bella Coola and it was prettier than I’d expected. Mountains were rising up from the sea with low lying clouds drifting by and we found a quiet place to camp a short drive down a gravel road. We stopped to see a waterfall and then wandered along the sea where picnic benches were positioned right by the water and seals were bobbing up to take a look at us.

The following morning we excitedly drove into the village to get some info on the grizzly situation from the visitor centre. We didn’t get the information we’d hoped for though, apparently the salmon runs haven’t been good this year, running late and expected to be very small in comparison to previous years. She said there’s just not as many grizzlies around as normal and we stood there, shrinking down like deflating balloons. We just paid $700 for a ferry to a pretty much guaranteed location to witness wild bears and now we were being told we might not have any luck. We tried to stay positive though and headed up the valley to hike to a viewpoint. Switchbacks led us up through the forest but I didn’t feel like we’d bump into a bear, there wasn’t any skat and the forest seemed quite lifeless. We got a nice (if slightly restricted) view down to the inlet and valley but it wasn’t anything special. There’s an incredible view up a rough dirt track nearby but 4WD is required. In fact a lot of the impressive scenery in the area is difficult to reach, there’s glaciers and dramatic waterfalls in the brochures but some of them involve river crossings or even helicopter rides to reach. Luckily we were pretty impressed with the scenery in the valley itself.

We pulled over at a river to put some water in our solar shower and as we walked along the rocky banks I noticed a salmon swimming upstream. We’ve never seen spawning salmon before so when we realised there were dozens more we became pretty excited. But there was also a dead one rotting on the shoreline so Craig suggested filling up with water further upstream. It’s pretty funny now we look back on it as within a few steps we realised there wasn’t just one dead fish…there were hundreds so I kept teasing Craig “we’ll just fill up further up the river…in water riddled with rotting carcasses and fish semen”. 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 was smelly too so we figured there had to be some bears around. There are four different types of salmon that spawn in the rivers of the Bella Coola valley and they come at slightly different times so it was the chums we were witnessing. It’s kind of ironic how people say fish have small brains and are dumb yet this is what they do: they’re born up a tributary of a river which could be hundreds of miles from the sea. They stay around that area for a year or so while they mature and then they swim down to the huge Pacific Ocean where they live for a couple of years. Then something tells them ‘it’s time’ and they manage to locate the main river that leads to their tributary, swimming upstream the whole time, over rapids and sections so shallow they can barely jiggle their bodies over, but they’re determined buggers and they don’t stop until they reach the exact same spot where they themselves were born so they can lay their own eggs – it’s pretty remarkable. Imagine a human drifting around the ocean in a boat and having to locate that same river without any technology, they’d probably end up in Hawaii instead of Alaska. After the females have laid their eggs and the men have squirted all over them, they just die 5 or so days later, their job is done. We weren’t aware but apparently the salmon don’t eat while they travel back ‘home’ so their actually not tasty fish for humans to eat as they’ve lost weight and nutrients.

We continued down the road towards Hagensborg which I was pretty excited about visiting as it’s known as being a little Norwegian village. Back in 1894 a group of mostly male Norwegian speakers from Minnesota arrived in the remote Bella Coola valley with the promise of land if they cleared and built a dwelling. Those dwellings were built like traditional Norwegian ‘Hytte’ (huts, log cabins) and soon enough their families arrived to start a new life there. I was expecting to see strong Norwegian evidence but there was just one wooden cabin and a flag swaying outside. But the surroundings totally resembled Norway, especially the scenery in the south of the country. The mountains were so steep and rising up around us with bright green pastures below. I was in awe and starting to feel like if I didn’t see any bears it wouldn’t be a totally wasted journey as the landscape was so stunning.

We took a short stroll amongst giant cedar trees and ended up coming across the biggest bear shit we’ve ever seen. We started to wonder if it was a horse poop but the colour was wrong, it was too black and I would of loved to have seen the size of the bear that dropped that!

After another little drive we came across a different creek that was full of salmon swimming upstream and there were even more dead fish. The smell was so similar to the Stock Fish drying on racks by the sea in Norway – maybe another reason the Norwegians liked it here! The fish were piled up on the banks and caught in tree branches, but we also saw some that hadn’t died naturally. There was obvious evidence that a bear had been feeding on them as some were resting on gravel islands with their stomachs ripped open while others were missing their heads. When the salmon are abundant the bears don’t bother eating the whole fish or even the dead ones lying on the shore, instead they go fishing to catch themselves a fresh one and feast on the most nutritional bits – the roe and brains.

We walked back and fourth across the bridge, peering down at the fish when I suddenly looked over and saw a bear!! We couldn’t believe it, a grizzly was walking out from a section of bushes on a sort of island in the creek and he was actually fishing. My god we were like a couple of kids trying to control ourselves in front of our idol. The bear was running up and down through the rapids, splashing everywhere. But he was a skilful bear, he’d learnt to corral the fish into eddy’s where he could grab them easier.

He managed to catch a fish close to the bushes but it was hard to see what was going on and he carried it out of sight. We waited for him to return which he did on the other side of the bushes. Then he looked right at us, raising his nose in the air to take a good sniff and suss us out. We had our bear spray just incase, but regardless we felt too close and walked back to our van. If the bear wanted he could run up the bank and along the river to us and we would barely have time to blink so we decided to get in our van and try and park a bit closer but as we did a car came along and we couldn’t reposition our vans rear in time and instead of him casually driving by he aggressively honked and of course the bear ran away. There were ‘no trespassing’ signs all around which we respected so there was no need for the aggression but it became evident that the locals didn’t want tourists viewing the bears – a strange scenario considering that’s what brings tourism to the area.

Anyway, the bear vanished so we just re-parked in our original spot and walked along the bridge again. Suddenly I spotted the bear but a car was coming across the bridge so I had to wait before I could cross. It was actually conservation officers and they pulled up to chat with us. They saw the bear and knew we were watching him from the bridge and just advised us to be cautious when crossing the road, so that was nice to know they didn’t mind us being there. But then I looked through there window while we were talking and squealed because the bear caught a salmon in the middle of the river. The officers said goodbye and let us try and capture a photo but it was too late, I was a bit gutted but we stayed there, waiting for the next unlucky fish…or at least hoping there would be another one.

Thankfully, our perseverance paid off and the bear came back out and we had the pleasure of watching him fish again. He managed to grab one slippery salmon, held it up to his face, took a bite and let it slide away. Then the bear turned his head towards us and he literally looked like a warrior – his face painted with the blood of his victim! It was pretty incredible. While we enjoyed the live documentary a car honked his horn loudly again and another revved his engine, more aggression from locals which was really disappointing. The conservation officers actually pulled up a bit later and apologised for getting in the way of our fishing bear photo which was sweet of them. We had a chat with them and the men asked us if there were many other people around when the bear was out as someone had called up the officers reporting line to say people were too close to the bear. I explained that at one point there were about 6 of us watching the bear but no one approached the animal and we all stayed on the bridge. The officers were absolutely fine with where we were watching the bear from so another bit of evidence showing the sourness of the locals. Such a bloody shame, some locals have tourist businesses offering grizzly tours so they want your money (even though it’s 100% doable on your own – AS LONG AS YOU RESPECT THE BEARS (I feel it’s important to say that as there’s a lot of people that don’t actually care for the animals space and only for their photo, and those folks can fuck off and go to a zoo instead of interfering with wild animals)). There are also locals who own grocery stores, gas stations, hotels and especially the tourist board and they’re happy to have tourists because they benefit from us. Then there’s the locals that never wanted tourism in the first place, and I get it, I would hate to build a house in paradise only to have it become a tourist mecca and then things get dangerous with bears in their gardens etc. But they live in grizzly country and their gardens are literally in the bears home. Gardens with kids swings are beside rivers with spawning salmon. We even watched a dog leave it’s garden to eat a dead fish on a river bank while a bear was fishing 10 meters away. But it also sucks for us, feeling very unwelcome in a place leaves a sour taste in your mouth. Some locals were delightful and really excited to meet foreigners while others just angrily stared at us as if to say “what the fuck are you doing in MY valley”

The next day we visited some other areas to look for grizzlies and we found a meadow where we regularly spotted bears crossing from one side to the other. The viewing was from quite a distance but we still managed to see a sow with two cubs and even a lone bear walking parallel to them which the mum wasn’t too happy about. One time we saw a bear on the edge of the forest and then he ran like a mad man across the meadow. It’s pretty impressive to see how fast a bears normal stride is, let alone when their running.

We spotted a couple more bears far up a river and then the main action seemed to kick off in the early evenings – always when the light wasn’t good. Our same bear was fishing and this time we saw him catch a few more fish. We were over the moon to witness it and most of the time we were the only people there. At one point though a couple of tourists joined us and we watched the bear grab a nice big chum, trying desperately to dig his claws into the slippery body just to grip onto the damn thing.

Occasionally he’d go out of sight and we just kept a lookout for him but as I turned around a different bear ran behind the other tourists car and behind Craig and the other two people, straight into the woods. We were expecting to see some confrontation between the two bears but it seems one was more dominant and scared the other off. The tourists also left but we stayed and we could usually tell when the bear was coming back while sitting in our van as we would see splashing upriver. The sun had set but in the last bit of daylight the bear returned and we crouched down by the bridge, watching as he charged up and down the stream determined to catch one particular salmon.

I was curious about the bear we’d been watching as he had quite short, dark claws for a grizzly and suddenly Craig and I were questioning if he was actually a black bear. He had the hump on his back and grizzled fur (which is how they get their name) where the tips are sort of a lighter colour, but his claws weren’t white or long like they should be. Maybe he was a hybrid, if that even exists?! He also had a tag on his ear so I asked a different conservation officer if they tag both grizzly and black bears as some parks put tracking devices on the grizzlies. She said in this area they only tag bears if they’ve been relocated so she became very interested that we’d seen a tagged one.

She looked through our photos and confirmed it was definitely a grizzly, in fact it was one she recognised as she herself was responsible for capturing and relocating the bear. Apparently he’d been hanging around the First Nation village in the valley (from what we hear the locals aren’t very bear aware, which we thought was strange, so they throw smelly fish scraps onto the floor and therefore bears come along and cause problems). So the officer set up a cage for the bear and she showed us the most heart melting video of this bear sat like a teddy in a metal cage with all four paws pressed against fenced door. He was groaning and making such sad noises, so we said “I guess you just drugged him” and the officer said no, he hadn’t been given any drugs at that point, he was just really sad and disappointed in himself. She said the only thing that saved this bear from being euthanised is that he showed no aggression and she was so happy to see that he was doing well and hanging out at the river instead of the village. The bears only really get one chance of being relocated because if they end up where they shouldn’t be again then there’s nothing more they can do to keep them away so they will inevitably be killed. So with that one chance they make it count by creating a really horrible situation for the bears. Our bear will be reminded of the trauma of being caught in that village. He’ll remember feeling like absolute shit from the drugs they gave him and the pain in his ear from the tag going in. The officers just hope that those painful reminders will be enough to teach a bear not to return to that area.

The following morning we couldn’t see any fresh evidence of newly killed fish. But we waited ALL DAY only to get a glimpse of the bear at dusk. We felt like the salmon run for this river was coming to an end. Everyday there were less fish swimming up and more decomposing on the edges. We decided we should head up the valley and try our luck there, maybe the pink salmon had arrived there…