With its pristine ecosystems and Indigenous communities, the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia teaches travellers lessons in the art of timelessness.
Story and Photos by John Zada
One’s first bird’s-eye view of the Great Bear Rainforest, a resplendent and rugged landscape of mossy foliage and ocean, often comes during those rarefied days of summer in which the world’s most mysterious and impenetrable wilderness is laid fleetingly bare for those lucky enough to see it.
For me, that moment came during an auspicious break in a week-long chorus of rain. I was on a DeHavilland Beaver float plane, heading from the First Nations community of Bella Bella, British Columbia, to the nearby village of Klemtu on Swindle Island. My journey deep into the heart of B.C.’s remote Central Coast, already an epic in progress, reached a new crescendo as the plane went aloft, revealing a scene of nature’s grandiloquence below.
Stretched as far as the eye could see was a graceful but convoluted landscape of coastal islands, neatly arranged like connectable jigsaw puzzle pieces on the steely blue waters of the Pacific. In the foreground, a verdant musculature of low-lying mountains bristled like the fur on the back of a wild animal. Far off, inland ranges of high snowcapped peaks insinuated a neighbouring glacial majesty. It was an auspicious glimpse of a vast kingdom otherwise forbidden to the eye, concealed as it is by almost endless cloud cover, or brooding mist.
In under an hour, we reached the east coast of Swindle Island. As we descended, an elderly woman and resident of Klemtu seated beside me became transfixed by the view outside her window. After passing an oval-shaped lake in the mountains directly above the town, the plane dropped sharply and landed with a splash beside the village.
As I removed my earplugs, and the exhilaration of the flight and of our remoteness washed over me, she turned and looked at me with concerned, almost frightened eyes.
“Did you see the lake we passed?” she asked.
I nodded, intrigued.
“There’s caves up above the lake,” she added. “They say that’s where the creatures live—the ones who’ve been coming into town and bothering us at night. One of them tried to steal Samson’s cat last week.”
The unsolicited and matter-of-fact nature of her comment caught me unawares. Overhearing her, a passenger in the front seat turned to face us. He looked at her then threw me a well-placed glance, which conveyed in its smirking, unabashed candidness a sobering message: welcome to the edge of the known world.
I am on a journey guided by overlapping obsessions. For years I’ve been intrigued by the grandeur, mystery, and utter remoteness of British Columbia’s primeval coastal rainforests. Growing up in the manicured suburbs of the big city, I’ve always had an unrelenting desire to explore wild places.
The Great Bear Rainforest, with its pristine ecosystems, remote native communities and sense of timelessness, represented one of those epicenters of nature capable of ameliorating the dissociation many of us urban dwellers have with the natural world. As a veritable gateway into the planet’s soul, I felt not only a compulsion but an obligation to visit the region.
But there was another element tugging at my yearning. For decades reports have come out of this region—and from other parts of the continent—of an elusive, bipedal and apelike creature commonly referred to as Bigfoot or Sasquatch. As a child, I had grown up on a diet of books about the phenomenon, and formed a mental picture about the species that is alleged to have avoided both capture and classification.
“Though I could see nothing, I knew we were coasting above one of the richest biospheres on the planet.”
For many North Americans, especially those living in urban areas, Sasquatches are no more real than fairies and gnomes; amicable yet fictitious pop-culture beings that reside only in television and movies. For others living in, or near remote wilderness regions, the creature is considered to be a fact of life; part of the majesty and mystery of the undiscovered world.
The Great Bear Rainforest of B.C., one of the largest unpopulated corners of North America, has had its share of sightings of the creature. Many of the area’s denizens—people who’ve spent their lives in and around the bush (as hunters, trappers, loggers and fishermen)—claim to have seen Sasquatches, or know people who say that they have.
Among the more colourful of these was the late wilderness guide and hunter, Clayton Mack. Virtually unknown outside of B.C., Mack, a Nuxalk native from the town of Bella Coola, is considered to be one of the most able-bodied woodsmen ever to have roamed the province’s Coast Ranges. Hunters the world over sought his skills as an outdoorsman, a reputation bolstered by his legendary charisma and storytelling abilities.
Two books containing oral histories of Mack’s life and wanderings, published after his death in 1993, recount stories of the Sasquatch. They include accounts of his own encounters with the creatures while exploring some of the most remote watersheds in Canada.
Determined to explore these subjects in person, I finally resolved to make my own journey to one of Canada’s last great wilderness frontiers—the Great Bear Rainforest: a place where modernity, tradition and a primordial timelessness exist in a delicate, and often tense, accommodation.
The Resplendent Rainforest
My journey began in Vancouver. At the last minute I found a seat aboard an antiquated twin-prop aircraft headed to the Central Coast that was filled with a large group of sports fisherman from Quebec. They were on their way to a remote lodge on the Pacific, where they were going to try to catch the largest salmon of their fishing careers. All conversation in the cabin centered on those prospects.
I, on the other hand, had my attention focused outwards. Outside my window any hints of what was to come was obfuscated by one long uninterrupted cloud of grey hovering over the entire coast: the default weather of the region. Though I could see nothing, I knew we were coasting above one of the richest biospheres on the planet.
Measuring eight million acres in size, the Great Bear Rainforest runs some 400 kilometres along B.C.’s Pacific coast mountains, from Knight Inlet (north of Vancouver) right up to the Alaska Panhandle. Covering an area the size of Ireland, it is considered the largest intact temperate rainforest on the planet. It is a wonderland of nature, home to countless lakes, creeks, rivers, waterfalls, islands and forested mountains and valleys. High alpine ranges crowned by massive glaciers stand majestically at the eastern flanks of this great wilderness.
Far below, at sea level, groups of remote First Nations people, descendants of the most sophisticated non-agrarian civilization ever to exist—cultures which some say go back 10,000 years—continue to live in isolation. So visually stunning is the area that a city dweller seeing the region for the first time might think they were in an FX-generated fantasy-land known only in Hollywood films.
Even for naturalists, the ecological richness found in the Great Bear is both staggering and unfathomable. A living organism in its own right, the entire coastal rainforest contains within it more life per square metre than any other place on the planet. Canadian explorer and author Wade Davis describes the area in his book The Clouded Leopard as “an ecosystem so rich and so productive that the biomass in the best sites is easily four times as great as that of any comparable area of the tropics.”
Countless species (including plants, animals, birds, insects and invertebrates)—some as strange and alien as the fish at the bottom of the ocean—call the forest their home. “A square metre of soil,” writes Davis, “may support 2,000 earthworms, 40,000 insects, 120,000 mites, 120 million nematodes and millions upon millions of protozoa of bacteria all alive, moving through the earth, feeding, digesting, reproducing, and dying.”
Water is the lifeblood of the entire ecosystem here. From autumn until spring, the region is subject to an incessant precipitation oscillating between rain, snow and drizzle, and which can blot out the sun for months at a time. There is no untidy collision here of sea and land. Instead, both overlap harmoniously, each providing for the other. Rain coming off the ocean provides sustenance to the forest, including to its largest and oldest inhabitants: the world’s tallest trees of Sitka spruce, Douglas fir and the iconic red cedar. Nutrients from the forest floor in turn trickle back into the ocean, providing food for a separate universe of aquatic life ranging in size from phyto-plankton to orcas and humpback whales. But it doesn’t end there.
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The five major Pacific salmon species—Chinook, Coho, Pink, Chum and Sockeye—provide food for eagles, bears and wolves, who then deposit the fish carcasses in the forest, acting as fertilizer and nutrients for the flora. “In the end there is no separation between forest and ocean, between the creatures of the land and those of the sea,” Davis writes. “Every living thing on the raincoast ultimately responds to the same ecological rhythm. All are interdependent.”
“When we reached the head of the inlet, we found ourselves surrounded by a cascading range of high fjords that plummeted straight into the sea”
In an environment so delicate, the encroachment by modern civilization, with its engines of consumption, set off a period of confrontation that continues to this day. In the 1990s, after a century of heavy logging activity along the B.C. coast, environmental groups launched a campaign to stop deforestation, which they claimed was destroying countless watersheds and endangering salmon populations. That battle, described by those at the frontlines as a no-holds-barred fight to the death, came to encompass the issue of trophy hunting bears in the area.
By February 2006, after much lobbying, the B.C. government announced conservancy designations for more than 30 percent of the Great Bear Rainforest—bringing into popular usage a name which conservationists had coined for the region in the late 1990s. Despite the victory, environmentalists say the deal still fell short of what they felt was needed to properly protect the area.
Now that new battles loom over the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline—a project which if approved would bring crude oil tanker traffic into the narrow channels of the Great Bear—it will still be some time until these opposing forces are reconciled.
As the North Air prop began its spiraling descent, clear patches opened up in the clouds, revealing intense blooms of thick green trees and foliage below. Our destination was the Heiltsuk First Nation community of Bella Bella. Also called Waglisla, it’s a town of about 1,400 situated on the east coast of Campbell Island in Queen Charlotte Sound. As I later discovered, the name Bella Bella also loosely refers to two other towns on a neighbouring island: the seaport and fishing resort of Shearwater, and the old village of Bella Bella. Together, they make up the largest settlement in B.C.’s Central Coast region.
In addition to its quirky name, Bella Bella has been blessed with one key eminence: strategic location. Situated near the open sea, the community is a gateway to a complex knot of channels, inlets and islands that is at the geographical heart of the Great Bear Rainforest.
The area is also a major intersection for local water traffic, and is considered one of the more lush and visually stunning corners of an already spectacular region. The town is also the headquarters for five Heiltsuk tribes, and home to a school, hospital, airfield, ferries terminal, community college extension and fish processing plant.
It wasn’t until the plane broke through the clouds and landed that the extent of the area’s remoteness hit home. Though we were now quite a bit north (roughly on par between Calgary and Edmonton), the place looked prehistoric and exuded a kind of tropic-like atmosphere. A steaming landscape of mountains and scraggly, jungle-like foliage encroached upon the airport runway.
The island seemed ominous and forbidden, as if it were guarding an impenetrable secret. When we exited the plane, a hyper-oxygenated, tree-scented air overcame us. And at that moment, it seemed possible anything might be alive in those dark expanses of jungle that enveloped the airport like an arboreal army laying siege to the asphalt.
Testimonial: I Saw a Sasquatch
That first impression, powerful as it was, was only a taster. My real introduction to the area came the next day during a tenuous break in the weather. Two employees at the Shearwater fishing resort (where I was staying) graciously agreed to take me out by boat to Roscoe Inlet—one of the many mountainous oceanic channels located near Bella Bella.
Taking advantage of a break in the weather, we put the engines into full throttle and launched out of the port. The expedition was perfectly timed. The thick blanket of grey that had nixed all visibility on the flight over was giving way to wisps of brooding mist that hugged the hilly, tree-bristling coastlines. Short bursts of sunlight streamed through openings in the clouds, accentuating the visual drama. It boggled the mind to think that these same scenes, largely bereft of despoilment, were unfolding across a an enormous swath of the B.C. coast.
As we pushed deeper into Roscoe Inlet and the surrounding mainland, the mountains became steeper, rockier and higher. When we reached the head of the inlet, we found ourselves surrounded by a cascading range of high fjords that plummeted straight into the sea. Over those mountains were further matrices of little known valleys that connected with other maritime passages that made up this maze of coastal wilderness.
On our return to Shearwater the marina was abuzz. Several fishing boats that had taken travellers into the sound had returned with their catches, while some employees of the resort were filleting huge salmon at stainless steel tables, and packaging the fish for the tourists to take home.
As I stood watching the spectacle, one of the guides from the trip to Roscoe approached me.
“We have a colleague we’d like you to meet,” he said. “He had an experience a few years ago that will interest you.”
A moment later I was introduced to Ryan Humchitt, a 27-year-old resident of Bella Bella and fishing guide at Shearwater. Humchitt told me that in the winter of 2006 he had seen a Sasquatch while working with a logging crew in a remote inlet. He was alone on a mountainside, waiting for a snow squall to end, when he turned and saw a huge man-like creature covered in dark fur looking down at him from the top of a nearby bluff.
“The minute I turned around, that thing just stood up,” he said. “I’ve never seen a bear stand upright and run while pushing trees and bushes aside that were a good six inches thick. He was just tossing them around like nothing.”
Within moments the animal disappeared up the hill. When Humchitt realized what he thought he had seen, he ran to his radio and reported it to his camp. Frightened out of his wits, he grabbed the bag containing his belongings and ran down the mountain as fast as he could. He told me that when he reached his colleagues he was in a state of shock.
“My buddy at the helipad said I was as white as a ghost. I couldn’t stop shaking.”
Sasquatch, Yeti, Bigfoot, Wildman. Of all the mysteries surrounding legendary animals throughout the ages, none have been more intriguing, baffling and at times entertaining than that of the Sasquatch. North America’s Wildman, and its entry into popular consciousness as both a cultural icon and a challenge to scientific dogma, has obscure, almost mythological roots.
Reports describing enormous hair-covered animals walking on two feet and living in remote wilderness regions go as far back as the late 1700s. These tales, appearing in the writings of explorers and in early newspapers, correspond with the lore of aboriginal groups, which describe a similar creature as part of their traditional pantheon of nature beings. Often depicted by Europeans as gorillas, apes, giants or fur-covered wildmen, these creatures were said to be highly elusive, often leaving large, mysterious tracks in their wake.
Anecdotal accounts of the creatures coming largely from the remote mountain regions of the Pacific Northwest kept accumulating into the early 20th century. In 1929, a Canadian teacher named J. W. Burns coined the word Sasquatch in an article about the creature for Maclean’s magazine. Burns, who was working on a native reservation east of Vancouver, put forward the anglicized name, a distortion of the word Sesqec, which was used to denote the creature in the Coast Salish language of the Lower Fraser Valley.
The tipping point in the phenomenon came in 1958, when the growing media machine of post-war America, inspired by recent and similar reports of a Yeti or Abominable Snowman roaming in the Himalayas, jumped on a story coming out of a small town in Northern California.
A bulldozer operator named Jerry Crew came forward with a plaster cast of gigantic footprints made on a remote construction site in the wilderness. A local newspaper editor came up with a catchy and appropriate name for the unknown animal: Bigfoot. That put the subject firmly on the map, and constituted the gunshot that began a mad-dash to find the new holy grail of domestic exploration.
Ever since, generations of scientists and amateur investigators have assailed the topic from every angle—mounting expeditions, collecting data, scrutinizing photos, holding global conferences, writing books and often bickering jealously among themselves. But they’ve also assembled a composite of a creature, which they allege has consistent physical and behavioural attributes.
Those who study the creature say it is both nocturnal and shy—and invariably retreats into the forest at the first sight of humans. And though not dangerous, the creatures are apparently given to displays of territorial behaviour by way of loud screams, rock throwing or hitting trees with sticks.
Some scientists have put forward a thesis suggesting that Bigfoot is a descendant of a huge hominid called Gigantopethicus blacki which became extinct only as recently as 100,000 years ago.
Though eyewitness reports of the creature continue to pour in, no body or specimen of the creature/animal has yet been produced. A cacophony of voices combining skeptics, cultural critics and mainstream scientists insist the phenomenon is without basis—a product of mass hysteria, misidentification of other animals, and just plain hoaxes.
Others, comprised of Sasquatch investigators, dissenting scientists and eyewitnesses, say that despite admitted instances of mistaken identities and perpetrated frauds, there is in fact a Sasquatch. They insist it is a highly intelligent and evasive hominid species that leaves evidence in the form of tracks, hair and feces, and has been seen by far too many people, for far too long, to be put down purely to a mass hoax or collective delusion.
“This simply is an upright great ape. Apes exist on the planet,” says Dr. John Bindernagel, a wildlife biologist from Courtney B.C., and author of two books: North America’s Great Ape: The Sasquatch; and The Discovery of the Sasquatch. “The whole B.C. coast, with its fjords, inlets, bays and islands contain countless miles of uninhabited clam beaches, which helps me understand not only how the animals get their sustenance and over-winter, but why they’re so often seen in this area.”
When I asked the mainly indigenous residents of the Great Bear Rainforest what they thought about the subject, I got different answers. Native groups, by and large, insist that the Sasquatch exists, and that they have had sightings—even interactions with them—from time immemorial.
A multitude of aboriginal names exist for a creature of the same description all across North America. Among the Tlingit tribe of Southeastern Alaska it is the Kushtaka, or otter man; for the Kwakiutl of B.C.’s Central Coast it is Dzonokwa, or wild woman of the woods; and for Algonquian tribes of Eastern Canada it’s the Windigo, or wild cannibal person.
Traditional cultures portray the animals as a kind of untamed caretaker of the wilderness that has harnessed the power of nature of which it is the ultimate manifestation. Its abilities range from invisibility, to shape shifting to instilling paralysis, illness and even death upon those who look at it.
“We learned growing up that the creature has supernatural powers,” says Silyas Saunders, a renowned 77-year-old Nuxalk carver from Bella Coola, who claims to have seen what his people call a Boqs when he was a child in the 1940s. “They can transform into spirits and have super-lightning speed. People see them all the time, but nobody knows where they make their homes.”
Because the creatures are part of a larger indigenous cosmology of sacred nature beings, aboriginal groups have often been reticent with outsiders who approached them about the topic. Fear of ridicule and the consequences of breaking cultural taboos meant that only the most sensitive and culturally deft outsiders would get any information from native elders.
But times have changed. With the incursion of the modern world into the remote coastal towns and the erosion of native culture that has been its consequence, some indigenous people have begun to eschew the age-old beliefs in the metaphysical. And the topic of Sasquatch is now more acceptable.
In an age of unprecedented access to information, residents of the Great Bear Rainforest who claim to have had experiences with the Sasquatch are now, more than ever, speaking candidly, and without embarrassment, about the still-mysterious subject.
The Hunt Begins for the Great Bear Apeman
After meeting Humchitt, I spent a few days walking around Shearwater and Bella Bella gathering information about the Great Bear Rainforest, and hearing more stories about the Sasquatch. Rides on water taxis, visits to cafes and meetings with locals while on walks all yielded a wealth of history and lore from people both young and old. And I gathered advice about people to meet and things to see at the next destination spot on my path.
After Bella Bella, I continued on to another cultural node in the vast, labyrinthine wilderness of ocean and mountain. I travelled to Klemtu, located roughly 60 kilometres north of Bella Bella on the east coast of Swindle Island. The town of about 460 people is home to the Kitasoo and Xai’xais bands of the Coast Tsimshian and Heiltsuk peoples.
In addition to being a kind of gateway community to the more spectacular fjords of the northern Great Bear Rainforest, Klemtu is situated near several habitats of the famous white bear known variously as the Kermode, the ghost or the spirit bear.
The Kermode is biologically a black bear which carries a recessive gene, giving it its light coloured coat. It’s revered among indigenous peoples, and is the top attraction for bear enthusiasts who travel from the furthest reaches of the planet for a chance to glance or photograph the shy creature.
Klemtu’s Spirit Bear Lodge, which is owned and operated by the local native reserve and runs bear viewing trips in the late summer and early fall, served as my base while I was on the island, and I can attest to the fact how diligently the whole team worked getting the place ready for the upcoming season.
Klemtu’s compact size made it easy to get to know its people—who were some of the friendliest I’d met in all my travels along the west coast. And just as in Bella Bella, I was taken aback by the candor, enthusiasm and openness in which the Island’s residents related their stories about Sasquatch.
“As we rounded the northern tip of the island and turned south, we navigated a narrow channel between Swindle and Princess Royal Island—one of a handful of habitats of the elusive white spirit bear”
Klemtu, like Bella Bella and Bella Coola, has always been a hot spot for Sasquatch sightings. Known by locals as P’kwus, both the creatures and their tracks have been seen here long before people began collecting reports in the 1950s. Remote, rich in wildlife and densely forested, Swindle Island is an ideal habitat for any animal. One local veteran Sasquatch researcher, the late Bob Titmus, was so convinced the creatures lived here that he spent years crisscrossing Swindle’s valleys and mountains looking for evidence of their existence.
“We called him ‘The Ape Man.’ He used to go hunting for the creatures with my dad,” says Tom Brown Jr., the son of a former chief of Klemtu. “I’d been with Bob Titmus all over the place. He had no doubt the animals existed. I was with him when he found some hair eight feet up on a tree. I remember him putting it in an envelope.”
Today, as in the past, many reports around Swindle come from people on boats. B.C.’s coastal communities are, for the most part, maritime cultures. Food, material sustenance and economic livelihood have always come through hunting, fishing and the use of boats.
As Klemtu is the only town on Swindle, there are no roads leading in or out of the community. Its residents seldom travel overland through its mountains, which they say are too densely forested to traverse anyway. Most movement tends to be by boat. Fishermen and boaters stopping on remote beaches to catch fish or forage for clams have reported Sasquatch sightings, screams and even incidents of rock throwing.
No one in Klemtu is more familiar with the dizzyingly, complex coastline of islands and channels that surround Swindle than Clark Robinson. In addition to being a fisherman and councillor for the Kitasoo/Xai’xais band, the father of five is also part of the Coastal Guardian Watchmen Network—a First Nations program along the Central Coast to monitor, steward and protect the region’s land and waters. Robinson spends a lot of time patrolling his band’s huge territory, helping to make sure neighbouring tribal members and outsiders don’t fish, hunt or otherwise exploit the ecosystem that falls under his watch.
“I’m considered the eyes and ears of the council,” Robinson told me proudly, as he steered his boat out of Klemtu’s harbour, heading north along the coast. “I get to some parts of this coast that most people don’t even know exists. There is a heck of a lot of coastline out there.”
A lifelong resident of Klemtu with a deep knowledge of some of North America’s most remote wilderness coastline, Robinson is no stranger to the subject of the Sasquatch. He tells me that in addition to having lived through decades of reported sightings on the island, he himself was involved in an incident that took place just a year earlier.
His son and nephews, he said, had found a track while out with him on a fishing trip on the west side of Swindle. While Robinson waited in the boat, the boys went into the forest behind a remote bay to retrieve branches used to collect herring spawn. Within minutes of entering they ran back out to the beach, terrified, and told Robinson they had seen a massive human-like footprint in the mud. The group quickly left the area.
After hearing this and other stories, I asked Robinson if he would take me on a circumnavigational trip of Swindle Island. It would be a chance to get a feel for this part of the Great Bear Rainforest, with its proximity to the open ocean, and its richness of terrestrial and aquatic life.
We made Kitasoo Bay, on the opposite side of the island, our destination, thinking we would go to the exact spot where the footprint was discovered, accompanied by one of his nephews present during the incident.
The daylong journey came on a pristine summer day that offered perfect visibility. Our plan was to follow the general coast of Swindle (which is shaped like Newfoundland, except in mirror-image), in a counter-clockwise direction, stopping to explore remote beaches and the forest behind them. Small islands of tree-covered mountains loomed in all directions.
As we rounded the northern tip of the island and turned south, we navigated a narrow channel between Swindle and Princess Royal Island—one of a handful of habitats of the elusive white spirit bear.
“Those Kermode bears stay up in the hills and away from the coast until the salmon run in September,” said Robinson. “There’s so few of them and they’re very hard to find.”
After continuing south, the channel narrowed and turned west in the direction of the open water. En route, Robinson stopped to show me ancient pictographs (strange faces carved in rock), and a native burial site in a hidden niche in the rocks above a cove.
After glimpsing a pod of killer whales at a distance and finding some impressive looking starfish in a pool along the rocky shoreline of Swindle, we emerged out of the channel and into Kitasoo Bay, which had a partial view of the open Pacific. Intimations of the outside world were immediate: a cruise ship, heading north towards Alaska, was visible on the horizon.
Robinson swung the boat towards the island, navigating the choppy waves and then driving through the intricate maze of islands and inlets that make up Swindle’s west coast. Conversation and robust chuckles broke through his demeanour of determined concentration, as he took us deeper into a strange, jungle-like world where the Pacific almost inundates a low-lying canopy of trees and bush. We entered yet another enclosure, a narrow inlet, passing a black bear that had parked itself at a waterfall where a creek was emptying into the ocean. Soon we arrived at a secluded bay.
“This is where it happened,” Robinson told me, pointing to the shore and making eye contact with his nephew, whose expression was tentative at best.
“In there. Freddy will take you. I’ll wait here.”
Freddy and I spent two hours walking through that tangle of forest on the edge of the small bay. And never have I spent as much time moving yet covering as little distance as I did on that day. Lush trees, thick low-lying plants and huge spider webs blocked our path at every turn. Only a machete, which we didn’t have, would have allowed for real movement.
In spite of the fascination, I found myself wondering what I was doing bushwhacking through such an inhospitable place. Late in our wanderings, we discovered the track of a deer, which I was told was a rare find on Swindle Island, since the population had fallen drastically in the last decade, owing to predation by wolves. Score: no Sasquatch—but a deer! Satisfied with our small discovery, we turned back and fought our way with equal ferocity to the shoreline.
Back on the boat, Robinson was eating a ham and cheese sandwich. When we related our unfruitful bushwhacking experience, he chuckled knowingly before speaking in his deep voice.
“Well, many of these forests are too dense to move through. And looking for anything in there is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Besides, at the end of the day, you don’t find those creatures or their tracks—they find you.”
Freddy looked at me. There was a long silence, then Robinson stood up and turned the engine. “Unless you’re Clayton Mack, of course. You’ll hear more about him in Bella Coola.”
Across the Alpine Bella Coola Valley
If my earlier flight from Bella Bella to Klemtu raised the bar infinitely on aerial scenery, then the trip to nearby Bella Coola, in a tiny Cessna 172, broke the imagination envelope—it felt like a bona fide magic carpet ride.
It was another atypical crystal clear day in the Great Bear Rainforest. For 90 minutes we flew eastward, over long, deep fjords, while grazing the tops of gargantuan mountains. The low-lying islands of what locals call the outside coast gave way to the heftier alpine landscape of the inside coast. It was the closest I’ve ever come to flying as one might experience in a dream. It was both frightening and riveting.
Part of the excitement lay in the destination. Situated at the head of a Pacific inlet, in a wide alpine valley stretching 80 kilometres in length, Bella Coola is an authentic frontier wilderness town. The community is comprised of a cluster of settlements interspersed at intervals along the Bella Coola River which runs east to west: the port of Bella Coola, followed by 4 Mile Reserve, and the community of Hagensborg further east. Huge forested mountains, with remote alpine valleys leading to high glaciers, ring the area. Every manner of B.C. wilderness animal makes its home here, including, many say, the Sasquatch.
In addition to being a hotspot for sightings, the Bella Coola Valley has an illustrious history of human activity and exploration. The area falls within the traditional territory of the Nuxalk Nation of aboriginal peoples (pronounced Nu-hawk) who trace their origins in the valley and surrounding region back 10,000 years, to the end of the Ice Age.
Ancient rock carvings and paintings, found throughout the Great Bear Rainforest, are concentrated around Bella Coola, a testament to this long history. Up until the early 20th century—when the Canadian government forcibly relocated the Nuxalk to the current town site of Bella Coola—dozens of Nuxalk villages were spread out across a larger territory encompassing areas mostly north, south and west of the modern town.
Despite (and perhaps because of) the area’s isolation, the Bella Coola Valley saw its share of traffic by settlers and explorers. In 1793, Scottish adventurer Alexander Mackenzie ended the first recorded overland crossing of North America to the Pacific Ocean in Bella Coola Valley. Mackenzie followed Nuxalk trading routes that linked the interior of central British Columbia to the coast.
Later in the 1890s, an influx of Norwegian settlers, attracted to a landscape reminiscent of their own, populated the valley. Coincidentally, another Norwegian, the famed explorer and archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl, visited Bella Coola in 1939-40 to compare the petroglyphs in the area with other Polynesian art forms he had seen. He had theorized that ancient Nuxalk peoples could have reached and settled Hawaii by boat.
Though fascinated by all these threads running through the region’s history, my journey to Bella Coola was really driven by another peg few Canadians know about: a curiosity to investigate the legend of the late, great wilderness guide, Clayton Mack.
Clayton Mack, Wilderness Legend
Born in 1910, Mack spent his life in the wilderness as a trapper, logger, fisherman and grizzly bear hunter. Those who knew him describe him as an immense personality, a storyteller, a walking encyclopedia of tribal lore. His wilderness skills are the stuff of legend.
“If you hired him to hunt a grizzly bear, he knew the area just about as good as the bears,” says Dick Harestad, a resident of Hagensborg, who says he knew Mack well. “He was unbelievably good at what he did. He was a good fisherman, a good cowboy and a good hunter. And he had the strength and stamina of a horse.”
When he was an infant, it is said Mack’s parents wrapped him in wolf skin and dumped him in water four times so he would grow up to be strong and fierce in the woods like a wolf. Because of stories like this Mack’s reputation as a formidable woodsman spread.
Some of the most eccentric, thrillseeking and wealthy trophy hunters in the world sought out his guiding skills. He would come to rub elbows with the rich and famous, taking them deep into the backcountry wilderness to hunt the largest bears in the world: Boone and Crockett grizzlies that can weigh up to over a thousand pounds.
Mack’s life is documented in two books, Grizzlies and White Guys and Bella Coola Man, both of which are Mack’s oral histories transcribed in the original vernacular of his broken English. The books contain colourful, outlandish and at times almost unbelievable episodes from his life as an outdoorsman, ranging from accounts of native blood feuds, to guiding Thor Heyerdahl to forgotten villages and places, and teaching him about catalogues of herbal remedies.
His hair-raising and often violent tales of confrontations with bears, which make up a good chunk of his books, can resonate negatively with readers. Whatever one thinks of Mack, his stories are entertaining and come from a time and place now lost to us.
One of the more interesting chapters in Mack’s books is the one devoted entirely to the subject of the Sasquatch. Mack claims to have seen the creatures three times during his many wanderings along the coast. He also claims to have heard the creatures and to have seen their tracks on several other occasions. In his first sighting, by boat along a remote bay in the 1930s, he describes seeing what he first thought was a bear:
“He stood up on his hind feet, straight up like a man, and I looked at it. Gee, it don’t look like a bear, it has arms like a human being, it has legs like a human being, and it got a head like us…He started to walk away from me, walking like a man on two legs. He was about eight feet high. He got to some drift logs, stopped and looked back at me. Looked over his shoulder to see me. Grizzly bear don’t do that, I never see a grizzly bear run on its hind legs like that and I never see a grizzly bear look over its shoulder like that…He stepped up on those drift logs, and walked into the timber. Stepped on them logs like a man does.”
B.C.’s Modern Mountain Man
No matter where you stand in Bella Coola Valley, grandeur surrounds you. In every direction, mountains tower like formidable giants. Some are blanketed by forest. Others are rocky. Tongues of snow and ice, extensions of glaciers, appear through the mists in the side valleys, even in the summer.
But a few days spent in the valley and town, with its wide-open space, its main roads, harbour, air traffic and amenities of modern life, can make you forget—briefly—just how remote you actually are. All that changes when you walk into the bush.
Hiking through the forest along Thorsen Creek, a fast moving glacial river that empties into the Bella Coola River, I find myself in an ethereal world of almost fluorescent green. Before me, extending into the alpine, is a dense wilderness of tall, moss-covered trees and boulders. The roar of water and the infinity of foliage wipe clean all memories of the town below. Unlike some of the islands on the outer coast, everything here is big and dramatic, including my guide.
Leonard Ellis, a 57-year-old hunter and wilderness guide, and owner of Bella Coola Grizzly Tours, is one of the most knowledgeable woodsman in B.C.’s Central Coast region. Both rugged and charming he’s the quintessential mountain man. He’s also a kind of inheritor of Clayton Mack’s mantle in the area of bears. His many escapades have brought him to the brink of death, and embroiled him in controversies, earning him respect from some, revilement from others.
In the years leading up to the protection of the Great Bear Rainforest, Ellis became one of the biggest trophy bear hunters in the province, perhaps the country. His licensing areas to hunt, which he bought and pieced together like properties in Monopoly, covered most of the Central Coast, and included Clayton Mack’s old territory—the habitat for some of the largest bears on the entire planet. By the late 1990s, his hunting area was so large that the province of British Columbia published an official map dedicated to his territory.
“We basically hunted the whole area,” he tells me, as we navigate a narrow path over rocks and tree roots. “There was so much territory that you could drop your anchor anywhere and just harvest. All we were targeting were old boar grizzlies. No hunter would ever want to shoot a sow, or a cub, or a small grizzly.”
During his adventures, Ellis came face-to-face with death on numerous occasions. He tells me close calls include nearly perishing in a float plane thrown around in a powerful windstorm; confronting a pack of marauding wolves that had kidnapped his two dogs; nearly slipping off a mossy cliff during a mountain goat hunt; slipping under the belly of an unseen grizzly while running through the bush in the rain; and almost losing his head when an intoxicated Russian misfired a rifle during a hunt.
But Ellis’s greatest challenge came in 2002, when environmental activists, determined to gain conservation status for the Great Bear Rainforest, took on the man they thought was one of the region’s pillagers of wildlife. It was an unavoidable confrontation for Ellis, whose life straddled the border between two epochs marked by differing cultural values.
“They closed the whole province to grizzly bear hunting, just to close me down,” Ellis claims, with more than a dash of bitterness in his voice. Lobbying, and a growing public discomfort, indeed often outcry, against the bear hunt, saw Ellis’s annual hunting quotas shrink to an unsustainable level. Cutting his losses, he sold his territory to conservationists, who, by holding the hunting licenses—but not using them—provided de facto protection for bears in the region. When later in 2006 the Great Bear Rainforest won partial protection under a landmark provincial and First Nations agreement, all but the residential bear hunt had been outlawed.
Ellis was forced to adapt to new circumstances. He joined the ranks of the area’s tourism providers, offering bear viewing and wilderness guiding to the trickle of tourists who pass through Bella Coola Valley. Now trying to align himself with the values of environmentalism, he speaks the vernacular of conservation while still adhering to the values of hunting other game, promoting the activity as wildlife management. It’s a sensitive process of reconciliation, and coming to terms with the changes in his fortune and circumstance.
“The sale of the guide territory caused me to kick and scream like crazy,” Ellis says. “I am still not 100 percent happy about it. But in hindsight, maybe it was the right thing.”
After a short walk, Ellis and I reach our destination: the ancient Nuxalk petroglyphs of Thorsen Creek. The rock engravings depicting people and other strange entities made by the Nuxalk of antiquity are believed by anthropologists to have been carved some 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. The site, which is largely unmanaged, is considered by indigenous people to be highly sacred.
The carvings, some of which are covered by moss, are scattered near the edge of a cliff above the river. They’re not easy to find, and when they’re pointed out have a vague and distant quality to them—as if they are reaching out across the ages. The faces evoke no specific person or animal, and appear hauntingly as spirits wearing exaggerated expressions.
While looking at them I’m suddenly reminded of the Sasquatch, and bring up the topic with Ellis. After telling him what I know and what I’ve heard from people along the coast, he says he’s aware of the stories and reports, and that in all his years as a guide has never actually seen one.
But then he tells me he’s had experiences in the bush that he can’t explain. Just recently he’s heard screams in the forest which didn’t correspond to any animal he knows. And he adds that on several occasions, in some of the most remote areas of the Great Bear Rainforest, he’s seen large two-legged tracks with long strides worn deep in the moss.
“It’s quite something when you come upon them. It kind of makes the hair stand up on your back, because you’re saying to yourself, ‘That’s a big, serious, heavy animal that made them.’”
As we left Thorsen Creek, Ellis suggested I throw myself headlong into the Nuxalk community to uncover more leads about the Sasquatch. “If you want to find out more, talk to the natives. Look for Clayton Mack’s family. I know his son Dusty is still around. He’ll tell you everything. There are more stories in this valley than you’ll know what to do with.”
What I Discovered
I took his advice. And my remaining explorations around the Bella Coola Valley became a strange and serendipitous affair.
The more I scratched the surface, the more I discovered. My inquiries, made as delicately as possible, yielded many first and secondhand reports about the Sasquatch—not only called Boqs but also Sninik by the Nuxalk here.
Though some shrugged their shoulders or scoffed, many I spoke to said they had had an experience of some kind or knew someone who had. In almost all cases, these were people who seemed credible and sane to me, and who had some sort of professional affiliation with the wilderness.
I also discovered that many people living in the region were related in some way. Many I spoke to in Bella Coola were connected to others who I had met in Klemtu and Bella Bella. By knocking on doors, I had entangled myself in a web of kinship connections, many involving Clayton Mack and his extended family.
I was passed along a human matrix of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and elders (and heard all their stories) that sometimes spanned generations and hundreds of kilometres. Often, after I was told to speak to a certain person, that person suddenly appeared later that day without my having to look for them. They in turn, would pass me along to someone else.
My meeting with Clayton Mack’s son, Dusty, was perhaps the most unexpected and effortless of my encounters. While Ellis and I were exploring the bush on the fringes of town, he again reminded me to seek out the junior Mack—which I had made a note to do. As we later came out of the forest and onto a gravel road, Ellis suddenly froze and stared at a pair of trucks parked in the distance.
“Well, what do you know,” he exclaimed. “There’s Dusty up ahead!”
He introduced me, and we started to talk at length about his father and life in the valley. Dusty was both quiet and soft-spoken—different in character from his father, who by all accounts was an extrovert.
“He was a natural storyteller,” Dusty said. “That’s something he had a gift for. He could keep everyone quiet by telling tales. It was like magic. He’d start talking and everyone would just listen. I kind of envied that.”
I wasted no time in turning the topic to the Sasquatch. Like most other people in the region, Dusty didn’t flinch when the subject came up. He confirmed the stories mentioned in his father’s books did take place, going so far as to recount them in his own words. Then he talked about another experience he had with his father more than two decades ago while at a remote lake deep in the wilderness.
“We heard something at about one in the morning that he couldn’t explain, and it scared me. I’ll tell ya, it was quite a noise. My dad said that in 40 years he’d never heard anything like that. It definitely wasn’t a bear or a cougar.”
I asked him to describe the sound.
“It was a long and drawn-out moan, a bit like a foghorn. It was moving fast in the woods—much louder and faster than any human could. When I heard that I loaded my gun—I had my grizzly bear gun with me.”
Dusty had to get back to work, and we hurriedly said our goodbyes. Following the exchange, Ellis and I made our way back to town. As we walked, I could see Ellis turning the conversation I had with Dusty over in his own mind. It was as if he were coming to terms with the fact that the Great Bear Rainforest, which he prided himself on knowing as well as anyone could, appeared to harbour an enigma which neither he nor anyone could fully explain. It was, admittedly, a great mystery.
What also became clear to me was that this large tract of incredible, untamed B.C. coastline is most definitely one of nature’s best and most stunning holdouts. Could therein lie a clue about the appeal of the Sasquatch? The idea of a quick, able-bodied and reclusive creature that is the personification of nature undoubtedly has resonance.
What is certain is whether a reality, an idea or both, the Sasquatch imbues our mental, cultural and geographical landscapes with added colours and layers of meaning—a wonder of which, in my opinion, there could never be enough.
- John Zada is a freelance journalist and photographer who travels the globe and writes regularly about its wide spectacular spaces.