We have been privileged to visit many of Canada’s wildlife sanctuaries and national parks on our Canada wildlife holidays and see all 3 species of North American bears. However one location for viewing Brown Bears stood out above all the rest; for the spectacular setting, fully immersive way of seeing the bears on beautiful river drifts and providing visitors with the chance to ‘walk with the bears’ in the company of an expert local guide. We have visited Bella Coola multiple times since our first bear safari there in 2003 and we have never been disappointed.
The most convenient way to reach Bella Coola is by air from the south terminal at Vancouver Airport using Pacific Coastal airlines. Because this flight is a scheduled daily departure for locals as well as tourists, it is available throughout the main tourist season and although they operate smaller jet engine aircraft, luggage allowance are comparable with international flights, so photographers or keen walkers with a lot of gear can easily be accommodated. Although there is a hire car service in Bella Coola, it is not as reliable as the main branches in larger towns and the daily costs are likely to be higher. So if you feel you need the use of a car to explore this beautiful valley fully, then you might want to hire a car from Vancouver or Williams Lake (see below).
For people with a little bit more time, we can highly recommend taking a couple of days (each way) to drive from Vancouver to Bella Coola. If you finish a Rockies tour in Williams Lake or maybe choose to fly in there, you can also continue starting from here and taking a leisurely fully day to drive direct to Bella Coola. Most of our clients have driven from Vancouver to Bella Coola via Williams Lake and stopped in the Riske Creek area overnight to break the journey. Close by there is Junction Sheep range Provincial Park, which provides a good opportunity to see Big Horn Sheep, as well as an outside chance to view brown bears.
For people with more time and looking for some more brown bear action, you could continue your drive from Riske Creek west and south to Chilko Lake. This is another part of western BC known for its brown bear viewing and there are luxury fly-in resorts and more modest campsites to stay at in this remote destination.
You really have to visit Bella Coola to see how unique and special the bear viewing is in this spectacular valley. Like many major rivers on the west coast of British Colombia, during the month of August to October, the rivers are literally teaming with spawning salmon, providing rich pickings for animals such as brown and black bears, wolves (although rarely seen!) and literally hundreds of Bald Eagles, which ‘stand guard’ high in the treetops like white headed sentinels.
Before we visited Bella Coola for the first time, we had experienced famous bear viewing locations like Knight Inlet on our Canada wildlife holidays -which was amazing for close up action of squabbling bears –where you felt a little detached from the wildlife standing on the raised wooden platform above the river. Here at Bella Coola, your traditional Canadian boat (called a ?) or Zodiac, sits low in the water, so when you see the bears on the shoreline you are very much at eye level; great for wildlife photographers and bear fanatics alive.
The brown bears who fish in the Atnarko river system are very used to local people fly-fishing for salmon or enjoying recreational activities close to the river. This means to a certain extent the brown bears are relaxed around the boats which drift gently down the river and stop for that special photography opportunity. That said, it is always important to follow the instructions of your guide and to know how to behave in ‘bear country’ and we provide all our clients with detailed notes about ‘bear safety’; based on information provided by the Canadian Park authorities.
Rather than just promote one wilderness lodge in Canada we try to visit and spend time at multiple options so we can provide first-hand knowledge and customize tours to fit in with clients budgets. The first lodge we ever stayed at in Bella Coola was Tweedsmuir Lodge and it hold a special place in our hearts. That said, it is run on a more commercial basis now and we have seen a movement towards a luxury wilderness lodge experience (superb food here and their own bear viewing platform) and the expected increase in pricing. Still a great option for small group tours, but now rather expensive for private tours.
For those clients wanting a more independent, intimate experience we would highly recommend Jeff and his river facing property in Bella Coola, called the Great Bear Haven. For clients on a lower budget and happy to join groups on river drifts and walking safaris, we would recommend Bella Coola Mountain Lodge.
For more information about our wildlife tours and bear safaris to Bella Coola please contact us at northamerica(at)wildlifetrails.co.uk. You can also take a look at our bespoke Canada wildlife holidays visiting Tweedsmuir Lodge, Great Bear Haven and Bella Coola Mountain lodge to see full descriptions and costings.