I saw it outside in the green field, a black-brown dot in the distance. A few people gathered and looked in the same direction. I knew it was – good things are coming to those who are waiting.
You see, I have a grizzly bear curse.
No matter what I do, I couldn’t see anyone in the wild.
I know – most people wouldn’t call it a curse, they would call it luck. But I’ve always wanted to see and take a grizzly – of course in a safe situation. I’ve seen polar bears and even a few black bears. but never her brown cousins.
But recently I finally did it!
If you are curious about watching bears and watching bears safely in the wild, this guide is for you. I’ll tell you about my experience with bear watching in Bella Coola, go over some bear safety tips I’ve learned, and show you three different ways you can watch bears.
My story with grizzlies and (failed) bear watching
Like most people, I’m afraid of grizzlies. You have followed me all my life. I still remember when I was 11 years old with my parents and we arrived in Glacier National Park when a woman was walking and was killed by a bear. It was all on the news and it freaked me out.
Of course, my parents still made me hike, and I remember being scared on every curve of the path. Fortunately, I have never seen one on this hike.
I had expected four times to see grizzlies on my travels and they never showed up.
I was in Nimmo Bay in the Great Bear Rainforest in Lake Clark National Park in Alaska (hello … bear sky) and swam through a salmon river with Canada’s self-described bear whisperer – and have never seen a bear. There was even a time when a grizzly was in captivity at Kicking Horse Mountain in BC Canada and it never came out when I was there for 2 days.
Each of these trips was in the bear season – September / October – and yet no bears!
Seriously – how can someone be so bad when they watch happiness?
All of my hosts on these trips couldn’t understand how I could be so unhappy. That’s why I decided that I was cursed.
Read more about some of my recent closed but failed attempts:
Break the curse of the grizzly bear
But they say you should never give up – and that’s exactly what my friend Geoff believed.
Geoff was the person who invited me to go out with the bear whisperer in BC Canada. When we saw no bears, he was obviously disappointed, but he never gave up.
I saw him a year later and he was determined to see a bear, this time around his house Cariboo Chicolten coast of BC Canada.
“That will happen,” he said steadfastly, “we’ll send you to Bella Coola and you’ll definitely see a grizzly there.” He hugged me with a big bear (yes – the pun was intended) and started planning the logistics.
Bella Coola, BC, Canada – The heart of the Big Bear rainforest
Bella Coola Valley is considered the gateway to the Great Bear rainforest; A temperate rainforest on the Pacific coast of British Columbia, Canada, with an area of 6.4 million hectares. The valley is 62 miles inland from the Pacific through a labyrinth of beautiful fjords. The entire valley is remote and wild with only small populations of First Nations Nuxalk and long-term residents.
There are several ways to get to the remote Bella Coola Valley. Highway 20 from Williams Lake, scheduled flights from Pacific Coastal Airlines or BC Ferries or a private boat. Every way you arrive guarantees a picturesque view.
I arrived on a charter plane.
When the little plane broke through the thick clouds, I jumped up from my seat in shock – there were big mountains on either side of the plane – and we ended up in the narrow area between them. I suddenly felt claustrophobic. My adrenaline increased. When I get this nervous landing, I thought how will I ever deal with seeing a grizzly bear!
The plane landed on the small runway, I loosened the grip on my seat and let the blood flow back into my fingers. As I got out of the little plane and climbed onto the tarmac, I looked up in awe at the towering, rugged coastal mountains, the blue sky, and the fluffy clouds … I like Bella Coola, I thought. I was here for grizzlies, but the hell … it was love at first sight with these landscapes, and this was just the airport!
Local photographer, Michael Bednarmet me with a big smile in the tiny airport building. He would be my guide for my 5 days in the Bella Coola Valley.
We drove the short distance to our huts Bella Coola Grizzly Tours Wilderness Resort and decided to review our plan for the week.
Bella Coola Grizzly Tours Wilderness Resort
The resort consists of a handful of Aspen log cabins in the woods with full kitchens and large verandas.
This family business is exactly what you expect in this remote part of the world. No hotel chains, no big shops. The owner Leonard Ellis has led people to grizzlies in the region for decades.
Like many people in the region, he started out as a grizzly hunting and fishing guide in the region. As regulations in the region have changed, he transferred his incredibly acute grizzly recognition skills to the growing wildlife viewing and photography business.
Leonard is a good guy who figured out how to make lemonade from lemons, and I really enjoyed his company and immense knowledge of the wildlife and the region.
Know your bear security
Before watching a good bear, you should make sure that you go into the wild comfortably and possibly encounter a bear. Maybe “comfortable” is the wrong word because I never feel very comfortable with it. “Prepared” is probably a more precise word.
The thought of accidentally meeting a bear or surprising him is a great fear of mine. However, since I’ve learned my bear security, I know what to do if I encounter one in this situation. Namely – don’t run!
Michael walked me over Bear Safety 101 before we went out the next morning.
Then he pulled out something I had never seen in my previous bear safety talks – a bear spray test canister.
I know bear spray seems to be pretty easy – pull out the bottle and spray – but I always wondered if I could do it when I needed it. You don’t really want to learn how to use your bear spray while one is charging you!
The training can with spray was exactly like the original, but no moving or harmful product was released. You can get the feeling of how you take off the safety and how you spray a charging bear with a sweeping motion.
How to use bear spray
3 ways to see bears in the Bella Coola Valley
There are 3 different ways to see bears in the Bella Coola Valley. During my 5 days there I was able to try them all with varying degrees of success.
1. Bear observation platforms
Bear viewing platforms are wooden platforms built in good locations along the river where you can safely watch grizzly bears fishing or moving.
They usually have some kind of electric fence protection around them. Plus – grizzly bear viewing platforms are less intrusive for the bears.
I see my first grizzly bear at Tweedsmuir Park Lodge and Platforms
Tweedsmuir Provincial Park is one of the largest parks in BC Canada and a great place to spot wildlife. The lodge in the park is not a typical park lodge – it is quite high quality – but still rustic. The buildings are all made of wood with red roofs. The lodge is in the middle with a row of chalets arranged in a semicircle that overlook a meadow, the river, with the steep coastal mountains in the background.
They built two sets of platforms right on the river. You have to stay at the lodge to use their platforms. However, I had a special permit from them for this trip because I was hosted by the Cariboo Chicolten Coast Visitor Bureau.
I sat on the porch of the lodge admiring the view and waiting for Michael. Suddenly I saw the brown figure in the thick green grass in the field in the distance. At the same time a lodge guide saw the bear and we all slowly walked a bit away from the chalets to watch him.
The first look…
It felt surreal to finally see a grizzly. I was dizzy when I pulled out my camera gear so I wouldn’t move too quickly and thought about my bear spray hours. I was ready! However, the big bear just went about his business and ate and strolled along.
Suddenly it stood on its hind legs and looked across the field. Our eyes followed his gaze and we saw a second grizzly in the meadow. I’m not a grizzly expert, but I know enough about them to understand that they’re solo creatures … and territorial. I suddenly felt like I was back on the plane and making a bumpy landing. My whole body was tense.
The two grizzlies watched each other and slowly walked a few steps towards each other. I finished my camera shots and hoped that I would be able to capture a confrontation in front of the camera. In the end, however, they basically looked away until the dominant bear won and the other left. No bear fights today.
The guide decided that it was safe to walk slowly to the platform on the river. Until then we had just seen this whole scene from the lodge. This meant leaving the lodge’s security and going outside. We all followed the guide on a wooded path without saying a word and on high alert. I felt like we were walking along where we just saw the 2nd bear, but I also trusted the guide that she knew the area and the directions of the bears.
We reached a small platform in a tree with a view of the river. I don’t think I’ve ever been so lucky to make it to a tree! We set up our camera equipment and like a string the bear we had seen before was strolling in sight in the river. I was amazed that the guide knew the bear patterns so well that he took us exactly where the bear was going.
It was like having box seats in a posh theater. The bear made quite a show, caught fish right below us and sat to eat them individually. I was in awe of the large claws that reached down to pick up the fish. To make fishing look so incredibly easy. It stuck its nose and eyes into the water to look for salmon and suddenly popped one up as if opening the fridge door and getting a snack were so easy.
Provincial Park observation decks
The Provincial Park also offers platforms that are occupied by rangers and protected by electric fences. In fact, they were more of a viewing area than elevated platforms. In addition to the platforms at Tweedsmuir Lodge, we visited some of them. They weren’t quite as comfortable, but they were perfectly adequate. There were more people trying to see and shoot. However, they were free for everyone!
BC Parks promotes the use of the platform to reduce stress for wildlife and ensure human safety.
The platform is open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and will be managed jointly by BC Parks and the Nuxalk Nation from September 1 to 30. The hosts are obliged at all times to inform visitors about the proper viewing procedures and to ensure that people are kept safely within the limits of the electric fence.
Find out more about the Provincial Park wildlife observation platforms
Stay at Tweedsmuir Park Lodge
It’s a beautiful lodge in a breathtaking setting and definitely worth a night or two!
Read Tweedsmuir’s trip advisor reviews
The lodge’s grizzly bear watching tours are recognized by Destination Canada as a signature experience that offers travelers authentic, engaging, and engaging tourist experiences from September through mid-October. Prices start at $ 3,800 / adult and are all inclusive.
2. Self-driving grizzly bear watching
Michael and I drove down the main street in the Bella Coola Valley and came back from lunch to have a little rest before we did more bear watching that afternoon. Suddenly Michael pulled the truck over and pointed to someone’s house. “There … in the tree!” he said.
I saw it – there was a black bear in the crab apple tree right in the front yard of someone’s house! We got out of the car and watched it from a distance. Oddly, there was an electric fence around this tree; The owner tried to protect it – but somehow this sly black bear found a way in and enjoyed a smorgasbord of apples.
Self drive with a local guide
When I talk about self-driving grizzly viewing, I’m not necessarily talking about this kind of crab apple thing, although it obviously happens sometimes that you see one along the main street in a garden.
I’m actually talking about that if you have a four wheel drive vehicle with high ground clearance and a local guide who knows what they’re doing, you can return deeper into the wild on some of the fire trails near the rivers and spot bears on them Wise.
Since Michael and Leonard were locals, I was lucky that they played a pioneering role in this endeavor. The three of us drove on a remote fire road along the river. Leonard led us down the extremely bumpy road to a river bend. There we stopped at some old hunting lodges.
“This is a good place for bears,” said Leonard calmly. Michael stopped the truck and parked it in the park. They both got out of the truck. I thought about it like jumping out of an airplane at 10,000 feet. My brain told me to stay seated, but my momentum was already moving out of the truck.
I followed their example – they were experts in this area – right? I put my hand on my bear spray container on my hip just to make sure it was still there. Leonard, on the other hand, walked around without bear spray and seemed to feel completely comfortable. I think that will mean decades of bear persecution for you!
I was nervous … tried to tell my bear safety tips. It is a really vulnerable feeling to walk in the bear area – next to a river full of salmon in September. I tried to orient myself to Leonard and to stay calm, but it is not easy!
Leonard searched for traces and surveyed the area and the grass like a detective. We found a bunch of bear ice skates and everyone stood around and examined it. He turned and said, “Let’s go a little bit further.” – as if he knew something we didn’t know.
The road got worse as we continued along the river. Suddenly Leonard noticed: “There he is!” And pointed to a thick brush across the river. In the deep brush was a big beautiful boar grizzly looking at us.
For some reason this was one of the most exciting sightings I have had. It was certainly the largest bear I had seen and its color was an ombre from dark chocolate brown to reddish brown. He had a big round head and looked at us curiously, but not really interested.
“This is a healthy looking bear. Look at the coat, it looks really great,” said Leonard with a feeling of relief and pride in his voice.
This is one of the things that was true across the region. Locals are very concerned about the bears and wildlife in the region. You want to see the bears healthy and fishing. While I was talking to locals, the main topic was concern about the salmon run, which seems to be decreasing every year. The general idea was that Bella Coola bears were the end of a long line of parties that were also after the salmon, the fisherman. If you want to watch bears in Bella Coola, it’s not just about bear watching, it’s also about the entire ecosystem.
Unfortunately, it was almost impossible to shoot the big bear through the whole brush – so I just stopped trying and enjoyed watching him stroll along the shore. We followed him for a while until it got too dark, turned and slowly made our way back to the bumpy road. We were even lucky enough to see a young grizzly on the river bank on the way out!
You can Self drive with a Jeep Grand Cheroke if you are skilled enough to do it yourself. But you really need to know where you are going and know your bear safety. Or you can hire Leonard to take you down into the valley for a wildlife & sightseeing tour during the bear season in September / October. More info
3. Viewing grizzly bears by boat
You can also go on an adventure in the wilderness and watch grizzlies in fjords and estuaries. Start at Bella Coola Harbor and walk into the North Bentinck arm and let yourself be surrounded by high granite walls. Here you will find many rivers and their estuaries, where grizzly bears feed on spawning salmon.
Boat tour with the Bella Coola Grizzly Tours Wilderness Resort
One day when I was there I went on a day trip with Leonard’s son Daniel. This is much more than just watching grizzly! We had a seafood feast drenched in hot springs, saw seals, experienced waterfalls, and hiked to the largest cedar tree I’ve ever seen in my life. And take a look at these fjord views!
We didn’t see any bears on our trip, but it was still one of my favorite days in the region and it gave me a wider sense of the culture there.
You may want to check out Leonard’s 3 days, 2 nights marine tour where you step out of the boat to go upriver in search of bears. I didn’t have time for this on this trip, but it would have been spectacular!
Float down the Atnarko River in search of bears
If you really want to focus on grizzly watching on the water, consider a swimmer down the river. Copper Sun Rafting Adventures offers guided river trips that give you the best chance of spotting bears on a 2-hour float with their experienced local guides.
When I got on the raft and put all my camera equipment around me; I was excited. We wanted to go straight to the grizzly bear’s pantry – the Atnarko River. This is exactly the same river in which I watched bears eating salmon a few days earlier from the safety of a platform. But this time I would float down the river looking for bears. I know – that sounds a little crazy, but the idea is that the bears are much more interested in salmon than in rafts.
The raft had no motor – just paddles and an experienced guide. The current slowly led us down the river as our guide steered.
The view of the mountains was beautiful, but we didn’t see any bears. After a while I knew we were nearing the end of our swimmer and I felt defeated. However, when we rounded one of the last corners, he was … a young grizzly in the water.
Our guide braked and tried to position us safely on the opposite bank.
It’s a completely different perspective than standing on a platform above them or being protected in a car. We were exactly at their level.
We watched the grizzly catch a big salmon and take it back into the tall grass to devour it. He would pause for a moment and look at us. These times when they close your eyes always make me tremble. And even more so in our oddly precarious position on the raft. We were anchored as a bear on the opposite bank – so it still felt good.
It ended the salmon snack and came back into view and into the water. He knew we were there and went back upstream to look for the next course. Then Hank, our rafting guide, started paddling us backwards up the river! At first I was surprised that he could do it at all, but let’s face it, I got greedy … I wanted to see bears all the time now.
We were able to take some great shots and perspectives on the bear and its fishing technique and felt closer to the river than ever before.
I was still excited every time I saw one – but the amount of footage I shot was definitely less than the first. Much like you take a million pictures of your first child every moment, fill out the baby book and keep every keepsake, but you’re not so crazy about holding this camera in your hands with the last child.
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