“When we meet the grizzlies,” said our guide, “remember to keep quiet and stay still. Whatever you do, don’t run.”
There is an old saying that ‘the prospect of a hanging sharpens a man’s mind.’ The prospect of meeting grizzly bears on their home turf has much the same effect. Don’t run? Hey, how about don’t faint dead away?
We were walking quietly up a bear path alongside a creek in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. There were nine of us in the group. According to our guide, there is no known instance of a grizzly attacking a group of more than four people, which makes you ponder whether mathematics is a top priority for ursus horribilis.
The Great Bear Rainforest is the last truly wild unspoiled place on Planet Earth and the largest intact rainforest. At 32,000 square kilometres, it runs roughly from the north tip of Vancouver Island up to Prince Rupert along the B.C. coast, home to vast numbers of black bears, eagles, Orcas, humpback whales, porpoises, migratory birds, cougars, wolves, salmon, and grizzly bears. Also, what everyone wants to see, the mysterious and ghostly spirit bear.
Remote and mostly inaccessible, the best way to explore the depths of the forest and view its amazing wildlife is with an accredited guide. Philip Charles has been working for several years for Spirit Bear Lodge based in the tiny native village of Klemtu, leading guests on explorations of the Kitasoo Spirit Bear Conservancy. Today our goal is to see grizzlies, although meeting the beast face to face is not necessarily my own top priority.
“The females and cubs feel safe down here in the estuary,” explains Philip, as we quietly trudge up the path. “Proximity to humans keeps the big adult males hiding up in the hills. They are scared of people.”
“If you talk to the animals, they will talk to you, and you will know each other. If you do not talk to them, you will not know them, and what you do not know, you will fear. What one fears, one destroys.” – Chief Dan George
Personally I am scared of creatures like big adult male grizzlies that may reach 12 feet tall standing on their hind legs and weigh over 1,200 pounds. Suffice to say, I have my eyes and ears wide open. We are tracking a female and her three cubs spotted here yesterday. They seemed very relaxed, says Philip, and with luck we might be able to get close enough for a photo if we have the right camera lenses. Then, whoa! Suddenly we come around a bend and there they are, enjoying a lunch of spawning salmon down by the creek.
The three little cubs are terribly cute, not horrible at all, and mother bear is very calm although it’s obvious by the way she sniffs the air she knows we are close. Best not to get too close, I think. We sit quietly, watching, marvelling at the incredible beauty of the rainforest and the fact that we can safely view these beautiful animals in their natural habitat. Finally she stares at where we are hiding so, softly, off we go.
The next day I spend many hours quietly perched underneath a tree beside a creek on Princess Royal Island with two young field biologists, hoping to see a creature even more amazing than a grizzly. The all-white spirit bear is found only here in this small coastal region of British Columbia. The general consensus is that there are only 200 to 400 of the bears in existence, making them the rarest creature in the world, but the local Kitasoo people think that number may be greatly inflated. Their extensive research has shown there may be as few as 50 spirit bears in the region. My field biologists report they check 36 sampling sites in the Kitasoo Conservancy and on average only a couple of the white bears are seen per year. On this day we find tufts of white hair to prove one was here recently but we come up empty on actually seeing the beautiful creature.
Just sitting underneath the deep canopy of the silent forest is beauty enough, and I console myself that I have seen the white bear 3 different times on my different trips to Gitga’at territory to the north. Which makes me, according to the field biologists, a very lucky person indeed.
Then there are the whales. Did I mention whales? The Great Bear Rainforest is the perfect place to observe Orcas and humpbacks that swim these waters feeding on bountiful supplies of fish. On our way to the estuary to visit with grizzlies the radio carried news of two humpbacks, a mother and calf, “bubble net feeding” in the fjord we were following. Off we went to see.
The enormous creatures release tiny bubbles from their huge mouths, swimming in a circle that traps fish. Having rounded up their prey, they lunge to the surface and swallow their meal. Humpbacks range in length from 12 to 16 metres and can weigh as much as 36,000 kilos. Watching a mouth the size of a car on a creature the size of a city bus appear out of the depths is quite a sight. With luck, you might even witness a breach, wherein the entire humpback flies through the air with the greatest of ease.
Back at the plush comfort of Spirit Bear Lodge in Klemtu, supping on a sumptuous dinner, we swap memories of the day, and no one admits to being nervous in the presence of a carnivore that could have snacked on us for lunch. Truthfully, just being in the majestic presence of ursus horribilis certainly does sharpen the mind.
If you go
Spirit Bear Lodge