By Jonny Bierman
British Columbia has been sculpted through time by an element so powerful, it’s moved mountains. Water chooses its own path and changes with every season – much like the wildlife it supports and the vegetation it feeds. As an avid outdoorsman, I’ve long been drawn to salt and freshwater for my aquatic adventures. Last year, I discovered a secret season where rivers come to life, lakes reflect golden colours, and the salmon bring the ocean to the rainforest. The season is autumn, full of life and action. It was this season that transformed my connection with water and nature.
The Cariboo Chilcotin Coast is home to the world’s largest coastal temperate rainforest – The Great Bear Rainforest – and it’s alive from the ocean floor to the glacier-capped mountaintops. Its wildlife thrives in a place that is unphased by the outside world and listens only to the moon, tides, seasons and, most importantly, the salmon migration. Autumn touring in the Great Bear Rainforest comes in the form of small cruise expeditions that take visitors through uncharted waters, glacial fjords, remote islands and unnamed estuaries. There’s a big reason why we visit this place in the autumn – bear viewing. As the salmon make their annual migration from the ocean to the rivers, they bring an abundance of food and energy necessary for wildlife to survive the winter ahead.
It was one such venture that I was fortunate enough to enjoy. As we rafted down the Atnarko river in the Bella Coola Valley and walked the riverbank, salmon carcasses with evidence of bears and eagles feeding on them were endless. We were searching for wildlife and clearly we were in the right place. It wasn’t long into the trip before we saw a kingly grizzly bear feeding below from a bear viewing platform. Our local Indigenous guide interpreted his people’s connection to the land and animals while salmon splashed around, teasing their not-always successful furry hunters above.
No one day is the same out there, and our stay in the Bella Coola put us in the path of magic each and every moment. Magic came from the sky as the northern lights lit up the night (a sight hard to see with the long summer days, but easier as the nights become longer in autumn and winter). It came from the ocean as seals, dolphins and whales could be spotted from the ferry deck throughout the day as we journeyed from Port Hardy to Bella Coola, and from the rainforest with the countless land-dwelling animals unphased by our presence and mostly concerned about their next meal. Through seven days of transformational experiences and unforgettable connections, I learned the Great Bear Rainforest is a gift – and this gift is best opened in the autumn.
When water chooses its path, its destination is always, eventually, the ocean. In BC, all waters end up in the Pacific Ocean but where they came from is a different story. The element that has shaped this province over millennia usually starts at glaciers and in the South Chilcotin, a floatplane ride will bring the ancient ice to life.
On another trip, I discovered this colourful season in a dramatically different part of the region. After a scenic five-hour drive from Vancouver, we arrived in the Bridge River Valley – the gateway to the South Chilcotin Mountains. Most activities out here – whether it be lakeside overnight ‘glamping’ trips (fully catered comfort tent camping), hiking or biking – involve a horseback trip or floatplane ride. Autumn here can arrive early due to the elevation and, as nights cool off, the countless lakes reflect the golden foliage from changing trees lining their shores. BC from above offers a different perspective and, any chance I get, I climb into a floatplane and explore. This time out, the first stop was the Bridge Glacier where I learned of the existence of freshwater icebergs. After soaring over alpine lakes and mountain peaks, we cut in over the glacier before landing on the lake and cruising next to icebergs larger than a house. From beginning to end, the trip took us over valleys painted with golden fall browns and azure-blue lakes in unimaginable natural contrasts that can only exist in these mountains.
The Bridge River Valley is very much a “choose your own adventure” kind of place. While soaring above got my adrenalin pumping, I was more at peace while channelling my inner pioneer on a horse pack trip. Accommodations can range from glamping (a pampering way to experience nature up close while enjoying the luxuries of a soft bed and delicious meals), to lodges and cabins. No matter the adventure option you choose, an autumn experience in the South Chilcotin will bring you closer to a part of the province that I’ll bet you never knew existed and at this time of year. Best of all, you’ll have it all to yourself.
Driving east from the Bridge River Valley to Lillooet, the autumn adventures continued through dramatic mountain scenery as Pioneer Rd 40 snaked through the valley bottom. Towering peaks with roadside waterfalls, rich vegetation, scrambling mountain goats, and the feeling of a real “off the beaten path” road trip kept me entertained before arriving at the confluence of the Bridge and Fraser rivers.
I mentioned at the start of this story how this season transformed my connection with water and nature. Well, this transformation actually goes deeper. I learned more about the season and its cultural importance through an eco-cultural tour with Splitrock Environmental. Their guide referred to nature and the planet as ‘Mother Earth’ or the ‘Creator’, and put our recent natural experiences and adventures into perspective as we paid respect and thanked the Creator for what was provided. I found my own connection while learning about theirs as we learned about Indigenous environmental stewardship through an interpretive walk into salmon estuaries and then both sampled and purchased locally foraged teas and soaps from the gift shop.
Water’s relationship and its importance with seasons gave me a new appreciation of the element itself, and with the land. Travelling in this season brings with it uncrowded destinations and a better chance to connect with the nature surrounding you. I discovered autumn as my new secret season. Plan your own trip to the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast to explore our secret season – browse an itinerary to explore fall colours through Canim Lakes & The Interlakes region, or download our regional visitor’s guide to get started.