Grizzlies can be a little fussy with what salmon they choose to eat, a bit like humans. Their favourite is said to be chinook which can weigh up to 45kg, but when thousands upon thousands of pink salmon fill the rivers that’s what really gets the bears to the rivers and it becomes quantity over quality (but with the hope of the odd chinook for good measure). Sadly the pinks were late this year and rumours of their whereabouts was spreading through the valley like an STD in a brothel. Some people said helicopters had seen huge schools out at sea and predicted their arrival in 10 days with an average swimming speed of 14kmh. The fisheries said it wasn’t looking like a good year – a big flood a few years back flushed all the roe away which has been pretty catastrophic to the salmon population. It wasn’t the salmon we came to see though, it was the bears, but without the salmon our chances of seeing grizzlies seemed pretty low.
There was a viewing platform specifically designed for bear watching with electric fencing and a ranger on duty but that wasn’t open for another week so we pulled up at one of the very limited areas along the Atnarko River and wondered what we should do. We knew the salmon were spawning back down the valley but it seemed like that was coming to an end anyway so we really wanted a fresh run to arrive for the bears. The river should be full of salmon already and the water was clear enough to see there was barely a single fish swimming through it. We did have some good news though, Craig went to the pit-loo and on his way back he spotted a bear!! It was a sow with her cub and they were heading into the river. The cub was incredibly cute, a complete fluff-ball with a silver face and dark patches around its eyes which made it look like a baby panda. The cub followed it’s mum into the river but the current rapidly swept it away. We watched in panic as the mum had her back to the cub and seemed more interested in searching for fish than its child’s safety. Luckily the current swirled the cub onto a gravel bank where it waddled onto the shore, shook off its fur and ran back to mum, jumping into the river again like it was just a fun game.
It was great news – the fish might not of arrived yet but at least there were some grizzlies in the area. After that excitement we headed to a different area for a short hike high up along the river bank. As we approached a fancy lodge the view behind us completely opened up and it was pretty phenomenal. The forest totally blocks the view when driving along the road and now we could see the dramatic mountains. They had rounded tops but sheer edges, like they were hacked in half with a bread knife. There were taller mountains in the other direction which were pointy and sharp with glaciers clinging onto them. When we got back to Ruby we actually thought the vantage area above the river was a lovely place to sit and observe so that’s what we did for an hour or so but to no avail. We left for a little while and dunked in the river to cool off and then we popped back, carrying our chairs down the trail when Craig suddenly stopped and said something about a bear. I didn’t quite hear what he said so I just replied with an abrupt “WHAT?” and he said “there’s a bear coming towards us” while backing right into me. We backed away and Craig had the bear spray at the ready. Luckily we were close to our van so we got there and then saw the bear AND cub (the same ones we saw about 5km away in the morning) veer down the steep hill. We didn’t want to lose sight of them, sometimes bears will just stop and take a nap so we wearily wanted to make sure they left the area. They were cracking sticks in the woods below us and then we headed to a hide where we could safely see if they had left our vicinity – thankfully they had and were walking along the river edge. Phew!
We headed down to the river area where other people were and that ended up becoming our base for the next week while we watched grizzlies. We chatted to a lot of people, everyone curious what the other had seen in the area and we soon found out no one else had seen a fishing bear like we had. One guy we met had even been in the area from the start of the season and he’d seen bears but none of them were fishing. So we felt pretty lucky with what we witnessed down the valley.
While we were chatting to people we spotted the sow and cub again, this time they were walking along the opposite side of the river and were an absolute delight to watch. Fallen trees and washed up logs rested along the river banks and the cub followed its mum as she traversed the tree trunks. The sow was very thin, giving all the nutrients to her cub through her milk and waiting desperately for the salmon to arrive so she can fatten up for winter hibernation. The sun was low so a wonderful golden hue lit the river up and the bears movements were reflected in the calm waters. While we were busy watching them someone spotted another bear heading their way. It was a much bigger grizzly, probably a male and someone suggested it could be one of the sows previous cubs all grown up and maybe just keeping an eye on what his mum was up to – or wanting to have a word with her about the fish she’d promised him along this stretch of river!
The following morning we set our chairs up along the river side at 7am, hoping for more encounters. A lovely lady researching bears in the area came down with her parents who were visiting and she quickly spotted a bear coming our way. For some reason, maybe lack of hunting, infrastructure and human numbers, the bears in this area are considered a rather graceful bunch and not as aggressive natured as some can be in other areas of Canada. Saying that, last year there were two grizzly attack’s – both were sows who ended up in locals gardens and were just trying to protect their young. One situation involved a park ranger who apparently made a recipe of mistakes when he saw a grizzly and her cubs eating from his cherry tree. She attacked him pretty badly and when she left he got up and tried to run back into his house, causing her to attack again. Luckily he survived and the bear did too as she was acting exactly how a mother should so she wasn’t euthanised for that. Anyway, unlike in other areas like the Rockies where there’s strict rules to stay in your vehicle if there’s a bear (which we always abide by) here it was more like ‘everyone stick together, talk to the bear to let him know we’re there and he should walk around us’. So we watched as this bear came our way and then swam across to the other side, occasionally dipping his head into the water as if snorkelling for fish.
A few hours later we heard loud sticks cracking in the woods across the river. We knew a bear was coming and eventually a big furry head peered through a gap in the bushes. It was a different sow and cub this time and this mum was even skinnier than the last. Her hip bones were visible and she looked really fed up. She had a distinctive star shape on her forehead where she seemed to be missing a patch of fur. Her cub was maybe a year older than the other silver faced one we saw so she was taller and lacked that baby chub, almost resembling her mum’s skinny frame. It was so sad to see the bears struggling, peering into the water and desperately hoping to spot some fish. I just wanted to tell them to go further down the valley – follow the smell of the dead fish that are filling the rivers down there! But they all have their territories and stick to what they know.
After that encounter we didn’t see a single bear for the rest of the day, but we did spot a snake slither through the shrubs just below us and he suddenly attacked a huge toad. It was rather excessive and I think the snake really bit of more than he could chew, but over a period of an hour he managed to finally close his mouth with the toad creating a massive bulge in his narrow body.
With the lack of bear activity that afternoon and no salmon around to witness fishing bears, we opted to go back down the valley again. It turned out to be a bit of a pointless drive, but we did see some fresh evidence of bloody salmon and a couple of bears far away in a meadow. We pulled up along the milky blue Bella Coola river for some dinner. The river was braided and had bushes growing along gravel bars and a few eagles were digging into fish carcasses. After dinner I spotted a bear running along the gravel – and then a second one. It seemed to be a sow with a maybe three year old kid. The mum looked quite scruffy, her belly was big and round so she wasn’t skinny but it almost looked like a malnourished person where the belly balloons. Anyway, the pair lacked confidence and wanted to just grab some food quickly. The mum found a fish carcass, grabbed it between her teeth and they both ran back into the bushes. They must’ve been quite desperate as the fish was literally just bones, there was barely anything left of it.
The next day we returned back up the valley where we would spend our entire time sat beside the river. We became very friendly with a Californian couple volunteering in the area and we chatted for hours while keeping an eye around us for bears. We ended up having some of the craziest wildlife encounters of our lives at that river location. On a couple of occasions grizzlies crept (ridiculously silently) through the woods behind us. Sometimes it was just the screeching chipmunks that gave away their presence. One time the bear was just 10 meters behind us, so the 5 of us all got out of our chairs and stood in a tight group. Our friend was ever so calm and just talked to the bear while we all shuffled to the side to give the bear plenty of room to access the river. He eventually continued on his way, down into the water where he snorkelled right in front of us. This happened to us a few times and I still get goosebumps just thinking about it. Regardless of how many times we witnessed it I still couldn’t take a good video as I was shaking from a mix of pure joy and adrenaline.
With every day that passed the grizzlies were becoming more desperate for salmon and snorkelling became a more common sight. We managed to witness one bear succeed, although it didn’t catch a live fish, it managed to spot a humongous dead chinook lying on the river floor which it swam down to get. The salmon was about a meter long and the bear grasped the body between its jaws, taking it to a rock to eat.
The rangers were in and out of the area too, helping to control the situations when bears came by. We had a couple of very close encounters without our friends around so we had to kind of tell the other tourists what to do while I talked to the bear about how great he was at fishing. On one occasion though there were a lot of people around and I didn’t want to tell anyone what to do so I went to get some help from our volunteering friends and rangers and they kept everyone back. It was actually a sow and cub and we stood back in the car park so they could pass. We saw that sow and cub a few times during the day and watching the cub swimming was adorable, it was making all sorts of grunting noises as it struggled to doggy paddle across the river. Later in the day we went for another brief dip in the river to cool off, we always checked the coast was clear of bears before doing so but some locals didn’t seem to care. It was strange because families just set up blankets and picnics along the shoreline with their tiny kids splashing and screaming in the water, and they pretty much looked like live bait.
Locals say the best way to see bears is on a river float trip but we saw the guides put in the boats and then three hours later finish up just a few kilometres downstream – for about $150 per person it seemed like a complete scam to us especially as there’s no guarantee of bears. One group finished up and they hadn’t seen a single bear – but a friend of ours embarrassingly said “oh you just missed one, he was right here” and we were all eyeballing her to say stop rubbing salt into the wound!
But we actually decided it sounded like a fun float trip to take Roland our rowboat down so within thirty minutes she was pumped up and we were in the water with our bear spray, whistle and lifejackets at the ready. We were a little sceptical about the river conditions, the boats the companies use are thick rubber or even solid carbon fibre, ours was thin Walmart plastic and our oars as weak as toothpicks. When there’s a strong current or rapids it’s hard for us to steer so while Craig was unintentionally spinning us around in an eddy (merely trying to enter the river) we questioned if it was a stupid thing to do. It was, but we went for it anyway. Just as we set off a couple of rangers warned us the first two bends were really narrow and then off we went. There were a lot of hazards to avoid like sharp sticks just below the surface and I was in charge of sitting in the front looking for them. Occasionally I’d have to lean forward, grab the branch and push us away from it. It was narrower than we’d expected and we actually got wedged onto the gravel floor on a couple of occasions, having to get out the boat and walk. The views along the journey were incredible though with high mountains all around us.
We came around a bend and spotted a couple of First Nation guys having fun in some little tubes, and behind them was a grizzly bear. I quickly pointed and said there’s a bear coming behind you and Craig was telling me to shhh, thinking I’d only seen one guy and mistaken the other for a bear (I do have bad eyesight but not that bad!). The bear was walking along the shoreline straight for them and boy did the lads panic when they turned around and saw it. The closest one frantically jumped into his tube and paddled like mad towards the opposite side of the river. The other guy stayed where he was until we reiterated that the bear was still coming his way and he also made a mad dash. The guys were slapping the water hard with their hands trying to scare the bear off when there was no need to, it just wanted to go past to look for food so we kept telling the boys to calm down and let it pass, which is gracefully did. The First Nations seem to have a strange relationship with the bears and while we thought they’d treat them with great respect like they do the orcas (they include both animals in their beautiful carvings and always preach about protecting the land and the wildlife) yet we spoke to some people who did a float trip and witnessed a group of them use horribly loud bear-bangers to scare the bears away – who were passing on the opposite side of the river. The sow and cub were obviously scared and ran away which is pretty sad to hear as they were merely minding their own business and searching for food to survive. Scaring them away from the river and their food source could ultimately kill them.
Our final night was spent chatting for hours by the fire and when we headed back to our campervan the sky was filled with stars. They were some of the best stars we’ve ever seen and the Milky Way was right above us. Although we didn’t hang around for long, not knowing if any bears were lurking in the dark. After ten days witnessing over twenty different grizzly bears it was time for us to leave. The pink salmon were now about two weeks late and we couldn’t wait any longer for the feeding frenzy. We were so happy we visited the Bella Coola valley and our love for bears has grown even more.