300 miles north of Vancouver lies the Great Bear Rainforest. It’s a huge, rugged, chunk of land with ample diversity of scenery, and the best part is that it is very, very sparsely populated. Think Yellowstone minus the tourists. In a nutshell, you want to go to there.
I had a series of places I needed to be that were on three of the far corners of the U.S. (and beyond), and there was just no way I was going to be able to drive it, so I had to say good bye to my beloved van for a bit. I parked Ashley (The Beast) at a cheap, long-term lot near the Portland Airport. I packed a suitcase and a packpack, locked the doors, and hopped a quick flight to Vancouver.
I had been invited on this trip by Cascade Designs, the company that make MSR and Therm-a-rest backpacking and camping gear. Press trips are strange animals. A company brings a group of reporters out to test or experience some product or products they make. Hopefully the product is actually something worth writing about. Sometimes it isn’t, and that’s when you have to have an awkward conversation. Different journalists and different outlets have wildly different philosophies about these trips. Some flat-out refuse all of them because of the obvious hazard of conflict of interest. I can only tell you my approach.
First, I don’t say yes to very many of them. I only go if I legitimately think I can get a story out of it. Second, I make it very clear that bringing me on the trip does not guarantee coverage. And if I do cover it, I may not say very nice things about it (ask Sony and GoPro). One company, who shall remain nameless, brought me to Austin to show off its new product. They wined us and dined us for five days, but their product sucked. It sucked very much, and it wasn’t something Giz readers naturally cared enough about to even warrant a mean write-up. I told the company that, and the company was sad, but they said thanks for the feedback and that’s the end of it.
Press trips are also weird because you are thrown in with a group of strangers and you never know what you’re going to get. Journalists are competitive animals, and there can be a lot of jockeying, or they may not take themselves so seriously. PR people can be incredibly awkward and pushy, or they can laid back and let you figure out whether or not you like the thing you’re there to see. The trip itself can be smooth, fun, and well-organised, or it can be boring, sloppy, and stressful. And there’s almost always a lot of drinking.
Anyway. The group convened at the tiny south terminal of the Vancouver airport, and next thing we knew we were in a very, very small plane, zigging and zagging through rough, snow-capped glaciers. I really mean through them. You would look up and see peaks towering above the plane. It was intimidating to say the least. The plane touched down in the small town of Bella Coola, population >2,000. There we met our guides for the week Geoff Moore of Cariboo Chilcotin Coast Tourism Association and Leonard Ellis of BC Grizzly Tours. We were taken to a large, open field behind Leonard’s house, and that would be our basecamp for the week.
MSR tents were already pitched and Therm-a-rest bags, pillows, and pads were already inflated and laid out. Personally, I’m not the car-camping type, but I will say that the basecamp line (DreamTime pad, Dorado HD sleeping bag) were incredibly comfy. They were thick, plush, warm, and it was easily the best sleep I’ve had in a tent, it’s just not a style of camping that I’m drawn to.
[Meet the press]
That first afternoon the group decided to hike up a trial (and I use the term loosely) in search of a waterfall. It was basically straight up, through thick trees and dense underbrush. We kept losing the trail and had to bushwack through some nasty brambles, but we were rewarded at the end with a pretty stellar view.
It also seemed like the group was going to get along just fine, which was a huge relief.
Day One: Salmon, Bear, and Eagle on the River
On day two we set out in some small rafts down the Bella Coola and Atnarko rivers. This was right in the middle of the annual salmon run, and holy carp I’ve never seen so many salmon in my life. Below is a quick shot from an overpass, and you can see just how saturated with salmon these rivers are.
I’m talking about chinook, coho, pink, and sockeye. Many were very old and dying, with their skin turning pale, mottled, and ragged. This is the last thing these fish will do before they die, and the trek back home really takes it out of them. It’s more than 70 miles from the Pacific Ocean, and that’s a long way to swim upstream.
The return of the fish meant something else: Bears. Of the black and grizzly variety. Or so it was assumed. Our river guides Frazier Koroluk and Holly Willgress said that they almost never made it down the river without seeing at least a couple bears this time of year. The bear are in binge mode to store up fat for the coming winter.
Unfortunately, luck wasn’t on our side this time. Maybe the group of journalists were just too noisy. We saw plenty of evidence of bear, but the furry buggers didn’t make an appearance this day or any other.
The MSR Guardian
When we stopped for lunch we got our first look at the MSR Guardian, which will be released in early 2016, and I was completely blown away by this thing. It’s a pump-action water filter, like many others, but the Guardian separates itself in this one very key way: It can filter out viruses. Yep. And yes, it’s the first backpacking water filter that can do it. This is obviously incredibly important in countries where rivers and streams are more likely to be polluted with human faeces, but unfortunately, even some U.S. waterways pack a viral gut-punch these days.
Amazingly, the Guardian maintains a very fast flow rate, clocking in at 1.5 litres per minute, and the large pump handle means your arm doesn’t get very tired while doing it. Also, you see that double hose there? 10 per cent of the filtered water you’re pumping gets pumped back into the filter to flush it out as you pump, so you don’t have to back-flush it manually. It’s a genius design. The dirty water intake is a fine-pored mesh screen that not only keeps debris out of the filter media but once it’s wet it utilises surface tension so it doesn’t have to be completely submerged in order to keep pumping. Useful in very shallow situations.
The clean water output is at the bottom of the pump and it’s threaded to accommodate a standard Nalgene, an MSR Dromedary, or a standard wide-mouth bottle (or you can attach a rubber hose to it if you like). When you’re not using it, a cap covers the lean water output and the intake hose wraps neatly around the pump’s body. It’s going to retail for $US350, which makes it very expensive for a water-filter, but MSR claims it will go 10,000 litres before you have to replace anything, which would be 10 years if you spent 60 days a year backpacking (I wish) with three other people, and each of you drank 4 litres of water per day. Not haven’t to replace the filter for that long actually cuts the long-term cost down to being pretty reasonable.
Personally, if I’m group camping in a place where water is abundant and viruses aren’t a threat, I’m still going to use a gravity based filter like the Platypus Gravityworks, just because they’re smaller, lighter, and require less effort, but I always bring a pump-filter with me as a backup, and I’ve officially swapped out my trusty old Katadyn Hiker for the Guardian. If you’re going to be travelling through places where viruses are a possibility, I’d say it’s worth the investment. I even used it when I was on a recent trip to Cuba. We ran out of bottled water and started filtering tap water. Tasted great and worked like a charm.
Anyway, while we didn’t see any bears we saw bald eagles. Tons of bald eagles. An obnoxious amount of bald eagles. It’s like, hey, enough with all the bald eagles already! Just kidding. We saw dozens and it never got old.
Day Two: What the Hell Is Heli-hiking??
So here’s a thing that exists: Heli-hiking. It’s like heli-skiing, minus the snow. Basically, you get in a helicopter, it takes you to the top of a mountain, drops you off, and flies away. Then you hike along a ridgeline to other peaks (or wherever). Then, when you get to another pre-determined peak, the helicopter swoops in, picks you up, and takes you back home.
Basically, it’s a way to get all the epic views from the top of a mountain range without having to deal with all that leg-burning ascent. Is it extravagant? Lazy? Pretty much. It basically felt like cheating. That said, it was completely awesome and I’d most definitely do it again.
Despite the elevator ride up, we did the four mile ridge trail along the top of Goat Mountain and it was by no means a Sunday stroll. In fact, it wasn’t really much of a trail at all, just a ridge. There was a good deal of vertical ascent, lots of scrambling up boulders, and scree for days. This is my favourite kind of hiking. Any time you turned to one side or the other you were rewarded with sweeping views of the Bella Coola Valley and Mount Saugstad. There were wildflowers along the way and perfectly blue glacial pools formed by the snowmelt.
When we reached the peak it was impossible to not look around and imagine what the slopes would look like covered in powder. Would I have the balls to go out there on a snowboard? With a good guide, yes, I’d kind of have to. New item added to the bucket list.
Our mountain guides Neil Caldwell and Sam McKoy were in constant radio contact with our pilot Doug Strachan from West Coast Helicopters, and it was time to get going. As we descended down toward the pickup location we were basically surfing down scree and snow, alternately. Here and there we’d trigger little rockslides, but luckily nothing major came down and we all made it with our scalps intact. We were picked up and were given a swooping tour of the glaciers before we headed back to camp.
Day Three: Air Beaver
Back to the air. On our third full day in BC, we hopped into trucks and drove two hours up onto the Chilcotin Plateu. This was along the same road that would take you all the way to Vancouver if you had about 13 hours to spare and good weather. Because the Plateu is so high it has a tendency to completely freeze in winter and many vehicles are forced to turn around to back from whence they came.
Eventually we arrived at Nimpo Lake, which I kept misreading as Nympho Lake, which shows you where my mind was after a mere three days in the woods. It was there that we rendezvoused with Tweedsmuir Air and its float-equipped DeHaviland Beaver. It looked pretty damn ancient on the inside, but it flew pretty smoothly, and before we knew it we were taking in incredible views of the Chilcotin Plateau, Tweedsmuir Park, and Mount Waddington, en route to Turner Lake. There were amazing ice-fields and mountains with bright red mineral deposits.
We landed in the smooth water of the lake and puttered our way up to an old wooden dock where we were met by a local guide. There were a few tents at the campsite there, but we didn’t see anyone else. The plane took off and we were left to our own devices for the afternoon.
We enjoyed an easy, flat, one-mile hike to an overlook of Hanlan Falls. It’s the third-tallest falls in Canada and you may recognise it from the climactic scene in the second Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movie (though they CGIed a big mansion on top of it for the movie). Standing at the top of it and watching the water pour down imparts a visceral kind of fear, but damn it’s pretty.
On the drive back to our camp one journalist convinced me and two others that we needed to consume a full bottle of Canadian whiskey by the time we got back. The rest of the night is somewhat hazy. Thanks, Billy.
Day Four: Backpacking the Ape Lake Trail
On the fourth day we tossed all the gear we were testing into our packs and set off for the mountains, bound for Ape Lake Trail. We had MSR tents, stoves, plates and bowls, PackTowls, and sleeping bags, pads, and pillows from Thermarest, plus whatever camera gear we had. I’ve been using the Sony A7s and have really liked it, though after this trip I vowed that I would buy a 14mm wide angle lens. The 24-240mm zoom I have is awesome, but for big, sweeping landscapes like I was seeing I wanted something wider.
The trail itself was gorgeous. One minute we’d be surrounded by dense vegetation and lush forest, the next we’d be in a wide open field filled with wildflowers and expansive views of surrounding mountain ranges. There were sections of deep mud, and (sometimes) flimsy boardwalks to get us through them. There were a couple stream-crossings here and there (where we used the Guardian to pump enough clean water for dinner and breakfast the next morning) without obvious places to cross, but we all managed to make it with mostly dry feet.
The most amazing part of the hike was the lack of evidence of human impact we saw along the way. Other than the narrow trail there was nothing but wilderness as far as the eye could see. It was just wonderful. We got to Ape Lake but the mosquito situation was severe, so we kept it moving. At last we got to a plateau, and that’s where we’d make our camp for the night.
The mosquitos weren’t as bad there, but there were gnats. More gnats than I’d ever seen in my life. They didn’t bite, but each of us swallowed a couple while we were setting up tents, and at least half of my photos were ruined by them. Chris Dannen, one of the other writers, had a bug screen for his head and everyone was jealous.
Some opted to sleep in Therm-a-rest’s covered hammocks, and others on their little raised cot. I was in the MSR Freelite 3 tent with Billy Brown, another writer. It was incredibly light for its size (3 pounds 4 ounces) and its vestibules were big enough for our packs and boots, but I’d say it’s really more like a large two person tent. You might be able to fit three guys in there, but it would be very tight.
The real star for me here was the new version of the Therm-a-rest NeoAir XTherm Max sleeping pad. I’d spent some time with the original, but it was very loud and I found that my bag slid around on it like crazy. The new one is larger, rectangular, and non-slip. It has layers of foil on the inside to reflect heat back to you (it is the best-insulated backpacking sleep pad by a long shot with an R-Value of 5.7) which sounded like bags of potato chips on the original, but it’s much quieter now, thankfully. It gives you 2.5 inches of loft, which is incredible considering that it rolls up to the size of a Nalgene bottle. I’m a side-sleeper and I never once felt the rocks or pinecones below me. Easily the most comfortable backcountry pad I’ve ever tried.
We spent the night star-gazing, story-telling, and eating around the campfire, which was started using cheese-puffs as kindling — a Canadian backcountry trick, I’m told — which worked shockingly well. I can’t believe we eat those things.
In the morning we broke down, packed up, and hiked out. Again, we didn’t see any bears, but there were wild huckleberries growing everywhere, which we gorged on our way down. I didn’t get to try any fresh huckleberries while I was in Montana, and damn those things are good. They’re like everything blueberries wish they could be.
Day Five: Fjord Fever (and Hot Springs)
Hot springs are pretty much my favourite thing in the world, and this may be the best one I’ve ever been to. After our hike we grabbed our bathing suits from basecamp, ate a quick lunch, and then headed to our chariot: a big, aluminium fishing boat which Leonard captained. We made sure we had plenty of beer and then cast off into the fjords.
Fjords, for those who don’t know, are basically where ocean meets mountain. They are the long channels that carve deep into the land, cut by flowing rivers and ancient ice fields. The water in them is brackish. These fjords in particular had an eerie, light blue, opaque quality which we’d seen in some of the rivers. The flowing water strips some of the minerals out of the rock, leaving you very little visibility under the surface, but damn it’s really beautiful.
It took an hour or two for us to arrive at a rickety dock in the middle of nowhere, but at the end of the dock were two tubs which the locals had created using rocks and cement. I’d estimate the water — which came bubbling out of the rocks — was about 104 degrees F, which is to say absolutely perfect. We would lounge in one of the two tubs until we got all light-headed, and then we’d dive in the ice-cold fjord and swim around a bit.
It was absolutely stunning, and just what the body needed after a few days of camping and hiking. Eventually some weather started blowing in and it was time to head back. I’m kicking myself now for not marking that exact spot with GPS, but if you link up with one of our guides Leonard, they will get you there. We got pounded by wind, rain, and waves all the way back to the harbour, but we were too blissed out to care.
Day 6: 10,000 Year Old Petroglyphs
Final day of the trip. We packed up our gear, threw it in the backs of trucks and were ready to head to the airport. We had one last stop to make, though, before we left Bella Coola. The valley is the site of a trail that has dozens (hundreds?) of carvings along the rocks. These carvings age between 5,000 and 10,000 years old according to archaeologists.
“First Nations” is the preferred term to refer to the original inhabitants of the region (think “Native Americans” in the U.S.), and they still have a strong presence there. Our guides, Chris Nelson and Clyde Young imparted local lore and legend and told us the stories that go along with the carvings as we went. At the end of the trail is the crown jewel of the petroglyphs: a series of massive boulders all completely covered in carvings. It was really quite breath-taking. Our guides shared a First Nations song with us, which I used for the video above, and sent us on our way.
We boarded our tiny plane and careened back through the glaciers until we were once again in Vancouver. We had some time to kill so we took a train downtown, grabbed some dinner and some gelato, and then our trip was over.
Gear-wise the highlights for me were definitely the MSR Guardian filter, the Therm-a-rest NeoAir XTherm Max sleep pad, and surprise, the PackTowl Luxe. I owned one of the very first PackTowls back in 1999 when I backpacked around Europe with some friends and man that thing sucked. Yeah it was light, but it felt like plastic, it didn’t really absorb the water off your body, and yet it took forever to dry so it smelled like a mildew rag the entire time. It’s amazing how far these things have come. The Luxe was incredibly soft and comfortable, super absorbent, and it dried fast. It’s definitely something I’ll be keeping in my van for years to come.
After a trip like this, though, you aren’t left thinking about the gear. You’re remembering the stunning views, the funny moments, and the new friends you’ve (hopefully) made. Those are the best things you can bring back. Bella Coola was absolutely amazing and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone who wants to see all the incredible beauty you’d find in a national park but without the millions of people and evidence of human impact. What a special place.
In the next update, I’ll be sharing the story of my Cuba adventure and the experience of paddling a kayak all the way back to Key West. As always, thank you for reading. Here’s a Canadian dog.