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British Columbia: Home of the Grizzly Bear

by Travelbag on 30 September 2019, 11:09AM

Brown bear Canada

On the west coast of Canada, British Columbia is an outdoor playground with some of the most spectacular scenery on earth – and some of its most inquisitive wildlife. The Great Bear Rainforest is so inaccessible it’s almost beyond the mouse-click of Google Maps. Even if you try and zoom in online, you’ll be hard pushed to find the luxury camps and indigenous lodges that hug the inlets in this 6.4-million-hectare wilderness. There are few roads in and out, and it’s really only accessible by an unforgettable, heart-in-mouth seaplane ride from cosmopolitan Vancouver. Is it worth the journey? Absolutely. Here, Mike MacEacheran spills the beans on his incredible adventure, when he went in search of grizzly bears in remotest Canada.


Tracking Wild Bears in Canada

How does it feel to be eye-balled by a grizzly? At first, there may be a rustle in the grass. There might also be an unnerving snap of a branch or the sound of a cracking root. And then, as a dark, shaggy-haired shape emerges into the clearing in front of you, expect your adrenalin levels to soar. In the cool rainforest air, you’ll realise that meeting a 1,000-pound grizzly bear isn’t something you could ever get used to. For me, it’s the first time I’ve ever felt edible.

Before my first bear safari, I’m told a number of seemingly straightforward survival rules. Rule one: do not disturb bears while they are eating, mating or rearing their young. Rule two: when walking in bear country alert the animals to your presence (our chosen call is ‘Hey bear’). Rule three: if confronted by a bear do not turn and run. Rule four: if attacked, curl up in a ball and play dead. Simple, right?

“Bears can get really irritable, especially when it’s mating season,” expert naturalist and bear-spotter Marg Leehane tells me. “I’ve had some close encounters over the years, but only when I’ve been out walking in the woods alone. Never in a group. And even that’s something I haven’t done in a long time.”

As it happens, playing dead isn’t strictly necessary on our tour. Not because grizzlies aren’t impulsively aggressive – that’s only in the movies. It’s because I’ve come to the rainforest at the peak of the grizzly breeding season in late spring, meaning it’s too dangerous to track them by land. So by mid-morning, we’re out on Smith Inlet’s glassy water in a tin canoe, packed like sardines, where we can see the bears from the safest, most secure vantage point.

“The key to grizzly watching is routine,” says Marg, as she paddles us along the shore towards patches of lush, green grasses – the habitat for flirty males and females. “We do the same every day, so there are no surprises for the bear. It makes it a stress-free environment for them and for us.”

All this wilderness – and there’s plenty of it – has encouraged a certain type of like-minded adventurer to move into this remote tract of British Columbia. Luxury lodges are commonly owned by First Nations peoples such as the indigenous Kitasoo Xai’xais, which runs the pioneering Spirit Bear Lodge near the community of Bella Coola. But there’s also a muddle of biologists and wilderness guides, vets and former heads of security. One tells me he finds it easier to work with grizzlies than humans.

But in a landscape as beautiful as this, I begin to see what he means. The following day, on an interpretative wildlife walk, we tread carefully down a frequently-used bear track calling ‘Hey bear’ as we go. “We really don’t want to walk into a bear denning down for an afternoon nap,” says Marg, assuring me with a canister of bear spray attached to her belt. “Now, that would be awkward.”

Brown bear catching salmon


Beyond the Bears

The grizzly bears are, of course, the main reason I’m here – but there’s so much more to this corner of Canada. From the air, the world’s largest coastal temperate rainforest unfolds as a land of screensaver archipelagoes and wiggly fjords that reach back like hooks into the glacier-capped Coastal Mountain range. Some call it “Yosemite by the Sea”. There’s also the hyper-real drama of its giant Sitka spruce trees, concealing a North American ‘Big Five’ of cougar, wolf, grizzly, black bear and spirit bear – a beautiful subspecies with bright white fur. Did I mention you can go whale-watching in the likes of Finlayson Channel, too?

Mother Nature flourishes around us. From scurrying mink and surreal banana slugs to salmon and thimble berry bushes and salamander spawn, the rainforest is alive. The old growth forest is populated by trees — lichen-covered red alder, hemlock, cedar and citrus groves — that have more stories than your local library. Check the history books there and you’ll find the rainforest still holds healthy populations of every wildlife species present when Captain Vancouver first sailed up the Pacific coast in 1793.

Farther up the channel on our walk is the Nekite River, where grizzlies appear in autumn to feed on migrating salmon. This is the acrobatic creature few are lucky enough to see: focused, industrious and relaxed in its natural habitat. At play, the bears grasp for salmon as they flutter and flip their way back up the river to spawn. I’m told there are a number of wildlife hides positioned on the banks, but to my mind they sound more like baseball bleachers for watching the game of the season – albeit one with grizzlies. 

And yet, there’s far more than just the drama of the brown bears. During an exhilarating boat ride on my last day, I spot three black bears, including a rare encounter with a mother and cub, and a pod of harbour seals playing off shore. Then, while returning to camp, I watch a bald eagle circling above us before it vanishes, scared-off by a buzzing float plane that swoops in to drop off the lodge’s next guests.

It’s my cue to leave for Vancouver and its oyster bars, craft beer joints and best-in-Canada cuisine. But it’s also a reminder that no matter how wild and wonderful this colossal rainforest is, it’s within reach for those with epic adventure in mind. Sometimes, more really can be more.

Great Bear Rainforest, Canada


Have your own adventure on our six-day Spirit Bear Lodge Tour, as you search for bears and whales. Or, take a look at our other holidays to Canada.

Want more inspiration? Flick through our Escape magazine.

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