IT WAS SURREAL: one minute I was soaking up the views from a high, snow-peppered mountain ridge in British Columbia, overlooking the Bella Coola valley, the next I was inside a helicopter sliding backwards off a snowy cliff edge, around 1500m above the ground. Yeah, maybe “surreal” is the wrong word; plain “scared” is probably the most apt description as pilot Richard LaPoint guided the chopper backwards and off the edge of the cliff, dropping into thin air. Even over the roar of the chopper blades, I reckon I could still hear the collective intake of breath from my fellow passengers…
Going to the other side
When people think of British Columbia, their thoughts invariably turn to the lush coastline and craggy mountain ranges just north of Vancouver. However, continue further north, say, about a third of the way up the BC coast, and you arrive in a region that, on the map, just looks nice and quiet, but is truly wild and remote: the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast. Stretching from the township of Bella Coola, at the confluence of the Bella Coola River and Burke Channel in the west, up and across the Coast Mountains to the plateau of the Chilcotin and, further east, Cariboo, this region is crisscrossed with big rivers, dotted with bigger lakes and bordered by high mountains – oh, and a ton of potential adventures.
And the adventure started as soon as we (myself and a group of fellow journos) landed at Anahim Lake, up on the Chilcotin Plateau, for our introduction to both the region, and our gregarious host, Geoff Moore. Geoff has lived in the region most of his life and his passion for the place became evident from the get-go as he ushered us, firstly, onto our bus, and then off said bus and onto a floatplane. Not just any floatplane, mind you; I was lucky enough to score a seat in Tweedsmuir Air’s sweet de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver – the ubiquitous bush plane in this part of the world and one that has provided decades of safe, reliable transport for many an expedition into Canada’s wilderness. Scrambling up into one of these always signals an adventure is in the offing, and that was again true on this afternoon.
Our destination was the remote Turner Lakes, a chain of lakes nestled in the mountainous Rainbow Range’s southern section. The Turner Lakes are a prime canoe-travel destination; it is possible to spend a few days paddling from one lake to the next, with the portages between each lake quite small, and there are well-maintained campgrounds at each one. Turner Lakes is also the location of Canada’s third-highest waterfall – Hunlen Falls – that is easily reached via a short hike from the lakes’ main campground. It was Hunlen Falls that was our primary destination once we’d all disembarked at Turner Lake, where guide George Probek met us. George’s knowledge of this location was amazing and kept us well entertained during the short walk (around 30 minutes) to what would have to be the most exposed lookout I have ever seen.
Coming from a country where anything remotely dangerous means plenty of fences and warning signs (if any access is allowed at all), standing close to a 1500m drop-off, with nary a barrier in sight, was a unique experience. Our viewpoint was on the far side from the falls, with the cliff walls dropping near vertically into the valley below us, where the flow from Hunlen Falls joins a tributary of the Bella Coola River.
As our visit to this spectacularly rugged landscape was brief, I mentally tagged Turner Lakes for a return trip; the canoe adventure alone would be brilliant, and there is also a hiking trail you can use to walk in from civilisation. Combining a long hike with a few days paddling, and then returning to town via a Beaver flight, would be a memorable adventure… although this was topped – in a different way – by our night’s accommodation in The Dean on Nimpo, a pristine lodge run by the Irwin family that sits right at Nimpo Lake. Yep, it was the dream finish to an epic day.
Lodging no complaints
It is called The Freedom Road. Highway 20 links the high plateau of the Chilcotin with the central coast and Bella Coola and drops you down around 1350m to the Bella Coola Valley Floor. The name derives from the history of the road’s construction, mostly in the early 1950s. The provincial government of the time terminated the original highway at Anahim Lake, 137km from Bella Coola and the central coast. Reasons given were many, with the main one being the sheer ruggedness of the mountains the road would have to be forged through. This failed to deter local volunteers, however, who proceeded to dig, bulldoze and form the road, working from both ends until it was completed. The drive itself is awesome; winding down the very steep mountains you travel close to the edge in places and the vistas out across the valley keep your mind off the drops.
Tweedsmuir Park Lodge is a member of the exclusive ‘Magnificent 7’, a select group of wilderness lodges in Canada, and it is easy to see how it has attained its lofty rating: the lodge (built in 1929) and its 60 acres (25ha) is located right on the beautiful Atnarko River. Originally built as a hunting and fishing lodge, today’s lucky guests can indulge in fly fishing, float down the river in a cool dory boat, explore the surrounding provincial park on foot or bike, opt for some heli-hiking and, of course, go bear spotting. Tim, the manager (and an Aussie to boot), explained that in the middle of bear season, guests often spot bears right out the front of their cabins and the lodge itself. It is indeed a spectacular location, with the river running beside the lodge and the majestic Coast Mountains looming in the distance – I wondered to myself, as I sat on my cabin’s verandah, why you would even move from this spot. All you’d need is this knockout view, a steady supply of food, the odd beer and your imagination to transport you to a genuine outdoor dreamland.
We were based here for two days; not nearly enough, but still sufficient for a cracking experience as we tackled a few day hikes, and had the chance to undertake a river-drift journey down the Atnarko. Tweedsmuir guide, Les Korolock, an incredibly fit 72-year-old, steered our dory with aplomb downriver while regaling us with some cool yarns about the many close encounters he’s had over the years on the river. The funniest of these was his recollection of a young female bear charging the boats from the riverbank, over and over, for no apparent reason. The closest he has come to a bear on the river was when he drifted the dory past a fallen tree that stretched over half the river’s width. The bear was perched right at the end, virtually directly above the dory. Les reckoned it was the quietest that group of guests was the whole time they stayed at the lodge. I couldn’t wonder why…
Strength of culture
With any media-based trip, you are never sure what you will get when it comes to itinerary highlights, so it was a most welcome surprise to meet and spend a few hours with Chris and Bryan, representatives of the Nuxalk First Nations. These two were incredibly passionate about their culture and led us on a walk along a trail beside the pretty Thorsen Creek, steadily upward to an amazing sight: a huge collection of 5000-year-old petroglyphs, covering a vast area of rock looking over the raging river below. It’s often viewed as a cliché, but being there as Chris and Bryan recounted the many stories associated with the engravings, surrounded by an ancient forest, really stirred emotions in those present. Chris finished off with a Nuxalk song (accompanied by drum) and we then returned, enriched by the experience.
We then met Alvin Mack, a renowned Nuxalk artist who specialises in carvings. Alvin’s studio/house is packed with amazing examples of his intricate work, all of which have their own story, but tantalisingly out of reach for me on my journo’s salary. Still, I tucked his works away in my mind’s wishlist; maybe one day I would be lucky enough to return to buy a piece. It would be worth the trip alone – Alvin’s work is that impressive.
A high point
All through our time in the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast region, the Coast Mountains had loomed strong in the background. Finally, though, we got the chance to become far more familiar with a part of this impressive range, via Richard LaPoint and his helicopter, who was our airborne taxi to the start of the 4 Mile Ridge heli-hike. On the way up, Richard did a circuit of the Bella Coola Valley, where we scored a sweet close-up view of the Coast Mountains before he deftly landed the chopper at the start of our hike.
The ridge is covered in huge rocks, hardy plants and ice-cold tarns. The hike, led by guide Doug Baker (who had also led us through a forest wonderland earlier in the trip) was brilliant, and followed a rough path along the spine of the ridge, with immense mountains off to both sides of us. It was a brilliant way to spend half a day, with the epic scenery only outdone by that memorable helicopter departure at the end.
A fine finish
I felt insanely privileged as I soaked myself in the warm waters of the lower pool at Talheo Hot Springs, sipping a cold beer as I looked over the decidedly colder waters of South Bentinck Arm, with the MV Nekhani moored just below us. Skipper (and Bella Coola Grizzly Tours owner) Leonard Ellis completed the perfect picture; the smell of freshly caught salmon being cooked by Leonard on the ship’s barbecue was wafting up to us in the hot pool. At that point, I doubted there was anything more the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast could have done to impress me, but there was still more to come…
Salmon fishing was (and still is) huge business along the BC coast, and our final accommodation – Talheo Cannery Guest House – was the ultimate reminder of just how big this industry had been earlier in the 20th century. Talheo Cannery itself was a small town in its own right in its heyday, with a population of around 300 workers and plenty of permanent residential buildings, as well as a general store, spread over its 160 acres (65ha). Now, the guesthouse comprises a few old buildings, while the cannery is well past its 1910-1947 working life. What is left, though, is a brilliant time capsule and something that current owners, Garrett Newkirk and his wife Skye, are more than happy to show guests around. The cannery itself has been left much as it was, with a number of nets, all in different shades of green and blue, to reflect the different coloured water found at the various fishing locations throughout the waterways here. The nets also have various sized gill net holes, dependent on the type of salmon being fished for. Garrett recounted how the cannery worked – and just how busy it was in the boom times – as I tried to get my head around how this now-skeletal structure was a non-stop working concern.
Staying in one of the guesthouses here was a totally different finish to what I have experienced on previous BC adventures, but it seemed totally apt. The only sounds were the occasional creak of floorboards, a cry from a gull and the whisper of the wind as it funnelled across North Bentinck Arm from Bella Coola to the cannery. It was comforting and a great excuse to run through the incredible variety of experiences we’d had over our busy – and eye opening – five days. From multiday canoe journeys, remote hikes and mountain air tours, to bear watching and unique cultural experiences, the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast proved that when it comes to seeking adventure-laden destinations, that old adage “it’s the quiet ones you have to pay the most attention to” rings true.
Getting there: Air Canada flies direct from Sydney to Vancouver daily.
From Vancouver, Pacific Coastal Airlines flies to Bella Coola and Anahim Lake. See www.pacificcoastal.com.
More info: Cariboo Chilcotin Coast is a huge area, but thankfully its website is packed with handy information on the region’s activities, adventure outfitters, accommodation, cultural history and plenty more. See www.landwithoutlimits.com.
AG Outdoor was a guest of Destination BC and the Canadian Tourism Commission.
This article originally appeared in the Jan-Feb 2016 issue of Australian Geographic Outdoor magazine.