Central Coast

Spectacular by Nature

Four local takes on what makes BC’s Central Coast so unforgettable.

by John Lee

Working their way along the shoreline in search of herring eggs to eat, these sea wolves are among the diverse and captivating fauna that thrive in the Great Bear Rainforest on BC’s Central Coast. Photo courtesy Ian Mcallister/National Geographic Creative.

Fjord-streaked shorelines and dense woodlands teeming with wildlife fringe the sawtooth crags of British Columbia’s Central Coast region. Gateway to the rugged Great Bear Rainforest, this region is so idyllic that it’s easy to believe Mother Nature is the only resident here. But from Bella Bella to Bella Coola and beyond, independent-minded locals also call this area home. And they enjoy welcoming curious visitors to a remote yet accessible backcountry swath that has long been regarded as one of Canada’s must-see wilderness wonderlands.

Here, four Central Coasters share their insights on what makes their part of the world such a magical place.

Black bears searching for salmon in the Great Bear Rainforest. Photo by Ian McAllister.

Tahirih Goffic: Natural Inspiration

Tahirih Goffic. Photo by Karie-Anne LeGoffic.

When artist Tahirih Goffic vacationed with her parents in the Bella Coola Valley as a child, she found her imagination fully engaged. “I remember playing in the creeks and roaming the forests,” she says. “The mountains and cascading waterfalls made it really easy to believe that trolls, fairies and sasquatch were living here. I vowed that when I grew up, I would live here as well.”

Since 1995, that childhood pledge has been a reality for the painter, who was born in Quesnel. And the area she fell for all those years ago is now a muse for many of her canvases, mostly works in oil plus occasional forays into acrylic and watercolour. “I’m known for my realistic wildlife scenes, but I also love painting people pictures — especially children, musicians and the elderly.”

Goffic’s region-focused paintings have ranged from dramatic depictions of bears, salmon and bald eagles to forest-framed old churches. The area, it seems, has absorbed itself into her work. “Living here has provided me a place with little of the distractions of the modern world, helping me to focus and be more productive,” she says.

That level of focus also inspired Goffic to create Dragonfly Studio Gallery next to her Hagensborg home, about 16 kilometres from the Bella Coola townsite. “It’s a short commute for me,” she jokes, adding that the gallery sells arts and crafts created by herself and other locals.

The gallery’s artists come from a widely diverse creative community. “There are lots of artists and musicians here,” Goffic says. She recommends that visitors to the area check out Bella Coola’s summertime Sunday farmers’ market (which also showcases local art) as well as Petroglyph Gallery and Copper Sun Gallery. And July’s annual Bella Coola Music Festival, she adds, is the perfect way to hang with the locals and enjoy some toe-tapping fun.

But the region’s finest artistic inspiration will always be the great outdoors. “It’s picture-perfect here,” Goffic says. “Where else can you look across an apple orchard at a huge mountain streaked with waterfalls, while bald eagles circle overhead and a grizzly walks by?”

It’s this profound natural connection that Goffic says makes the valley truly special. “I’m fascinated by the minutiae of nature: the moss, the ferns, the little mushrooms, the smell in the rainforest. It expands my imagination and puts me in a peaceful place to create,” she says.

Kyle Artelle: Wildlife Advocate

Kyle Artelle. Photo by Alena Ebeling-Schuld.

When Ontario-born biologist Kyle Artelle began visiting Bella Bella to investigate regional bear populations in 2010, he fell head-over-heels for the area’s natural beauty. “After each field season, I would always try to put off going back to Victoria. Then, in 2014, I finally made the move here,” he says.

Now combining his University of Victoria postdoctoral fellowship with a Raincoast Conservation Foundation biologist position, Artelle is engaged in a multi-year research project alongside five regional First Nations and a clutch of universities around the world. The area’s ursine residents are the project’s main focus.

“We’re non-invasively monitoring the black and grizzly bear populations,” says Artelle. “And we’re asking a host of questions: how salmon numbers might affect the bears; how different populations are connected; and how populations are shifting over time. This research helps us to have our fingers on the pulse of these populations and to advance bear conservation.”

Amid the natural grandeur of Walker Island Park. Photo by Alamy.

So what does Artelle love about this particular region? “It’s largely a place where bears can still be bears,” he says. “They’re feeding from the same streams they’ve fed from for thousands of years and they can still travel along the same routes. Studying this area allows us to glean insights on what a healthy bear ecosystem looks like.”

It’s also a region where people know how to live alongside their wild neighbours, including the bears, as well as deer, sea otters and coastal grey wolves. “There’s an incredible wealth of local wisdom and knowledge here, and I’ve had great mentorship and teaching from my colleagues and collaborators from the Heiltsuk and neighbouring Nations,” says Artelle. “I have learned that the key to co-existence is in realizing it’s often not the bears that need ‘managing,’ but our interactions with them — and that’s a wonderful example for folks living with wildlife elsewhere.”

Despite this local knowledge, there’s still plenty of groundwork to be done.The project’s study area covers more than 22,000 square kilometres and the team has to visit hundreds of monitoring stations, often by boat or helicopter. “We collect tiny hair tufts to identify individual bears and infer their movements. This helps us estimate population sizes.”

The work is exhaustive, but it hasn’t diminished Artelle’s sense of wonder about local wildlife. “A while back, I was shooting photos of a bear walking on the shoreline from a respectful distance,” he says. “Looking over the pictures later, I found there’d actually been two bears: another had popped out from the forest, photobombed the first, then receded back into the trees. I guess even bears enjoy a good photobomb!”

First-time visitors are often hungry for animal encounters like this. But rather than heading out alone, Artelle suggests booking local tours or guides. “The Qqs Projects Society can connect you with Heiltsuk charters,” he says. Or try Kynoch Adventure Tours (kynochadventuretours.com).

Vacationing in the Central Coast isn’t just about spotting unfettered wildlife, though. “Visitors sometimes get the impression this is a wilderness area devoid of people,” says Artelle. “But this is far from the truth. It’s an area where wildlife has co-existed with humans for millennia, and I hope visitors take the opportunity to learn a little about the rich local culture when they visit.”

Chris Nelson: Nuxalk Storyteller

Chris Nelson. Photo courtesy Copper Sun Journeys, Dano Pendygrasse.

Cultural tour guide Chris Nelson launched his company, Copper Sun Journeys, in Bella Coola in 2015. “Originally, we were just going to run walking tours,” Nelson says. “But then a last-minute decision was made to open the Copper Sun Gallery as well.”

Nelson, whose Nuxalk First Nation name — Xawisus — means copper or metallic sky, says that the tours he operates out of his gallery are an ideal introductory activity for visitors.

“My ancestors passed down their knowledge over thousands of years here, and visitors will see that we’re still living that knowledge today.” — Chris Nelson

Well-known in the community (alongside identical twin brother, Lance), Nelson has been familiarizing out-of-towners with Nuxalk culture for more than 15 years. “It’s an opportunity for us to show the world we haven’t forgotten our traditional ways and that we can tell our story with our own voice. We show guests the sights, but we also want them to leave understanding some of our culture and history,” he says.

Copper Sun’s Walk of the Totems Tour weaves around a host of intricately carved local landmarks in Bella Coola, ending with a visit to master carver Alvin Mack. “We also stop at the Chief’s house, telling the story of his Chieftainship,” says Nelson. “And we visit our Band school, where there are totems carved by students and staff.”

The forest tour to the Thorsen Creek petroglyphs delves even deeper, he adds, exploring the often-tumultuous story of the Nuxalk people, from creation to the arrival of smallpox, and from the potlatch ban to the present day. “It’s very important to talk about this history. But while the sacred rock petroglyphs remind us why we’re here on this earth, I also like to tell people the earth is always changing and always will.”

Nelson has witnessed many changes to what was once a thriving fishing and logging community. But he says visitor initiatives like his tours — plus Copper Sun’s new river-rafting excursions — provide valuable local employment. And the gallery enables area artists to gain fair prices for their paintings, carvings and jewellery. Many of the works it displays feature a distinctive vibrant blue hue — a Nuxalk hallmark.

Understanding this culture, says Nelson, adds context to Bella Coola visits. But the secret to a great stay, he believes, is to get to know the people who call the area home.

“There aren’t many places where you can drive down the highway and notice everyone waving at you,” he says. “My ancestors passed down their knowledge over thousands of years here, and visitors will see that we’re still living that knowledge today.”

Rene Morton: Grassroots Historian

Rene Morton.

When Cliff Kopas opened his photo and gift store in 1930s Bella Coola, he aimed to make it a community hub. Fast-forward eight decades and Kopas Store — now owned by Kopas’ daughter, Rene Morton, and her husband — remains a beloved cornerstone of local life.

“We still sell copies of my father’s old black-and-white photo postcards to collectors,” says Morton, adding that the store’s product mix has evolved over the years to include everything from household giftware to local art. “Guests are always pleased that our staff are all long-time residents happy to help with their inquiries.”

The only daughter among four brothers, Morton started behind the counter at Kopas Store when she was just 13. But her affinity with the region goes far beyond retail. “Like my father, I was always really interested in hearing stories about the locals,” she says, mentioning that her dad wrote two books on the area, including Packhorses to the Pacific: A Wilderness Honeymoon, a colourful account of his 1933 journey to Bella Coola from Alberta.

“It’s refreshing and exhilarating to live this close to nature.” — Rene Morton

Indeed, local history is an ongoing passion for Morton. “There are so many interesting stories here,” she says, pointing to a set of 13,000-year-old fossilized footprints discovered in the Calvert Island area in 2014 as an example.

The Thorsen Creek petroglyphs. Photo courtesy Copper Sun Journeys, Dano Pendygrasse.

Visitors, she adds, often share her interest in the area’s past. And while she sends many out-of-towners to popular spots including Clayton Falls and Walker Island Park, she usually points history fans to the “must-see” Thorsen Creek petroglyphs — dozens of swirling rock carvings etched into the rocks by some of the region’s earliest locals.

“Research dates them to approximately 10,000 years ago,” she says. “The artists are unknown, but I recommend seeking a Nuxalk guide to escort you to the site.”

It’s not Morton’s only visitor tip: “You’ll find a tourist information centre in town on Mackenzie Street. And nearby is the Bella Coola Valley Museum.” Housed in an 1892 heritage building and open from June to September, the museum’s exhibits include photos of the region’s pioneer days.

Wherever visitors choose to go, Morton is confident that most people who come here will fall in love with the place. “This area is special mostly because of the pace we keep,” she says. “And while it’s refreshing and exhilarating to live this close to nature, there’s also a real sense of independence. It’s comfortable and secure here, but it also feels very free.”