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Canada bear viewing holiday in the Bella Coola Valley – Number 2

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Canada bear viewing holiday in the Bella Coola Valley – Number 2

Back in 2003 when we first visited the beautiful Bella Coola Valley for grizzly bears tours and the famous Bella Coola boat tours (or river drifts!), we felt like we had stumbled across a bear viewing paradise and one that at the time was undiscovered and pristine. Even now 14 years later, it still remains for ourselves and our clients as one of the ultimate Canada bear viewing holidays and one which clients can’t stop talking about when they return from their Canada wildlife holiday. In a nutshell, bear viewing in Bella Coola is about reconnecting with nature and enjoying some of the most ‘natural’ bear viewing in North America. Here we have few ‘barriers’ between the bears and humans and a chance to drift leisurely down the Atnarko river, watching grizzly bears fishing for salmon and maybe a mother brown bear and cub dragging a huge salmon from the water and retreating to the vegetation to enjoy a protein feast.

Best time to visit Bella Coola for bear viewing?

In the early days of grizzly bear viewing at Bella Coola, many of the specialist companies travelled up there in mid to late August, in the hope of timing their Bella Coola bear tour with the peak time for the salmon run. However, at Wildlife Trails, we quickly realised that the best bear viewing in Canada was generally from mid-September to early October; whether you were on a bear safari in Knight Inlet, bear watching on Vancouver Island or on a bear tour in Bella Coola. The clients we sent to Bella Coola in this period had some of the most spectacular ‘bear encounters’ ever and we realised that we had hit upon a real gem of a Canada wildlife holiday.

Why Bella Coola boat tours are so different to other Canada bear watching experiences?

In the summer in Bella Coola, especially if there have been no recent rains, water levels can be low in the Atnarko river and you need a certain specialist type of boat to ‘work the river’ for the best bear viewing locations and sometimes to be pushed past the ‘dry areas’ of the river. One of the most famous Canadian wildlife lodges called Tweedsmuir Lodge, prefers to use a traditional wooden boat called The McKenzie River boats; which because they are non-motorized do not cause disturbance to the bears and allow a more intimate connection with the bears, in an unpolluted and natural environment. Another approach by a highly respected local operator is to use a lightweight Zodiac with oars to gently drift down the Atnarko river. We have road tested both types of boats and they provide a similar low impact, sustainable approach to grizzly bears viewing in the Bella Coola Valley.

Bella Coola viewing platform

Also called the Belarko viewing platform is managed by Parks Canada and has specific dates and hours which it is open during the bear viewing season in Bella Coola. So be careful not to turn up at anytime and expect to have access. In our experience, it can also be closed with fairly little notice, which makes a do it yourself Bella Coola bear tour liable to disappointment. However, for serious wildlife photographers, the Bella Coola viewing platform offers a ‘stable’ and open view of the Atnarko river - in a spot which can be very productive for grizzly bears.

The Tote Road and walking with brown bears in Bella Coola

We always felt that our clients should spend several days in Bella Coola and not undertake any self-guided walks or activities in ‘bear country’ until they fully understood the risks and had a basic understanding of how to react when meeting a bear on a walk or trek – which is quite a regular occurrence in Bella Coola. So, with that in mind, a walking safari with a local guide was often included on the first day, to give them an understanding of where they were and how to walk safely in an area with a dense bear population – this is very important, for the safety of bear and humans alike.

I think it is fair to say that walking with bears in Bella Coola is much more tightly controlled by Parks Canada than it was back in the early 2000’s and sadly this is partly because of the ignorance of over aggressive wildlife photographers and uneducated visitors; who either camp and leave food waste close to their sleeping area, or walk in bear habitat without an understanding of potential consequences. We would therefore STRONGLY ADVISE that all walking tours in Bella Coola be undertaken with a qualified wildlife guide who has the necessary licence and permissions from Parks Canada.

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