Notes from the Bella Coola Valley
words :: Feet Banks
photography :: Mark Gribbon
Sundown on the Atnarko River and it isn’t one of those just-off-the-road spots. The bats are already circling above as we push through neck-deep grass towards the water, hoping for a few more casts before night settles on the Bella Coola Valley. Garrett Newkirk, a born-and-raised local, leads the way, whistling loudly every dozen steps or so. I can hear Mark swishing behind me, pausing to shoot the occasional photo. Behind him is nothing but bush, we hope.
“This is bear country, eh?” I ask. It seems like it would be.
“We’re on a grizzly trail.” Garrett says, flat calm.
“I forgot the bear spray.” I’m almost expecting a 700-pound beast to immediately leap out and punish us, the tourists.
“I’ve got one in my pocket,” Garrett says calmly, whistling once more before adding, “But only one.”
The spot is bear-free and fantastic. The ragged, snowy peaks of BC’s Coast Range tower over massive cedars on the western shoreline and pine-covered granite cliffs rise sharply in the east, the edge of the Chilcotin Plateau. The river is wide and clear and, like the rainforest that lines its shore, chock-full of life.
Throughout the year, nine species of sport fish live in the Atnarko – all five Pacific salmon (spring, pink, coho, chum, and sockeye) return each season plus two steelhead runs and year-round rainbow, cutthroat, and dolly varden trout. I get knee-deep in the clear green flow and fire a couple off with the bait caster, aiming for one of the big spring salmon surfacing on the seam of the fast water and the eddy.
The locals are out. Upstream a family of four packs gear into a big orange inflatable raft and pushes off for home, a floating commute. Garrett runs into some buddies and they stand on shore and shoot the shit – talk of parties and work shifts peppered with fish tales. “So big it broke my rod” or “We were just donating hooks to the bottom.” One of the nice things about fishing is that the stories often ring familiar regardless of where you might be.
My go-to fishing-trip buddy/photographer Mark Gribbon and I are never introduced or spoken to directly but the mood on the beach is friendly. No one seems to care that we’re obvious tourists, perhaps because we don’t hook into any salmon.
Three days later Mark and I skip the five-star dinner at the Tweedsmuir Park Lodge and return on our own to that same spot—again without bear spray but this time with fly rods. We have the beach to ourselves and I land the biggest trout of the trip. By this point, I’m totally hooked on Bella Coola.
* * *
Bella Coola. The words sound exotic and yet familiar. They slip from your mouth like a caught-and-released fish eases back into the river’s flow. Bella Coola, the name, is magic.
Bella Coola, the town, is not as nice. It’s literally the end of the road, a functional fishing/logging/farming settlement plunked atop a Nuxalk First Nations village site right where Highway 20 twists into the Pacific Ocean after straight-slicing across the Chilcotin Plateau as if shot from a bow.
Bella Coola the town is so small the red-light district doesn’t have any lights. In fact, the locals proudly point out that you can go 450 kilometres in any direction without ever seeing a traffic light.
But Bella Coola the valley, the rivers, the mountains, the everything-else, is almost indescribably awesome. This is the bush, the boonies, the real Beautiful British Columbia. A thick, unpopulated rainforest cut by twisting rivers and swampy deltas infested with grizzly, moose, deer, cougars, fish, and all kinds of history.
Bella Coola is where the mighty Pacific stretches her limbs with fjords bringing storms and salty spray in another 100 kilometres from the coast proper. It’s where the Chilcotin Plateau, a massive empty swath of ranchland and burned-out or bug-killed pine forests, falls into the ocean and re-emerges as thick, tree-covered coastal mountains on steroids.
This is a place where you can watch the cycle of life happen in real time with every salmon run and it’s the ancestral home of the Nuxalk, a people world-renowned for iconic art, masks, and supernatural legends. The Nuxalk still teach the traditional language in schools that sit just a short hike from ancient petroglyphs chiseled into the mountains by their ancestors a hundred lifetimes earlier.
Bella Coola is also where Sir Alexander MacKenzie ended up when, using French voyageurs for muscle and Native guides for route-finding, he crossed the North American continent in 1793, the first white man to do so north of Mexico. From the last point of civilization the return expedition covered 3700 kilometres and took 117 days. That no white man has completed the same route since speaks to what kind of trip it was.
The Nuxalk welcomed MacKenzie and ferried him down the Bella Coola River to meet the ocean, completing his journey. Rumour has it they also helped old Alex escape certain death at the hands of the Bella Bella, a coastal tribe who were more than a little pissed off after Captain George Vancouver, the first white man anyone had ever seen, sailed in guns a-blazin’ just weeks prior.
“Such was the depth of precipices below, and the height of the mountains above, with the rude and wild magnificence of the scenery around, that I shall not attempt to describe such an astonishing and awful combination of objects: of which indeed, no description can convey an adequate idea.“– Alexander MacKenzie, on first glimpsing the Bella Coola Valley from the edge of the Chilcotin Plateau, 1793.
Before leaving, MacKenzie – just 29 years old at the time – mixed up some salmon roe and melted bear grease and left this message painted on a boulder near the ocean’s shore: “Alex MacKenzie, from Canada by land. 22nd July 1793.” Famed American explorers Lewis and Clark would not complete their transcontinental exploration and touch the waters of the mighty Pacific until December 1805.
Just a few days short of the 217th anniversary of McKenzie’s arrival Mark and I showed up searching only for fish and a bit of fresh air. We found both almost immediately, but of course we had a helicopter.
* * *
The second rule to learn when heli-fishing perfect little un-named lakes up on the plateau is to let the pilot fire up the helicopter and give it some juice before anyone else tries to get inside. This way the wind from the rotors blows away the mosquitoes—nothing worse than a bunch of tiny buzzing vampires bouncing around the cockpit while you’re window shopping for the next untouched lake.
Another key trick is to carry a pump-action 12-gauge shotgun or something with similar stopping power. Bella Coola is prime grizzly country and all the signs on the rivers say the same thing: If approached by a bear, reel in and leave the area. Cut line if playing a fish. Despite this, or perhaps because of the gun, it’s easy to relax and enjoy the stillness and silence of where we are.
“Everything I really love in life starts with an ‘F’”, Peter, our pilot, tells me. “Family, flying, fishing, friends, food…” His rod tip suddenly taps out that telltale rhythm—fish on. This particular trio of lakes, sitting up near 5000 feet above sea level, are connected via a three-foot-wide, 700-metre stream that twists off to other nameless lakes stocked with cutthroat trout many years ago; Peter knows this because he fished them all “a while back” and pulled out some lunkers. “They were bigger then,” he says, while playing what turns out to be a nice 14-incher. “Now they’re really competing for food.”
Snow-capped peaks fan out to the west, a breeze ripples the perfectly blue lake and keeps the mosquitoes at bay. A helicopter, I still can’t believe it, sits on the shore and I’m pondering the fisherman’s dilemma—is it better to spend an afternoon catching a lot of regular sized fish? Or sit hours for a single huge one?
On the flight out we pass over an enormous bull moose, zip up to 260-metre Hunlen Falls, touch down and catch trout on the only beach on Isolation Lake, and then bomb down the Bella Coola river just a few dozen feet off the water. The coastal rainforest has more life in each cubic metre than a tropical jungle but with the treetops towering much higher than the heli it still kinda feels like a Vietnam War movie. (Especially with Peter’s iPod blasting Creedence over the on-board intercom system).
Heli is a far-out way to fish—it’s totally surreal, absolutely addictive, and not as hard on the environment as it sounds. Peter and his company just won a Tech Green Award for running clean-burning Turbomeca engines in their A-stars. The emissions are much lower than most other turbine aircraft, not that you need to know that to sleep well after a day of aerial exhilaration.
The first rule of heli-fishing, by the way, is to keep your head down getting in and out of the bird. Staying low is a skill you need to learn before you’re allowed to leave the ground. And don’t start casting while the rotors are still spinning—heli-fishing is still fishing. You never want to be too eager.
* * *
Eager, patient, or in between – you don’t catch salmon in landlocked heli-accessed lakes so we’re on the river, in a drift boat, and I could be about to die. Somehow the bait-caster reel is so tangled, and I am so piss-poor at operating it, that the thick, 25-pound test is wrapped not just around the rod and the oar but also through my legs and up around my throat. The lure is perfectly placed in the flowing waters of the mighty Atnarko though, and if a 30-pound spring salmon hits right now, I’m probably going to be asphyxiated, beheaded, dragged from the boat, or all the above. It’s like a scene from the Final Destination movies, but I have no fear. Maybe because Garrett is laughing so hard or maybe because I’ve been casting for salmon all day, the last day of the season, without so much as a nibble.
“We should probably be using bait bags,” Garrett admits. But since we don’t have any of the roe-filled mesh sacks our best chance is to hit the salmon on the nose with the lure enough times that it bites out of anger. Or, if I live long enough to cut the bird’s nest of line out of my reel, we could switch to the fly rods and catch some trout.
Mark and I make the switch but Garrett needs a salmon. For a local to go a season without hooking a spring is “like a winter in Whistler without getting fresh tracks off the peak,” Garrett explains. He spent a few winters in our mountain town, riding with Whistler Valley Snowboard Club and coaching on the national team before returning home to fish all summer and heli-board all winter. Aka—Living the Dream.
Garrett expertly steers us into a perfect little corner and beaches. Mark and I fan out, assessing the water (guessing mostly) while the river gently pushes past. Drift-boating is the opposite of a helicopter—low tech, silent, substantially cheaper—but the fishing feels just as rewarding. Life is good when it’s simple.
By day’s end Garrett ends up with a smaller spring (still at least 15 pounds) to salvage his season and Mark and I release a handful of decent trout. Plans are made to go out on the fjord in the morning. “If it’s not too windy I’ll meet you at the docks at 9,” Garret says. “Take you out and catch some crabs.” He pauses, hearing himself. “I better rephrase that, it’s not like the Whistler nightclub scene. What I mean, we’ll go crabbing.”
* * *
The biggest fish of the trip hit on my third cast. This was sunset on the Atnarko and I had laid my fly right on the ripple, that ever-blending seam where the eddy melts back into the flow. The fly was brown with gold on it (I fish with colours not names) and I couldn’t tell you where it was purchased but it was tied by a real professional—the barb was already tucked back when I pulled it brand-new out of the box.
The fish hit hard. A big strike is always a surprise—that random flood of excitement is part of the sport’s allure—but even more so because although I am a skilled and life-long bait fisherman I have a lot to learn about fly fishing. We all do to some degree, I suppose, but me a little more so.
Fear rises alongside the excitement. Don’t lose him, keep the tip up, let him run. I always consider fish as male—perhaps the idea of dragging a female in via hook through the face or throat solely for my own enjoyment is more than my psyche can handle.
The fish, a nice rainbow judging by the fight, dips in and out of the fast water using the current’s drag to aid his fight.
Patience is key. A helicopter engine takes a while to warm up, a trout-and-eggs breakfast takes time to cook, and a fish will come to you when it comes to you. People have been fishing these waters for ten thousand years, no need to rush a process as old as civilization itself.
The fish and I, we give and take from each other for a while, long enough for me to notice the light reflecting off the water and the long shadows on the cliffs above. And that’s fishing, that moment. Both exciting and calm, you’re focused as all hell and the line’s singing and the rod’s bouncing but somehow everything is slowed right down and there’s time to play and observe and to feel whatever it is that’s missing in the rest of your life.
We dance slowly towards shore and then I have him in my hands, exhausted, shining, meaty and alive. A photo, and then with a simple tail-flick he’s back in the flow and the moment is over.
You can get to that timewarp moment any number of ways—jumping out of airplanes or steep skiing in your slough—but with the water running past your knees and the sun at your back, fishing is one of the purest, most primal things a person can do. You don’t need a fancy helicopter or even a simple boat—all you need is some sort of line tied onto some kind of hook. Ideally with a little fake bug on there too, and a location like Bella Coola to toss it into.
This story was originally published in the summer 2011 issue of Mountain Life Magazine. It’s always been a favourite of mine because it was one of my first big stories to integrate the history and culture of a place in with the landscape and adventure. Also, fucking helicopter fishing is ridiculously awesome!- Feet
Bonus Chapter: Tweedsmuir Park Lodge
Beat Steiner doesn’t fish. “In a fishing situation,” he explains, “I’m pretty much always cheering for the fish.” He doesn’t hunt either, which makes it ironic that he’s an owner of Tweedsmuir Park Lodge, hand built in 1931 as a hunting and fishing retreat catering to royalty and distinguished guests ranging from Sir Edmund Hillary to Phyllis Munday to Lord Tweedsmuir himself.
Beat skis though, and the extensively restored timberframe lodge is now primarily known as the headquarters for Bella Coola Heli Sports, which he opened alongside North American ski legend Pete “The Swede” Mattsson and filmmaker Christian Begin. With tenure over 1.3 million acres in mountains that can appease, inspire, frighten and impress any skier on the planet, Beat and the boys keep plenty busy all winter.
In the summer months the lodge caters to wildlife lovers (Bella Coola is one of the world’s premier grizzly viewing spots in late August and September), roaming Euros seeking untamed wilds, and fishermen like us out for the time of their lives.
With private cabins accommodating up to 22 adults, the 60-acre lodge property is also home to 600 metres of Atnarko River frontage and a storybook-perfect fishing spot called the “Glory Hole.” It’s aptly named not only for the fish in the water but also the fresh club sandwiches delivered right to the beach by Carole, the lodge’s head chef.
But, as Beat is quick to point out, there’s more to life than purposefully torturing fish by dragging them around by their faces only to release them at the end. And on our “weather day” Beat, the Swede and Christian load Mark and I into the chopper to hit one of their many pre-mapped heli-hikes.
This one is a high-ridge traverse across granite rubbed smooth by glaciers from millennia past. “I don’t like a specific trail,” the Swede bellows. “ Up here you can go anywhere, you can practically roll a wheelchair.”
It’s the best part of hiking without any of the work. No boring switchbacks, no slash alder and no ever-shuffling scree slopes. Just hard polished granite and incredible alpine vistas. Sure, there are a few stretches that would be pretty dicey in a wheelchair but the hike winds through sun-warmed pools, massive boulders, lonely snowfields and steep ridgelines before climaxing with endless views of North Bentinck Arm and the town of Bella Coola, 5000 feet below.
And then the chopper arrives to shuttle you straight down to hit up the sushi restaurant for lunch. For a “weather day” it doesn’t get much better than this.
Tweedsmuirparklodge.com has all the info, photos, and directions you need to make your own dream come true in Bella Coola.