An eagle flies through an opening in the morning mist. Photographer Michael Wigle titled the image “Dream Time” which became the cover for his book, Life in the Heart of the Coast Mountains. Michael Wigle photo

Photographer captures magic of the Bella Coola Valley

From bears, to eagles, to people, nothing’s off limits for Michael Wigle

By Lindsay Chung

Coast Mountain News contributor

Michael Wigle has been working as a freelance photographer in the Bella Coola Valley for decades. He has spent countless hours photographing wildlife, landscapes and people. But he doesn’t hesitate when asked about his most memorable photography experiences. One moment still stands out.

“Years ago when I was still shooting film, I was standing on a bridge, the clouds started to rise and I could see blue sky and a mountain tip,” he says. “The Bella Coola River was in the foreground. This eagle flew into the blue hole in the sky. Luckily, its wings were outstretched, so you could tell what it was. I only had the one shot. It was serendipity, being in the right place at the right time. That became the cover of our book, Bella Coola: Life in the Heart of the Coast Mountains.”

Wigle moved to Bella Coola 34 years ago. He got into photography a few years after that.

“It was all job-related, initially,” he says. “I was working at our local salmon hatchery at the Snootli Creek facility. Someone gave me a camera and said ‘document this channel.’ I was so surprised how bad I was – that got me into learning how to take a better photo.”

Wigle, who is 70, started off doing macro photography work, collecting and photographing tiny aquatic insects, then trying to identify them.

“I was curious as to what salmon fed on, and I collected aquatic insects,” he says. “The first five years, I did macro work. It was quite a journey actually. After that, I started getting into the wider world. I just wanted to become better. My compositions were awful. The first couple of years were just spent learning about exposure, shutter speeds, aperture. It was the film days.”

Read more: Bull moose makes himself at home in Bella Coola Valley

Wigle devoted a lot of time to learning about photography and about cameras and started buying his own equipment.

“I became obsessive, really,” he says. “It’s a passion and obsession, really, to get better. For me, I found it the best way to express myself.”

Wigle finds a lot to be inspired by every day, and he loves the learning that comes with spending time in nature with wild animals.

“After doing it for so long, I learn more about my subjects every day,” he says. “I like observing what’s going on around me, especially the wildlife. Anything that creeps and crawls, I’m interested in. I photograph a lot of eagles, and at first, I wanted to get as close as I could, but then I thought ‘I could be in a zoo and do that.’ I tend to always want a creature in a scene to show where it lives, its habitat. Background is really important to me, whether it’s a mountain top, or it could be a spider on a web.”

“Some of my bear photos, if I see a grizzly, I’m just awestruck by them, especially if they have cubs – they’re so animated,” he adds. “I’ve probably photographed 100 bears since I’ve been here. And I’ll never tire of seeing them.”

Wigle, who was principal photographer for the book Bella Coola: Life in the Heart of the Coast Mountains and co-principal photographer for Birds of the Raincoast, says over the years, he has probably used every format of camera. He bought his first digital camera in 2004, and he hasn’t used film since.

To view sample files of Wigle’s photographs online, visit Michael Wigle Photography.

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A mother grizzly stands guard looking after her three, second year cubs while feeding on the Chum salmon run in the lower valley recently. Photographer Michael Wigle has been capturing the wildlife in the Bella Coola Valley and beyond since he first visited the valley in 1984 and never left. “I couldn’t ask for a better studio,” he said of being a photographer in the area. Michael Wigle photo

A mother grizzly wrestles with her male cub in a local river. Michael Wigle photo

Showing their more playful side, these grizzlies investigate a rope holding a boat. Michael Wigle photo

Eagles are another favourite subject for photographer Michael Wigle. Michael Wigle photo

The Bella Coola Valley is abundant in wildlife. Michael Wigle photo

The Sputc (Eulachon) Ceremony has been occurring every year on the banks of the lower Bella Coola River in late March since 2014. Photographer Michael Wigle said the valley is a beautiful, magical place where everything grows in abundance. “You can tell it’s a generous valley because the people are the same.” Michael Wigle photo

Photographer Michael Wigle has been focused on capturing the wildlife and people of the Bella Coola Valley for many years. Wigle estimates he’s photographed more than 200 different bears in the valley. “I’m just in awe of them. You just can’t believe the power of them and how well they look after their young.” Photo submitted

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