In late September 2009, we drove to Bella Coola, west-central British Columbia with the hope of seeing grizzly bears.
After the long drive from Calgary to Williams Lake, British Columbia, we continued west for another 365 km across the Chilcotin Plateau to the top of Heckman Pass (elevation 1524m) in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. Here, the road abruptly changed to gravel. For the next 70 km, the road plunged and twisted down the mountain-side with grades up to 18% and precipitous drop-offs with no guard rails. Locals refer to this portion of the road as “The Hill”. It was completed by local residents in 1953 after the provincial government decided that a road to the coast was not feasible.
We safely negotiated ‘The Hill’, then stopped briefly at Hagensborg and Bella Coola. Here, we learned that grizzly bears were feeding along the Atnarko River in Tweedsmuir Park.
We parked our pop-up camper amongst several large camper-trucks, RV’s and trailers at the Fisheries Pool Campground. From there, it was only a short walk to the Atnarko River where grizzly bears wandered periodically along the edges of the river in search of salmon. The main targets were the old putrefied Sockeye, and fresh Chinook salmon. They were eating in preparation for winter hibernation.
One sow with two almost full-grown cubs (yearlings) appeared along the river banks when the males were absent. The bears stayed primarily on the other side of the river. This gave us the width of the river as our safety margin. Occasionally, they would wade or plunge into the river to go after larger salmon. When this happened, we backed away from the river’s edge to give them space, and to keep a safe distance away.
We had to be on alert all of the time, watching for bears up and downstream, and behind us. At one point, we lost sight of one cub when it swam around a bend in the river upstream. When the sow swam towards our side of the river, we quickly backed away from the edge into the woods. As we did, we wondered what had become of the cub that had disappeared up river. This was timely because that cub was now heading down our side of the river towards us. It was time retreat well away from the river.
The bears were clearly aware of our presence, and did not seem to be bothered by us being there, as long as we gave them space and did not interfere with their activity.
As we drove through the day before, we noted yellow tape and closure signs along portions of the Atnarko River. During the week before, large numbers of photographers and other people converged on the area to view the bears. Some of these people apparently crowded the bears to get ‘the shot’. The closure of some of the viewing spots along the river was the result, although everyone did not agree with the action or the reasons.
We were quite happy to be there the week after when things were quieter. Most visitors respected the bears and gave them space. Unfortunately, there were exceptions:- One photographer clearly pushed and crowded the bears
- Several fishermen yelled and threw stones at bears that were in sections of the river
where they wanted to fish
- Several tourists came to the river’s edge with unleashed barking dogs, flash cameras
going off, and with wandering unattended kids
Each of these situations was a recipe for an unhappy confrontation with a bear. Fortunately, the bears tolerated both the good and bad behavior this time.
Can grizzlies, photographers, fishermen and tourists mix? From our perspective, the answer is yes, if there is respect for each other.
Most visitors had an opinion about who was causing the problem for the bears, and it generally wasn’t them. To us, it seemed that everyone has to accept responsibility for their actions.
To save us from ourselves, Tweedsmuir Provincial Park has since imposed new viewing restrictions, and has constructed a viewing stand adjacent to the Belarko boat launch, just inside the western boundary to the park.
If you go, consider the following:- Join a tour group to view bears
- Follow the recommended viewing distances
- Don't feed, crowd or harass the bears in any way
- Don’t get between a sow and her cubs, or another adult grizzly
- Be alert for other bears in your vicinity, e.g., behind you
- Don’t antagonize a bear by making loud noises or using a flash
- Don’t look directly into the bear’s eyes
- Leave pets in your vehicle
- Keep your kids close and under control
- Carry pepper spray and bear bangers
- Have an escape route and plan