Coast History

The Norwegian explorer, Thor Heyerdahl, became famous for his expeditions in and across the South Pacific. But, well before this fame, he explored British Columbia’s central coast extensively, researching the lifestyles and origins of the indigenous people who live here. As a result of his investigation, he was later able to theorize about similarities among the British Columbian First Nations people and those who lived on far-removed Pacific islands. That gave rise to his theories – and later explorations – about indigenous peoples around the Pacific having related roots. Even though his theories were never accepted by anthropologists, Heyerdahl’s life’s work began in the inlets, islands, and mainland of this craggy coastline and directly led to his legendary explorations.

Of course, Heyerdahl wasn’t the first non-native person to explore these shores. In 1793, an intrepid 29-year old Scotsman named Alexander Mackenzie – accompanied by seven French Canadian voyageurs and two First Nations porters – paddled into the Dean Channel near present-day Bella Coola. That event completed the first crossing of North America to the Pacific. Before returning east, the explorer scrawled an inscription on a rock using a reddish mixture of bear grease and vermilion: ‘Alex Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, 22nd July, 1793.’ That rock still bears his words, permanently inscribed by surveyors who followed.

The highway through the Bella Coola Valley parallels the ancient trading route, or ‘grease trail’, taken by Alexander Mackenzie on his way to the sea in 1793. Long before Mackenzie’s arrival, the Nuxalk (nu-halk) people thrived here alongside the salmon-filled rivers. The valley was part of a trade corridor between coastal and interior native groups, where furs and leather were exchanged for salmon and eulachon (oo-lick-an) oil. The oil was obtained from the rendered fat of the small herring-like fish that was valued for its calories and vitamin content. It was then transported along the so-called ‘grease’ trails.

The landscape northwest of Bella Coola is some of the most isolated in the province. Across a 3,000,000hec/7,413,160ac area that lies within the Great Bear Rainforest, the largest remaining tract of unspoiled temperate rainforest left in the world. Several ancient First Nations cultural sites can be found here, as well as a striking array of wildlife, including the Kermode (or Spirit Bear), a rare, white-coated variation of the black bear that is sacred to B.C.’s First Nation people.

Explorers from Russia, Britain, France, and Spain also came to this region in the last quarter of the 18th century, motivated by the chance of trade, although Spain was here to protect its then territorial waters. Getting here by ship is much easier now than in either Mackenzie or Heyerdahl’s time. Ports of call may include Bella Bella, McLoughlin Bay, Shearwater, Klemtu, Ocean Falls, and the Hakai Pass.