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Step Back in time in the Bella Coola Valley


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Wake up, rock of ages, you've got guests. That was the gist of the welcoming song offered by Nuxalk Nation guide Chris Xawisus Nelson during a walking tour of an outdoors petroglyph cache in the Bella Coola Valley.

Sequestered in the forest above the pale-green waters of Thorsen Creek, a host of images drawn from the realms of both animal and supernatural worlds stared out in silent testimony to the visions of their creators. One of the most arresting figures on display was a frog face with a wide-eyed, goofy grin complete with an outstretched tongue that would do Gene Simmons proud.

Accompanied by his twin brother, Lance, with whom he teaches Nuxalk culture in local schools, Nelson translated the words of the traditional welcoming song as: "They have arrived on the waterfront. To the ones I know, I will place eagle down on them." He added that anointment with eagle down signifies guests may travel among the Nuxalk in peace and safety. "The Nuxalk have always been a welcoming people" he said. "Welcome home."

On behalf of their tribal elders, the Nelson brothers act as cultural ambassadors for travellers curious to learn more about aboriginal history. On a half-hour walk to the petroglyph site, Chris told Pique "It's one thing to know your culture; it's another thing to live your culture the way my brother and I do." He added that before a series of smallpox and measles epidemics decimated Nuxalk villagers in the 19th century, the Native population in the Bella Coola region numbered 30,000. Reduced in size to hundreds, levels have since rebounded and currently number several thousand.

Rich odours scented the air: moist earth, decomposing vegetal matter, herbaceous ground cover abetted by a host of fungi, all blended together to form a pungent perfume. Sounds of the creek as it coursed through a narrow canyon on its way to join the Bella Coola River impelled one foot in front of the other.

A naturally-formed stone staircase climbed the hillside. With little fanfare, first one petroglyph, then another, appeared. The Nelsons described a circle containing a human hand as symbolizing the Earth and its people. "The carvings have been placed here to remind us that life is for learning and to keep an open mind," observed Chris. "For example, the image of a frog suggests moving forward through the changes of its life, from egg to tadpole to adult. At each stage, a frog accepts the transformation before carrying on."

The higher up the trail the Nelsons explored, the more images were revealed until the forest was populated with constellations of carvings, a reminder of the numerous artists who have spent time there over centuries of creativity. Place an outstretched hand on one to feel a cool, intimate connection to an ancient past.

"Our elders believe that we Nuxalk share parallel belief systems as expressed in the Bible as well as African animistic religions," explained Chris as he folded back a layer of forest duff to reveal the image of a turtle. "Turtle Island—the idea that North America grew on the back of a tortoise — is a concept commonly shared among indigenous groups. My brother and I act as heralds for our people and invite everyone to witness these stories on stone."

Pioneer boots, animal hooves, and wagon wheels have all left their marks on Tweedsmuir Provincial Park's pioneer Atnarko Tote Road, 75 kilometres east of the petroglyph site as the raven flies. Care to add your own imprint to the venerable supply route? These days the original land link between the Interior and Central Coast regions is a popular walking and mountain biking trail in Bella Coola's eastern ambit.

You'll not only be tracking the province's pathfinders though: Incredible Hulk also rambled along here in a Disney production filmed in 2007. Much like the shape-shifting antihero, the Atnarko River normally traces its way beside the road at a quiet pace that masks a darker side: swollen by storms, the waterway can do an about face, ravage its banks and wash away bridges, such as the span across Young Creek at the trailhead. "HULK SMASH!" indeed.

The bridge was where Pique met up with Doug Baker, a valley naturalist and hiking guide at Tweedsmuir Park Lodge who leads eco-walks on the Tote Road to the Robson pioneer homestead that lies halfway along the 11-kilometre route. Coast Mountain peaks soar above the crowns of black cottonwoods and Douglas firs. Unlike mid-valley cloudrakers like Stupendous Mountain, the ridges of nearby Mount Marvin and Cariboo Mountain taper rather than plummet to the valley floor.

Along for the ramble, lodge owner Peter "Swede" Mattson maintained that the skyline in the 80-kilometre-long Bella Coola Valley is even more impressive than the Rockies. "Here, we're only at 180 metres elevation and look up at 3,000-metre peaks. In Banff, you're already at 1,460 metres." To drive his point home, he noted that the rainforest tree line climbs much higher as well, making the scenery even more beautiful in fall when frost turns larch needles and aspen leaves gold.

Hay fields framed by split-log fences foretold the homestead's appearance. Garlanded by wild roses, the chink-walled Robson cabin is most famous as the Hulk's refuge. What would green-skinned star Edward Norton make of the silver-tipped grizzly mom and cub who suddenly appeared from the huckleberry bushes on the opposite riverbank? Probably freeze in his tracks in amazement. As the sow eased her way into the river, the yearling made like a comic book hero and launched off the bank after her, Superman-style. The duo noiselessly emerged, shook off, and then padded up a talus slope—a magical memory to tote for a lifetime.

Pique contributor Jack Christie is the author of The Whistler Book (Greystone). For more information, visit www.jackchristie.com