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Every morning we face a crazed camp counselor clasping a clipboard, disheveled in a hoody and track pants, dirty-blond hair escaping the confines of a soiled baseball cap, hand-rolled cigarette behind his ear. He barks news updates, weather reports and bad jokes. He looks like he should be cleaning garbage bins or fiddling under the hood of a truck, but no-he's the owner and director of Bella Coola Heli Sports. Rough, rude, and remarkable, cowboy guide Peter 'The Swede' Mattson is synonymous with the history of big-mountain skiing in B.C.'s Coast Range. The Swede might be just another northern Euro who loves slam-dancing and Iggy Pop, but for years he was also the most in-demand guide and location coordinator for Whistler's considerable film industry. Though celebrated for his wiry ways, when you get past The Swede's crusty exterior and peel away the layers you find a heart of gold with more tales than you can imagine. He's tack sharp in the mountains, scary when he's drunk, and, more importantly, loved by all.
Fishing guide Leslie Koroluk was born in northern Saskatchewan and has fished all over Canada from B.C. to Labrador to the Arctic. He was a hand-logger on the B.C. coast before turning to guiding. Now 65, he lives in Bella Coola with a wife 30 years his junior and a two-year old. Propped in the bow of his drift-boat, he talks about the effects of climate change and commercial fisheries-first they destroyed the herring and ulican, salmon's natural food, then fished the salmon mercilessly for decades. Once 20 canneries squatted in the inlet; now there are none. "Commercial fleets destroyed the fish stocks," he says, "and native abuse is ruining what's left." This day the Antarko's boiling waters are at a 35-year high, flooding into the surrounding Cottonwood forests where bears splash through looking for stranded salmon. The ripping current is so strong you can hear rocks rushing along the river bottom like glass beads. "Conditions are tough today... but we'll find some fish," he says. And we do.
Following the historic Grease Trail-a native trade-route named for the ulican oil bartered along it-explorer Alexander Mackenzie ended an epic two-year crossing of the continent in Bella Coola in 1793 only to find he'd missed Captain George Vancouver-and a ride home to England-by two weeks. Explorers Sir Edmund Hilary and Thor Heyerdahl also visited, attempting to unravel the mystery of local rock-art resembling that found in the South Pacific. Is there a Polynesian connection to the enigmatic Nuxalk culture that flourished here for thousands of years? Perhaps, though the Nuxalk now lay claim to the ancient, inelegant petroglyphs carved into smooth granite along Thorsen Creek. It took lifetimes to etch the designs with hand-held rocks, but why were bug-eyed figures of grizzlies, snakes and frogs carved here? Perhaps because when the creek is high, giant, car-sized boulders roll downriver making thunderous noises. The petroglyphs drape a promontory that would have overlooked this surreal sight, inspiring superstition, magic and reverence.