As I write this post we are now on the long journey back to Vancouver and sadly flying back home to the UK tomorrow morning (Saturday 24th) so this will be our last blog post of our trip. Our time spent in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park (Bella Coola) cannot be described as anything less than simply brilliant!
Whilst in the area we had a good combination of guided activities as well as plenty of free time to do our own thing, most of which was spent glued to the bear viewing station, come rain or shine.
We had many awesome experiences and despite there being a real scarcity of bears compared to previous years (as per comments from both park staff and retruning visitors)we still had some really good sightings and would most definitely return to this area.
A few things stand out from our time here and below is just a few snippets of these.
For our first full day (18th) we had a full day guided hike pre-booked from the UK by Wildlife Trails. Whilst Andy and I are used to being in close proximity to predators, specifically African Cats we have little experience in hiking in Bear country so rather than take any risks and also to benefit from essential local knowledge a guided hike was the best option.
Doug was our guide for the day, a seasoned local to the area and passionate about all the flora and fauna of the Bella Coola valley. We had discussed the plan for the day the evening prior and our focus was as you would expect to hopefully see bears and perhaps if we were lucky other wildlife, but this time on foot rather than from the viewing station or car.
Starting off at 9am and excited about the prospect of being on foot in bear country Doug took us to his first ‘secret spot’ very close to our lodge. Here he had often seen the Grizzly Bears fishing for Salmon. As we negotiated a step rocky trail down to our first point Doug talked about the local vegetation and warned us of stepping on small toads that liked this particular path. As he talked about the toads in more detail he then stopped and said “there’s one”, so here is Andy and I looking on the ground for a toad, only to then realise after a split second that he was not talking about a toad but a Grizzly just around the corner near a rock!. Ten minutes into the walk and already we almost bumped into a bear! The wind direction was not in our favour and straight away it seemed that the bear had clocked us and moved away fast, although perhaps there was another reason this young/sub adult has moved away so fast? With ‘bearly’ anytime to absorb he was gone but already the adrenaline was pumping, this was freaking awesome!
We decided to sit in this spot for a little longer, a small sheltered rocky cove where we could see the salmon were congregating and obviously why the bears liked this spot. As we were sitting there and as Doug was telling us lots of interesting information about the area we all suddenly noticed more movement to our right. There further upstream and some 100 metres away was another Grizzly! This time it was a big one! Its huge size and the way it confidently swaggered in the river, meant it surely had to be a male. As it came close we were right, and it was the same male we had seen the day previous at the Bear viewing station.
Andy was quick to get the tripod out and the ‘big gun’ ready (a.k.a the 500mm lens). I (Sarah) on the other hand felt like I was glued to the spot, in awe of this amazing creature as he came closer and closer to where we were. Perhaps this was why the other bear has moved away so quick, having caught the scent of a big male approaching on the wind? We discussed an ‘escape’ plan to be safe but given Doug’s experience in the area we knew we were safe, but having a ‘plan’ is always a good thing. Similar rules apply to approaching Grizzlies as they do with the ‘big cats’, never run and always stand your ground, making yourself tall but without confronting the bear in an aggressive manner, which may cause him to act defensively. However, in the event of an attack the action is very different to what you would do with a Black bear. With Grizzlies the key is to protect your head and neck and play dead, rather than fight back as you would do with a Black Bear. Neither Andy and I intended to practice either of these techniques on this trip but its always important to know what to do just in case!
The male was coming closer and closer on the other side of the river. Andy was trying to get as many shots as he could, although many obscured by the rocks and vegetation and even with a long lens he was some distance away still. I decided against getting the tripod out and tried my very best to get some images. However, I was just shaking with excitement and the adrenaline pumping way to much to even entertain the idea of getting anything sharp or in focus so I gave up and decided to just enjoy this moment. The male (one that locals affectionately call ‘Mac’ or ‘Lefty’, due to a missing part of his left ear) had by now moved to being right opposite us. We had just 30 feet of river separating us and a male grizzly.
In normal circumstances you could seek sanctity in the fact that water was a good barrier. However, with Grizzlies this is by no means the case, just a few bounds and he could have been on our side of the river in a flash. The cameras were clicking and by this point he had noticed our presence, looking up with an arrogance and manner as if to say ‘I could eat you for breakfast, but I wont” he then carried along on his way, intent on getting the biggest and best Salmon he could. He could see we were no threat as we had stood calm and quiet.
It’s often a misconception that Grizzlies are intent on killing people and the reason why many are shot through being misunderstood. Far from it. If you act in the right way, don't surprise them, are careful and read their behaviour then being on foot with Grizzlies can be perfectly safe. No sooner had he passed us he was then gone around the bend of the river. It was one amazing experience to have been on foot in the presence of a Grizzly and a male at that. We left the area quietly all excited about our encounter.
The rest of the day was spent with Doug, hiking and exploring many different fishing spots for the bears and walking through the most enchanting forests and seeing the most beautiful creeks. I was convinced that this is where fairies would live and Andy politely put up with my silly fantasies!!! We continued to see the evidence of the great flood the year prior and could only imagine the power of the water as it has carried 100 foot trees down the river, snapping them from their roots as if they were matchsticks. Doug pointed out the ‘day beds’ that Grizzlies use as well as lots of other interesting features of this beautiful area. We sat and watched the Salmon spawn and then occasionally leap out of the water in what Doug calls the ‘last leap of life’. So although our hike focused on bears there were a huge amount of other really interesting features along the way.
As we sat at one fishing spot and as Doug showed us how the water had intricately carved beautiful sculptures in the rock. I then rather casually tapped Doug on the shoulder and said ‘Doug, theres a bear over there!”. Doug stopped, turned around and there was a Black bear, just opposite us on the river bank. He did not seem to know we were there, fished out of the water what looked to be a large Chinnock Salmon and then casually moved back into the forest to consume his catch. It was quite a surreal experience, and one that Doug advised was not that common to see given that the Black Bears are very shy in the area, particular the river banks due to the menacing presence of the larger Grizzlies (They will kill Black Bears) .
All in all our walk was fantastic, not just because of the bear sightings but also listening to the Doug and benefitting from his experience in the area.
At this point the weather was being kind to us, overcast but fortunately dry. This was great as we also had booked a couple of ‘drifts’ along the river. It was on these trips we hoped to gain an eye level perspective of the bears fishing on the Atnarko in a rowing boat with just Andy and I plus our local guide, in this case a lovely chap called Jim. The first drift was a quiet one in terms of bears, we had a glimpse of one Grizzly and another short sighting of a female bear fishing just near where disembarked the boat.
However, the second drift was slightly more action packed in terms of bears. As we carved our way silently through the river we heard a distinct rustle in the bushes on the river bank and as Andy and I advised Jim that we thought a bear was around t suddenly appeared, a female bear. She walked nonchalantly along the bank and then down into the river, totally aware of our presence but relaxed with us being there. She spent around 15 minutes walking around and swimming, intent on getting her fish breakfast. Being on the boat gives another totally different perspective to walking or the viewing stand and most certainly the best one for photography. We managed a few nice shots before she moved around the corner and here we left her.
As we moved around another river bend I saw two splashes in the water, by this point you get used to seeing splashes in the river, caused the the occasionally leaping salmon but this was different. Before I alerted Andy and Jim I needed to check through the binoculars that I was not about to raise a false alarm. Soon I realised I was right, two bears around 100 metres ahead, close to the rocks. Jim put the boat in ‘full speed’ and rowed with all of his might. We stopped some distance back and watched as we realised it was two older cubs, around 3-4 years old frolicking in the water. Although we use the word cub they are pretty much full size and now independent of mum (although they will likely den together this coming winter). We sat and watched then play fight, one male and one female stopping every now and then to catch a fish before moving along the river at a speed that we just never associated with Grizzlies. They really gave quite a show and with Andy at the front of the boat and tripod set up he managed a few really nice shots of these guys. Jim was also frantically taking shots, and when you see a local doing this you know you are seeing something quite special! We left the bears after 20 minutes, all ecstatic and totally ampled about what a wonderful sighting it was.
That afternoon we then booked another drift with Jim, hoping to perhaps get sight of the cubs again, sadly we were not lucky. They had given us there show for today and for that we were grateful but along the way we did see another Grizzly very briefly and also a black bear foraging along what was the old part of the river before the floods carved a new course.
The rest of our time in the valley was spent with some nice sightings at the bear viewing station, and some afternoons with no sightings at all. Unfortunately by the evening of the 20th very heavy rain had arrived in the valley and continued without abating at all until we left on the 22nd. The water level rose during this time considerably and everyone was hoping that there would no be a repeat of last years flood as heavy rain was forecast for the next few days. The rain did not stop ‘The Skinners’ from donning as many waterproofs as we could muster, covering the cameras with everything but the kitchen sink and still spending hours waiting for bears. We were dedicated that was for sure and there was no way we were letting rain spoil our last few days, even though it did stop us doing our longer drift to see the Bald eagles further down on the Bella Coola river, the rain was just far too heavy for this. Oh well, thats another great excuse to return to Bella Coola!
Our time in Bella Coola soon came to an end, neither Andy or I wanted to leave but we knew we had to, all good things have to come to an end eventually. Together with all the other amazing places that we visited this was a incredible trip that has surpassed any expectations we had prior.
In the course of our trip we have driven in excess of 2700 km, passing vast forests, crossing deep canyons, driving alongside river courses and through huge cattle ranches. As well as putting on far too many pounds (way too many donuts!) and have been bitten by midges and flies more times than we would care to remember. Along the way we have met some great people, some of whom we hope will be friends for years to come. We have found the Canadians to be incredibly friendly and always happy to please. It is safe to say that Canada is truly an amazing place and we would at the drop of a hat urge anyone to visit and enjoy the stunning scenery, amazing wildlife, remote wilderness and interesting geology that Canada has to offer.
At this point we would also like to say a huge thank you to Allan and the team at Wildlife Trails (www.wildlifetrails.co.uk) for all their hard work in creating the perfect trip for us. Without their expert knowledge of this area we would not have had such an amazing time. Our accommodation was perfect in every sense, the locations that had been hand picked by Allan and James were absolutely perfect and the bespoke itinerary created for us was absolutely spot on. If getting off the beaten track is one for you then Wildlife Trails should definitely be your first port of call.
Thanks also to everyone that has endured our often lengthy posts on this blog and I hope it inspires others to go and visit Canada! Our images from our trip will soon be posted on our website (www.imagesofwildlife.co.uk) and we will post on this blog when they are uploaded.
Until the next of the ‘Skinner adventures’ we will say bye for now and Canada we will see you again and we hope sometime soon. However, not before we take a trip back to Kenya in a few months to check up on our extended feline family. Oh and did someone say bear cubs in Jasper? Mmmm, now theres a thought!...........
Grizzly takes a stroll past the viewing station
The two sub adults/older cubs - taken from the drift boat
Female bear at the viewing station
Andy rather excited after the close encounter on foot as the bear moves away
Part of the Atnarko River - taken during our hike with Doug
Evidence of a Grizzly recently feeding on Salmon
Evidence of a previous landslide in the Bella Coola Valley
Beautiful scenery whilst on the drift on the Atnarko River
Huge trees uprooted and moved during the flood in 2010
Andy photographs the two bears from the drift
Andy doing a great impression of 'Darth Vader' whilst trying to keep dry during heavy rain
After a brief night in Vancouver, followed by one and a half days traveling (around 12 hours driving in total), stopping en route at a great guest lodge in the pioneer town of Riske Creek we finally arrived in Bella Coola, sadly the last location of our trip.
It is here in Bella Coola that we will again focus our efforts on Grizzly Bears and hopefully Bald Eagles. As we descended into the valley via a steep and slightly nerve racking mountain pass we could see below us the Atnarko River. Alongside Bute and Knight Inlet this part of Tweedsmuir Provincial park is renowned for its Grizzly population in BC and where many of the shots of Grizzlies fishing along salmon spawning channels have been taken in Canada.
There are at least three Salmon species commonly found in the Atnarko, Coho, Pink Salmon, and the larger Chinnock Salmon. The latter being the favourite among the Grizzly bears. In addition other species such as Sock Eye are also found.
After stocking up with food in the local town (around thirty minutes away) we headed off to settle into our cabin, which would be our home for the next five nights.
On arrival it felt as if we had ‘died and gone to heaven’. The basic fisherman’s cabin that we would stay in was way better than we had expected. Surrounded by mountain peaks in excess of 8000ft our self catering cabin sat in the grounds of a beautiful lodge, enclosed by long grass meadows that ran all the way down toward the river itself. Just the previous day a Grizzly Bear sow was spotted resting just metres from where our cabin was located. We had everything we needed to be totally self sufficient and it sounded like we could even have bears on our doorstep! It would be quite easy to stay here forever and could only wish that we more than five nights here.
However, despite a long drive there was no time to relax yet, all the time there was daylight ‘operation bear’ was on!
Just 1.5km away there is a purpose built bear viewing station, whilst its sounds a little ‘artificial’ this station has sadly become a necessity due to a few previous incidents that have compromised both the safety of the bears and humans where. Sadly it only takes one incident by someone lacking respect for wildlife that means rules have to change and control has to be instigated.
It ‘sits’ much lower than those stands we had seen in Bute Inlet so was potentially going to be much better from a photography perspective (the lower the perspective the better for getting an ‘animals eye view’). The station, open from 7am - 7pm overlooks a total distance of around 0.75km of the Atnarko River, both up and downstream where the river is shallow and full of spawning salmon and those who continue their quest further upstream. There is certainly plenty of room at the viewing station with a low fence and guarded by an armed ranger at all times.The ranger also on hand to answer any questions with regard to bear and other endemic wildlife behaviour that can be seen.
It was great to talk to other photographers at the viewing stand and listen to stories of previous encounters and sightings. Of course It did not take long to hear the immortal words no wildlife enthusiast or photographer wants to hear! “you should have been here yesterday, we had five Grizzly bears all in the river at the same time”! Well, we were sure that our time would come, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow or even on this trip perhaps but at some point we would get to see more Grizzlies!
We again heard stories that this year the bear viewing had been very slow and less bears in numbers in contrast to previous years, despite a good Salmon run this year. The potential reasons for less sightings are said to have been caused for an additional reason to those on the previous post.
Last year, at this same time Bella Coola suffered what has been described by most locals as a catastrophic flood. The river rose to record levels, many houses and cabins were swept away for good. It was described as the 200 year flood. People were evacuated, roads were washed out and the river burst its banks at many places, then becoming blocked by huge trees that came down in the flood. The evidence of these floods can be seen all across the Bella Coola valley. The terrible flood has potentially had a huge onward effect to the bears. The berry season had already passed and the river was just too high for them to fish and therefore they effectively missed over one month of vital feeding time ready for winter hibernation. Many bears reportedly died and it has been said that this also affected cub populations to. The concern is that it could also have a huge ongoing effect beyond 2011. The floods not only affected the bear population but also washed away many of the eggs laid by the salmon during spawning, the extent to which this will affect the salmon run for 2012 and 2013 has not yet been determined but it is widely concluded that there will potentially could be some knock on effects with regard to the populations of all salmon species and the ‘run’ next year.
Sure enough our patience at the viewing stand paid off, not long before the station closed a dark shadow appeared downstream, right at the end of where you could view before the Atnarko curved around the bend. A huge male swaggered along the river, suddenly storming into the water and causing a splash in an effort to secure the best and biggest salmon in order to increase his bulk and food reserves before the winter. We all waited for him to come further upstream to allow us to take photographs. The light was dropping fast but this was a sight to be in awe of and Andy managed to get one shot of this awesome guy (see below). He was absolutely huge and had part of his left ear missing and he was clearly the local ‘bruiser’, exuding an air of arrogance and confidence. Not a bear you would want to mess with!
We stood and watched him as he focused on catching fish. He was not at all bothered by the human presence up above at the platform, whom by now had grown to quite a crowd. He travelled the length of the river that was within in our view and almost on cue at 7pm, just as the viewing platform closed he disappeared again around the corner.
After a two hour drive from leaving Telegraph Cove we arrived at our next port of call - Campbell River. After a restful nights sleep we awoke to heavy rain which looked as if it was not going to relent at all. Our forecast of approaching bad weather the day before had sadly been correct. This was not going to put us off, even though we desperately hoped it would subside.
So it was time for the next adventure, with Grizzlies again to be the focus of the day. Bute Inlet was our location for the adventure and similar to Knight Inlet involved a 2-3 hour boat trip onto the mainland. Bute Inlet is larger in size than Knight Inlet and involved traveling up some calm but potentially dangerous waters. ‘Eddies’ and huge whirlpools were visible, appearing as if someone was pulling the plug in the inlet which at some points plunged to depths of over 2000 feet. Mountain peaks soared high above and we could see in part one of BC’s highest mountains, Mount Waddington (4016m)
Traveling up the inlet we had a taste of ‘how the other half live’ - passing Michelle Pfeiffer's mansion and guest cottages along the way, accessible only by float plane of by boat and located in an incredibly scenic and remote location along the inlet. It just seemed pretty insane that this house would be occupied only for a matter of weeks during the year, yet was worth well in excess of $10m. If there was ever a place to escape the paparazzi this was most certainly it!
We arrived at the location where a minibus collected our group, from here is would be just 10 or so minutes before we would arrive at a series of viewing stands, located in prime spawning channels and favorite feeding spots of the bears.
We came to our allocated stand, which is where we would have around 3 hours to hopefully view bears. There was around 18 of us in total, which was a little bit of squeeze on the stand but was by no means a a huge problem.
Bear viewing, much like any other wildlife spotting is very much the ‘waiting game’, but we are both used to being patient and we are often rewarded by just staying in one spot and sitting it out. However, our guide was keen to move us around to maximise our chances, although in truth we would have been happy staying in this one spot but we ended up moving around 4 or 5 times, hopping on and off the bus to different stands.
To cut a long story short it turned out that today was not our day for Grizzlies and as our time came to an end we had not been lucky to have seen a Grizzly Bear. We were told this was actually incredibly unusual, given that the area is home to in excess of 40 Grizzly Bears and this had been one of the first tours all season that a bear had not been sighted. We both know and totally understand that sometimes thats just the way it works and nothing with wildlife is ever predictable so although a little disappointed we accepted that today the bears did not want to show.
On talking further with the guide it transpired that although sightings were very common he advised the actual numbers of bears congregating had been much lower this year and hardly any cubs had been seen in the 2011 season. This seemed to tally much with what our previous guide (Lindsey) had said about sightings at Knight Inlet. The Salmon run has been good this year, albeit a little later than normal (in contrast to two poor previous years) so you would have expected the bear numbers/sightings to have also been good as plenty of food was available. Whilst at the stands we had witnessed the multitude of salmon on their mission to spawn, it really was quite fascinating to watch this cyclical process in action. We discussed in-depth with our guide as to the reasons and we all concluded that there could be three main reasons for fewer Grizzly Bear sightings, all potentially being interlinked and contributing factors.
A late berry crop (and slightly later Salmon run) had meant that the bears could be staying further up in the mountain and not all yet progressing down to feed on the salmon yet.
Two poor consecutive Salmon runs combined with a terribly harsh winter for 2010/11 could have meant that many bears had perished and also less cubs had survived or not been born at all. In that the females were not strong enough to give birth or raise cubs (Pregnancy in a Grizzly can be biologically stopped by absorbing the fetus if the female has not formed enough bulk prior to winter denning)
An increase in logging in the spring (particularly near Bute Inlet) could have displaced many bears as they emerged from their winter dens.
However, even though we had not seen the Grizzly Bears today it was still a delight to see Bute Inlet and the truly outstanding scenery it has to offer. The weather had cleared for us and the vast wilderness and isolation of Bute was something to behold and again we vowed to return again, after all you cant have luck everyday and what a great excuse for us to return!
It was however not a bear free day as on the three hour return journey back to Campbell River we came across two separate Black Bears foraging on the shoreline as low tide approached. Huge Stellar Sea lions frolicked in coves along the way and surfed the whitewater around the swirling pools tossed us around on the boat. Proof that when you least expect it wildlife can appear anywhere!
The conclusion of todays trip meant that our time on Vancouver Island was now at an end. As soon as we arrived back in dock we ‘hot-footed’ it back with a two hour drive to the town of Nanaimo for the 8:15pm ferry back to Vancouver on the mainland BC. Here we would enjoy the last week of our Canadian adventure in Bella Coola.
Ridiculously long train en route to Bella Coola! (at least 1mile long)
Viewing stand overlooking a Salmon spawning channel
This morning we had to say a fond, but sad farewell to Hidden Cove Lodge, but vowed that we would return one day (and one day soon!). However, before leaving Telegraph Cove we had one more whale watching trip, to hopefully see the Orcas again and other marine inhabitants, once again cruising in the area of Johnstone Strait.
In contrast to the sailing vessel we had been on two days prior the trip today would be onboard a larger motorised boat, holding in excess of 30 people. Although it held many more passengers the boat was a good size with plenty of viewing areas for all.
The fine weather that we had on previous days had by now started to change rather rapidly and very heavy cloud was by now starting to build. It looked like rain was some time off, but at some point was going to be inevitable on our trip. Maybe not today, but soon.
It was only around 30 minutes or so after leaving the dock at Telegraph Cove that we spotted our first whales, not Orcas but Humpbacks. Two large humpbacks moving along peacefully, occasionally coming up for air before signaling their long dives into the Strait with the show of their tail fin.
As we were watching these whales we then noticed far ahead more spouts of water coming from blow holes, the captain signaled we would leave these Humpbacks as ahead were Orcas. In contrast to the full group of the A30’s we had seen two days prior there were just three here today, although they were still part of the same group. It was an older female and two younger members. They remained very illusive, spending most of the time under the water.
As they cruised near to the shoreline ahead of us they attracted a group of Dall’s Porpoise. These creatures know that the Orcas were resident and thus no threat to them, unlike the more aggressive and predatory transient Orcas. The porpoises played around the Orcas, great fun for the porpoises but known to highly irritate the Orcas. Getting frustrated with the Porpoises the Orcas moved away quickly and must have dived deep to escape their antics as they then reappeared quite some way in the distance.
As we watched the Orcas move away in the distance it was this moment that several of us on the boat noticed a tremendous splash, far far in the distance, and then again and again. It looked like the water was exploding! This could surely mean only one thing, a breaching whale! The Captain was soon on to this commotion so leaving the Orcas it was time to investigate what was going on in the distance.
As we neared the area, it was then we saw two Humpbacks Whales and the cause of all of the splashing in the distance. Cameras at the ready everyone on the boat hoped we would get a repeat performance, but this time closer!
As we hoped, the Humpbacks continued to breach as we approached to within a safe distance. It was incredibly hard to judge where and when they would breach. Again and again they breached, we were not even sure if it was the same whale breaching or both of them.
They rushed out of the water like torpedoes exploding from a submarine, the noise as they reentered the water was incredible as the water exploded with their huge mass reentering their aquatic home. The speed and velocity in which it happened was really quite something. Moving in close to the shore they spouted water from their blowholes, sounding like an elephant trumpeting with the mix of air and water channeling through at such high speed. By now it almost felt we were losing count of the number of breaches, it must surely have been at least three or four times by now. All on the boat all gasped at each breach, each time no less impressive than the last. This was something we had of course hoped to see but in reality never expected to see, but still we had not been quick enough to get shots of their full bodies out of the water!
By around breach number four/five we had started to get clued up as to where and when the next breach would happen, even though they changed their position considerably in between dives. Fortunately by now we started to get some shots of this incredible behaviour. Also giving us a chance to actually fully absorb their antics. Surely by now they would be getting exhausted! How on earth they managed to propel at least 20 tonnes (they were young/mid sized Humpbacks) of sheer mass out of the water with such power was just beyond comprehension. I (Sarah) had seen a Humpback breach once before in Australia recently but never really had the opportunity to take it in. The noise and the awe of such behaviour was starting to really sink in (excuse the pun!)
In total they must have breached around seven/eight times, the show had to end at some point and soon enough it did. They both dived and then it all went quiet, reappearing some way off and returning to a calm state. What was causing them to breach with such frequency is a little unknown. Two competing adolescent males showing their strength perhaps? Not even the Marine Biologist on the boat was sure and had not seen something like this before. To say we felt totally privileged to have seen this is an understatement and even after more then 3000 whale watching trips our captain was also pretty ‘amped’! We are not sure who was more exhausted at this point, the Whales or us as the adrenaline pumped with excitement!
Returning to shore we were all very ‘happy bunnies’. Ok, so we had not captured anything unique in terms of photography, we have all seen images of breaching whales before but to have seen this and to have this shot personally and to have in our own portfolio of images was great!. What an awesome way to end a fabulous three days in Telegraph Cove before we headed of for our next stop - Campbell River.
Today marked a particularly special day, it was our 9th wedding anniversary and what better way to spend it then to take a trip to Knight Inlet in the hope of spotting our first Grizzly Bears.
Knight Inlet is actually located on mainland BC and famed for being a fairly reliable location to spot the Grizzly and the location of the well known ‘Glendale Cove/Knight Inlet’ Lodge. Given its remote wilderness location, one of the only ways to access Knight Inlet is either by boat or floatplane from Vancouver Island. Today we were going to access via a small boat for the 2 hour journey with ‘Tide Rip’ tours. In addition to the aforementioned lodge ‘Tide Rip’ are one of the only operators to have access to this area and have a vast knowledge of the area and the Bears themselves. So it was great knowing that we were going to be able to experience more Canadian wilderness, once again without hoards of tourists and with knowledgeable and passionate guides on a small group trip.
Of course it was not just Grizzly Bears that we may encounter. During our two hour passage we had the possibility of spotting the vast array of marine birdlife as well as other marine wildlife, such as Dall’s Porpoise, Pacific White Sided Dolphins, Harbour Seals, Stellar Seal lions and of course Orcas and Humpback Whales.
We were collected at 7am right from the jetty at Hidden Cove Lodge so we quite literally rolled out of bed and onto the boat. Together with 10 others we embarked upon the journey to the Inlet, excited about what may lay ahead for us. En route we encountered Harbour Seals and even spotted a Black Bear foraging along the shoreline, a nice unexpected bonus!
Although the sky was grey and cloudy it did not mask the beauty of Knight Inlet in any way, more towering peaks could be seen and the faint cry of Bald Eagles echoed around the Inlet. The water was a lovely milky green/blue colour due to glacial sediment carried from Glaciers high up in the valley, which gave a magical and almost mystical feel to the area.
As we started to near the area where we would disembark the boat and board custom made ‘skiffs’ (12 person flat bottom motor/human powered boars with viewing platforms that could access the ‘nooks and crannies’ of the Inlet) our guide stopped the boat and scanned the shore with the binoculars. Even though we would not be focusing on the larger shorelines for Bears (instead the smaller parts of the inlet where the Bears would hopefully be fishing for Salmon) Lindsey, our guide wanted to check the spot for Grizzlies just in case. In addition, the tide at this time was still too low to be able to access the smaller parts of the inlet. So we had to wait a little while before nature would grant us access with the skiffs.
Well, you can guess what happens next! Lindsey then proceeded to find us our first Grizzlies, foraging on the shoreline. However, not just one bear but a mother and two cubs. The shoreline where they foraged was not an easy approach so Lindsey did advise that we could not get very close, given the jagged rocks underneath and the waters here were choppy. We approached as close as the waters would allow and there they were two utterly adorable cubs and momma bear, awesome!
The cubs were hilarious to watch, there was something almost comical about the way they foraged around as they nibbled on kelp and uncovered rocks looking for food. One of the cubs used the rocks as a scratching post, rolling around on its back, easing its’ itching body as if performing right on cue for its delighted human audience. These guys were super cute but even at their young age (Approx. 1.5 years old) they had huge claws that could still cause serious damage to anything that came across its path.
Given the boat was rocking due to the choppy waters and the distance away we again had some problems in keeping the lenses steady so knew the images we were shooting would not be too great but we managed to get one or maybe two shots that were not blurred by movement of the boat which was good. As keen photographers and having spent some years in the ‘field’ we know you cant just ‘rock up’ and get the shot like the cover of National Geographic. Putting in the time is all part of the fun and the challenges (and sometimes frustrations) that come with it!.
So our anniversary wish had come true, we had seen our first Grizzly Bears and we had not even boarded the skiff yet!
Leaving the little tikes and mum alone it was time to move onto the skiffs. By now the tide had risen high enough that we could navigate the smaller sections of the inlet where we could try and see the Grizzlies fishing for salmon.
The skiffs were ideal for photography, stable and with plenty of room for everyone and also room for us to set up our tripods if needed.
We maneuvered silently up the channel, checking the banks either side for bears that may still have been feeding on sedges and some of the late berry crops further up. We had been advised that sightings of late in this area had been a little sparse and much of this could have been due to the fact that the bears food ‘season’s were a little out of kilter at present. Therefore they had been sighted far less feeding on the spawning Salmon as they would normally be doing at this time of year. This is sometimes just the way nature works and we have both undertaken enough wildlife trips to understand, accept and know that wildlife and indeed nature is unpredictable. That’s why we love it so much, you never know what you will see or what could happen!
We were astounded to see so many Bald Eagles in the Inlet, swopping down low over the streams that were our passage to the Bears. Neither of us had quite expected to see so many, no matter how many times we saw them we were still in awe of their beauty and colossal size, just a little smaller than the Golden Eagle.
Over one hour passed as we drifted up the channel, at this point being powered by Lindsey!, who had by now donned chest high waders and pulled us up the channel so we could remain silent, without the noise of motors disturbing any feeding bears. Lindsey pointed out many interesting sights, including some large bear tracks close to shore and a ridiculously long skin of a tapeworm that had exited from one of the bears, over 2 foot long and an inch thick, rather gross! We knew the bears were here and if they wanted to be seen we would find them.
As we started to near the end of our time in the inlet we had a signal from another skiff ahead of us (part of the Tide Rip group) that they had seen something around the corner. We saw people mobilise cameras faster than Lewis Hamilton pulls off the starting blocks and we knew it had to be a Bear! Sure enough as we came around the corner it was indeed a Grizzly submerged neck deep in water around 50 metres ahead. It was hard to decipher if it was male or female but Lindsey advised it was around 5-6 years old. Rather than feeding on Salmon the bear was clearly distracted and getting irritated by the midges, scratching its head and body constantly. We were all suffering the same fate in the boat but had a bear to distract us. We would worry about the midge bites later!
The bear did not stay in its position long, just a few minutes before it raised itself out of the water. Then moving into the thick undergrowth along the waters edge and disappearing for good. It had been a brief sighting but all on the boat, including Andy and I were delighted to have seen another grizzly given that we had prepared ourselves not to have seen one at all!
So Knights Inlet did not disappoint in anyway, we had seen our very first Grizzlies, had seen some amazing Bald Eagles and had spent time in one of Canada’s prime and pristine wilderness areas. It most definitely a place we would want to return to again for sure. Happy Anniversary and thank you to the Grizzly Bears for making it a memorable one!