“I made it” I thought to myself as I turned off the highway and onto the parking lot of the boat launch. It was a beautiful early fall day in the Atnarko valley. I had started out early that morning and the drive from Prince George to Williams Lake had been in the dark as I needed to make as much use of the daylight as possible. I had driven it so often that I know it like the back of my hand. A quick fill-up and I was ready to embark on my new adventure. Turning onto highway 20 I followed the road as it wound its way up the hill to the top of the Chilcotin plateau, revealing pretty new views with every new switchback. At the top of the plateau the road narrowed from four lanes to two. Road signs show distances of places like Riske Creek, Alexis Creek, Anahim Lake and Bella Coola. The numbers are rather large and this makes me appreciate the vastness of this province of British Columbia which I am proud to call home.
Another road sign catches my attention: “Junction Provincial Park – 21km”. California Bighorn sheep are known to frequent the area. So I turn left and follow the road across cattle guards through cattle country toward the “Junction”. I stop at a viewpoint overlooking the Chilcotin River Valley. From here I quickly scan the area with my binoculars – nothing. After about half an hour I decide that it is time to move on. After all this is only a side trip. My real purpose is to photograph the Atnarko River grizzlies. I follow the road back to the highway.
The highway winds its way west through cattle country interspersed with poor coniferous forests. It is dry up here, almost dessert like. I stop occasionally to take advantage of some photo opportunities. Just past Anahim Lake the pavement stops as I enter the south end of Tweedsmuir Provincial Park and, after a few more kilometers the Bella Coola valley lays before me.
My mind drifts back: I had been here before. Thirty some years earlier I found myself on the way to what would prove to be a not so memorable fishing trip with some friends. Bruce broke his outboard motor, Jimmy injured his knee, which would need surgery and I lost my chain saw. We also did not have any fish to show for all our efforts. That time we arrived at this very same spot just as the sun rose behind us. The valley was hidden under a low cloud cover and looked as if someone had thrown some rather large cotton balls into the valley. This scene was illuminated by the low, red sunlight which filtered in from behind us and gave it a magical pink glow. And, just to make the scene more surreal, Pink Floyd’s “Wish you were here” was playing on the tape deck; a tribute to my uncle who was tragically killed in an ultralight plane crash only a few weeks earlier. I did not take a photo that day but the memory of that panorama is still engraved in my brain to this day.
But I reminisce. I get back in my car and start the descent into the valley. Driving the Heckman Pass is not for the faint of heart. It is nothing more than a dirt road which is only one lane in most places with the odd pullout. Meeting traffic coming the other way in the wrong spot could be problematic. Finally, after a few tense moments, I reach the bottom of the hill. As I cross the bridge at the bottom I spot pavement on the other side. I follow the road until I see a sign “Bear Viewing”. I park my car at the boat launch parking lot and start walking toward the gate which bars the road. I notice a sign. It reads “Danger – Grizzly in Area – do not proceed”.
I have come too far and decide to pay extra attention as I move forward. I scan the area visually very carefully and work my way to the edge of the river. Along the way I noticed a powerful smell which grew stronger as I approached the river’s edge. And then the scene unfolds right before my eyes: approximately 250 meters downstream close to the opposite shore a grizzly stands upright on his hind legs in the river’s current fishing for salmon. A guided tour boat had anchored itself 75 meters in front of me on my side of the river and the patrons were busy taking photos of the bear. The source of the foul odor became also apparent. Hundreds of salmon carcasses were strewn across the shore and the river bottom, emitting a most powerful stench. I concentrate on taking my photos. I know it is a long distance even for a powerful lens but that has never scared me before and I start shooting. The grizzly made short work of the fish he caught, pulling off the fatty skin and discarding the remains of the fish. After several salmon had found their demise by the hand of this skillful predator the bear had enough and climbed onto the massive root and slowly disappeared behind it. I was disappointed. But, as it happens so often, the grizzly reappeared from behind the root and slowly walked out of the water, shaking himself and sending water droplets cascading through the air in a display of beauty and grace. That was when I spotted the second grizzly. He had been fishing right in front of the root the whole time but due to his coloration he blended beautifully into the background. Even now that I am aware of his presence he is hard to spot. The second bear keeps fishing for a little while. The two seem to communicate with each other and grizzly number two emerges from the cold water, shaking off any excess water as he went. Twenty minutes and the show is over as the grizzlies disappear into the bush on the opposite bank.
My timing could not have been better. I return to my car and followed the highway all the way to Bella Coola, rent a motel room and called it a day. The next morning I rise again early. I wanted to be on top of Heckman Pass just as early as the sun comes up. Perhaps an opportunity for a photo opportunity presented itself. Along the highway one of my friends from the day before was on his way to his favorite fishing hole. He was walking without a care in the world. When I pulled up to him he move quickly into the forest and that was the last I saw of him. The Heckman Pass is treacherous during the daytime but in the dark it is downright dangerous. I made it to the top just in time for the sunrise and had some nice photo ops, including the photo above.
My next order of the day was to find fuel for my car. I had tried to fill it up the night before but all gas stations had shut down for the night. It was shortly after 8:00am as I pulled into the only gas station in Anahim Lake. It was a cool Sunday morning in early October and the temperature hovered just above freezing. I was in luck. The gas station was open for business and the attendant on duty was eager to help me. I usually do not write about the people I meet along my travels but in this case I will make an exception. She was a pretty little thing with short blonde hair, warm brown eyes and pouty lips in her early to mid twenties. She was dressed in the western garb people wear in these parts. As she fills the tank of my car we strike up a conversation. I make a funny remark and she responds with a big smile. That was the moment when I had to muster all the decorum I had. She had very pretty teeth too with one flaw. Browned from the use of chewing tobacco with little pits sticking to them they reminded me of a very neglected toilet bowl. Wow. Only now do I spot the pouch of Redmen chewing tobacco sticking out from her shirt pocket. My gas tank is full. I quickly pay and drive off. I finally can smirk now. Poor girl.
There is not much going on in Anahim Lake these days. Several years ago the Mountain Pine Bark Beetle hit this area very hard. A sawmill established itself in the area and harvested all the beetle-infested wood and the community was humming. When the wood was gone they pulled out and all the jobs evaporated overnight. Spruce and pine need between 100 to 120 years to mature. Sometimes longer.
My next task is to find some breakfast and I remember a restaurant I spotted along the highway. I pull into the parking lot, park my car and walk up the stairs to the main entrance. I am about to open the door when I spot a sign: “Cash Only – We Do Not Accept Credit Cards Or Bank Cards”. Wow. I never carry cash so breakfast must wait. The last time that happened to me was in 1979 in Fort Nelson at a Chinese restaurant. A friend and I had to scramble to pay the bill that time. But this is 2015. Breakfast will just have to wait.
The rest of the trip is quite uneventful. I take some more landscape photos and I spot a young mule deer. He is hanging out on a small side road which leads into the forest and keeps looking at me. It is the height of hunting season. Lucky for him I do not hunt. I wish him good luck, take a few shots and move on. An eagle catches my attention. The his white head feathers are soiled with the blood from the deer carcass in the road ditch nearby. A few more eagle pictures, some more landscapes and I finally start the descent into Williams Lake. Only now can I finally have my breakfast. It is early afternoon. After finishing my breakfast I fill up the car again and head home. I need to get some rest because my day job is waiting for me tomorrow.
Where is the “Lesson Learned” you ask? That came several days later. When I am out shooting I never check the quality of my images. I do that in my home office on my computer without any distractions. When I looked at the grizzly shots I was somewhat disappointed. They all were not quite in focus. After examining the photos further I found that an area in front of the grizzlies were in perfect focus. This had only happened one other time when I shot some elk crossing a shallow Lake. The angle to the water seemed to be approximately the same as well as the distance of the animals in relations to the camera. I am meticulous of keeping my focal point on the subject during shooting. After mulling the problem over for a few days I went and took some test shots with the same results. Operator error was not the cause. After some deliberation I decided that from now on all low angle shots over long distances on water will be shot with manual focus only. Problem solved.
I actually think that I figured out what caused this out-of-focus experience but it gets very technical and I don’t want to bore anybody to death. Thank you for your visit. I hope you enjoyed it and please come back soon.
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