There are places that I will anticipate returning to almost as soon as I have left them. Areas that call to me no matter how many kilometres I have travelled, backroads I have explored, and forests I have wandered. There are places I salivate at with an unquenchable thirst for being in. The Chilcotin is one of those places.
This would be the fourth time I would return, the first in three years. The previous two years, the areas west of Williams Lake have endured intense wildfires the likes which had not been seen in decades, if ever. I was anxious about how things would be, worried there might not be anything left of the beautiful places I remembered.
Bella Coola is a 467 km drive west of Williams Lake. The “highway” is a narrow, winding, 2 lane sometimes unpaved road. It begins snaking its way through the canyons of the Cariboo plateau, some of the most extensive tracts of sagebrush grasslands left in British Columbia, after a few hours the elevation changes and the grasslands are succeeded by lodgepole pine, most of which have either fallen victim to pine beetle or destroyed by fires. Tragically due to logging/pine beetle and wildfires we are unlikely to ever see this area return to normal in our lifetimes.
Expansive mountains will eventually appear on the horizon and travelling the myriad of rough gravel roads can yield amazing results. Chilko and Tatlyoko lakes are some of the most gorgeous pristine lakes in the Province. This was to be my last big road trip of the summer, I felt like I needed to try something different. I decided I was going to create the ultimate loop, and from Bella Coola, I would take the ferry across to Port Hardy and drive down Vancouver Island and return to Vancouver via Nanaimo.
I left early and made it to Williams Lake by 4pm. In Williams Lake, I wisely decided to grab some bear spray from the outdoors store, and groceries from the only actual grocery store until Bella Coola. I was hoping to make it to Chilko Lake with some time to spare for sunset photography. 2 hours I was leaving the highway and beginning my way to the Nehemiah valley, a long drive down a dusty gravel road. Half an hour later, to my great dismay, the road was closed, there was a detour, but it looked too rough for a rental car, this was to put it lightly a cosmic letdown. I had allocated 2 days to Chilko lake, so I didn't really know what I was going to do, I made my way back to highway 16 and decided I should camp at Bull Canyon provincial park for the night.
Bull Canyon is a small provincial park along the Chilcotin River. It’s been a victim of fires but not the recent ones. New growth is evident, especially advertised by a variety of songbirds in the campground. Least flycatchers, Western Tanagers, Northern Waterthrush, and my personal favourite, the Veery, were all bursting into song as I walked the short trail along the river. It was a rough start to the trip, but I at least got one nice shot of the evening.
The next morning was absolutely dreadful, it had started pouring overnight and not let up a bit. I attempted a bit of photography but didn't feel like sacrificing my camera to the gods of rain. Instead, I packed up and went to find coffee in one of the tiny towns along the highway. After finding coffee, and then more coffee, and then breakfast, I was already at Nimpo Lake. This is why it’s always good to have a backup plan. I was supposed to be at Chilko Lake for 2 days, and now I was nearly 2/3rds of the way to Bella Coola.
I ended up checking out some places I had on my list at Anahim Lake; after an hour down a dirt road, I started to have second thoughts as the route was becoming a thick syrup of mud and rock. I didn't want to become stuck, so I turned around and decided I would just go to Bella Coola and hope there would be better weather.
Between Anahim Lake and Bella Coola, highway 16 goes through Tweedsmuir Provincial Parks, one of Canada's oldest and largest parks. Encompassing not only the largest waterfall in British Columbia but also some of the most critical habitats for wild animals left. It wasn't too soon after leaving Anahim Lake that I came across a black bear going to town on the dandelion roots that lined the highway. His fur was covered in the tiny seed parachutes of the flowers that would explode with each bite.
I kept on and not much further I had a real shock, Grizzly Bear!
I watched the grizzly bear foraging on the lush vegetation around the road, the rain was pouring, mosquitos wafting in my open window, biting any exposed skin they could find. These animal photos are from a Panasonic FZ1000. Because I don’t have a telephoto lens for Sony A7R2, so I used a temporary stop-gap solution. I would recommend the camera to anyone who wants the reach of a telephoto lens but not the funds to purchase that lens or a Sony RX camera. The trade-offs are huge. Nevertheless, I knew that having a photo of these animals as opposed to not was worth the lack of image quality or frustrations with autofocus etc.
When I reached the entrance of Tweedsmuir, there were hints of blue sky behind the expanse of clouds. It would only last maybe half an hour, but I made the most of it. Lush lupine was growing out from the scarred earth, entire forests were filled with the ghosts of trees. I tried to juxtapose the lupines with the dead trees while being swarmed by the awful Chilcotin mosquitos; they really put our Vancouver mosquitos to shame in both ferocity and size.
Rays of light were bursting through the clouds and adding drama to the rainbow range, my Panasonic was able to compress this image which I actually thought was pretty good.
After the rain returned, it was time to make my way down "The Hill" This is one of the scariest passes I've driven down. The road is gravel with massive switchbacks, and nothing protecting you from going off a cliff. It's almost unfathomable to think that semi-trucks make this route regularly. Also, the rains had resulted in rock slides; giant rocks were strewn all about the road. I made it down without too much hassle; at the bottom, I got out to explore this roaring river cutting through reddish-brown rocks. The heavy rains had engorged the waters, and a mist drifted through the surrounding spruce trees creating a claustrophobic feeling.
Continuing towards Bella Coola, the geography drastically changes, towering Cedar and Douglas fir is now the norm. Jagged coastal peaks surround the highway as it follows the Bella Coola River to the ocean. The rain continued making photography near impossible, I ended up setting up camp at a private campground along the river, my tent looking out over the river heavy with rainwater, making for a beautiful sunset view.
The rain continued throughout the night and into the morning, my Walmart tent was on the verge of collapse, I ended up throwing it in the garbage the next morning, after deciding to sleep in my car, even with a tarp the soft sand underneath flooded. It served me well over the summer, so I wasn't too upset.
I spent the day checking out the many parks and trails around the town. I didn't do much photography because of the rain, but it was nice to be out. The clouds began to show some signs of breaking, so I decided to drive back towards Tweedsmuir to get some shots of the mountains along the river.
I passed this well-known old cabin just past the small town of Hagensborg; luckily enough, the sun was peeking through, shining a band of light across the mountain backdrop.
Carrying on, I stopped at a pull out along the river; daisies were poking out of the rocks, making for the great foreground. I tried focus stacking, to various effect. The sunset didn't turn out too exciting, the sun again got blocked out by the seemingly endless clouds.
The next day was rainy, and sunrise did not yield good results, but as the sun came out in the late morning, I ended up spotting a family of foxes sunning themselves.
It looked like they kits were living in a roadside culvert, I had already driven by this spot many times in the last few days, but with the rain, they probably had no desire to poke their heads up. That was a different story now as they were all chilling out in the sun. As I hunkered down to take photos, one of the kits was inquisitive enough that it decided to saunter right up to me to get a closer look.
I decided to leave shortly after as I didn't want to disturb them anymore, they were getting quite close, and the mother appeared on the other side of the road, seemingly unimpressed with my presence.
It wasn't too much longer down the road that I came upon another one, this guy was out also soaking up the sun.
These aren't the first times I have come upon foxes in the area, each year they are easily found, please make sure to find an adequate pull out on the narrow roads, leaving plenty of room for passing vehicles and the foxes.
It looked like I would finally get an enjoyable evening of photography for the first time on the trip. Things were clearing up rapidly, it would be my last evening on the mainland, as my ferry as booked for 6am the next day. I chose the estuary along Bella Coola and clayton falls that run beside it.
Starting in the early evening I began along the falls, the lighting was lovely, and I spent a few hours trying compositions, the falls themselves are impressive but not exactly photogenic, the creek below the falls is the most beautiful spot for photos. The river goes through some lovely aspen trees, and everything is exceptionally green. I even found a beautiful mushroom.
I ambled over to the estuary as the sun was setting, the tall grass and old stumps made for exciting subjects with the ocean and mountains behind them. The sky turned a lovely purple for a few minutes before the colours faded, and it grew dark.
Before leaving, I got one more shot of the creek, focus stacking the aspen branch first, and then the river behind it. Because of the wind and long exposure there is a lot of movement in the trees, but I think it lends something to the picture? Maybe?
Although the weather was definitely not co-operative, and I didn't get to visit all the spots I planned, I still made the best of it. The grizzly bears and foxes definitely made things better. Tomorrow would be another adventure, one I had not experienced before. My next post will detail Bella Coola to Port Hardy via the discovery passage ferry.