There's a Bear in There: Searching for Grizzlies in British Columbia

Grizzly bear

For a place called “great bear”, this British Columbia Rainforest delivers far more than it promises, writes Vanessa Frey.

We’ve been tracking bears for most of the day. Our only weapons are an Airbus AS350 AStar helicopter – needed for covering vast tracts of inaccessible terrain quickly – and a pair of high-powered binoculars. Our “shooter” is wielding a telephoto lens. Like many hunters, we’re after a trophy. Not a head or hide but a coveted sighting of the much feared and revered apex predator Ursus arctos horribilis – the grizzly bear.

British Columbia

Until a few moments ago, I thought our chances were slim to none. It’s early summer in the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia (hellobc.com) and while there are plenty of the smaller, less fearsome black bears about, the likelihood of seeing a grizzly, a subspecies of the North American brown bear, is better later in the season and into autumn. It’s then that they emerge from the forest and venture down to rivers swollen with salmon for the feeding frenzy that will sustain them through their winter hibernation. 

We are in the safe hands of Tim Eissfeldt, a heli-guide at Nimmo Bay (nimmobay.com), an eco-resort poised on the edge of the wilderness, around 300 kilometres north-west of Vancouver and accessible from there via two flights. Bounded by the Broughton Archipelago and Great Bear Rainforest on the province’s western coast, Nimmo’s natural assets are considerable – and a magnet for nature lovers and soft-adventure enthusiasts.

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Just yesterday, cruising the pine-lined passages of the archipelago out into the open waters of Queen Charlotte Strait, we saw harbour seals lolling on rocks, black-tailed deer butting velvety antlers, watchful bald eagles circling for fish and black bears snacking on crustaceans. Pacific white-sided dolphins rode our boat’s wake before splitting off with a celebratory splash, unlike the more dignified pod of killer whales that passed us in Blackfish Sound. (On the brink of extinction in the 1960s and ’70s, orcas have returned to the sound in growing numbers, making this one of the best places in the world to spot them.)

Sea lions

Spanning 6.4 million hectares and 400 kilometres of coastline, Great Bear Rainforest is a wildlife seeker’s dream – fjords, glaciers, rivers and lakes rend what is the world’s largest coastal temperate rainforest, a diverse ecoregion that includes the eponymous black, brown and white Kermode (spirit) bears that dwell here.

From high above, the Broughton Archipelago looks like a feathery green fern pressed into the Pacific Ocean, ink-blue water filling the contours of its fronds. Further inland, as I’m discovering during this exhilarating six-hour heli-tour, the landscape changes dramatically. The amorphous edges of the archipelago’s liquid labyrinth harden and set into sharp, angular volcanic rock faces and the pointed tips of conifers. Amid the densely forested valleys lie the scars of clear-felling and avalanche. The bare brown patches, where Douglas fir, cypress, Western red cedar and hemlock spruce once stood, are strewn with grey, lifeless logs.

Nimmo Bay

Climbing through wisps of cloud hovering between valley walls, Eissfeldt takes us in for a water-spraying fly-by of one of the many cascades thundering over granite cliffs. At this altitude, 1500 metres, alpine snow and lakes appear, the glacial melt giving the water its eerie milky-green colour, the silt its ash hue. We’re now deep in the Coast Mountains range, approaching the Silverthrone Caldera, north-east of Nimmo Bay. The scenery is spectacular and while the icefield’s glare is blindingly bright, we spy stocky mountain goats on gravity-defying rock ledges. “Pilots never hover too close to the goats,” says Eissfeldt, as they’re easily spooked by the whomp, whomp, whomp of the helicopter blades.

After a morning of sometimes stomach-lurching flying, I’m ready for touchdown – and lunch, a gourmet picnic hamper from Nimmo’s kitchen. We set down on a sun-soaked sandbank flanked by towering pines and as Eissfeldt lays out the spread (roast beef sandwiches, squash soup, mixed melons, paprika-spiced nuts and carrot cake), I wander barefoot along the river’s edge, wading in the clear, tannin-tinged water. A silvery sliver shoots off in the shallows. If it’s salmon, as I suspect it might be, it’s a sure sign we’re in bear territory.

Following the Kakweiken River down the valley on the return trip to the lodge, our “pursuit” begins. Eissfeldt has spotted a bear rippling with golden fur.

He swoops around for a better look then lands and we scramble out. Our pilot issues a hushed caution: don’t draw attention to yourself. It’s a grizzly, not a black bear.

Earlier in the morning, as we made tracks of flattened grass in the estuaries, Eissfeldt intermittently called, “Hey, bear”, clapping his hands to signal our approach. But here, roughly 70 metres away, we’re quiet and moving slowly. Unaware, the magnificent hulking male lumbers along the tree line in the afternoon sun, bounding over stumps and lifting logs as he looks for roots, seeds and berries to feed on.

Then the bear stops and fixes his gaze on us. I look back at the chopper, mentally calculating the time it would take to reach it. But I remember Eissfeldt’s warning: walk slowly but hold your ground with a defensive bear. Don’t run or show weakness. Right now, all I want to do is run.

But my companions have other ideas.

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We inch closer, huddled together. The meadow’s long grasses keep us hidden but they’re no match for a bear’s olfactory powers, which are so acute they can smell food – alive or dead – kilometres away. Every time I see the bear lift its huge head and sniff the air, my heart skips a beat and I try to shrink a little lower into the boggy ground that has already claimed one of our shoes (another reason not to run away). For the next 20 minutes, we shadow and watch him until, alerted to our presence, he lopes into the thick of the forest, leaving us in stunned silence.

Back at Nimmo Bay, exhausted but exhilarated, we share stories about what we’ve seen and experienced (news of our grizzly sighting has already reached the lodge) – first over drinks and canapés then during a multi-course dinner featuring the finest and freshest produce. Locally sourced seafood is a staple here, whether it’s highly prized halibut, steaming bowls of wild-caught crab or Pacific salmon, a specialty.

Although the resort gets food drops twice a week, many ingredients are harvested wild. On her walks into the woods, pastry chef Rachel Gillett, a “natural forager”, hand-picks lovage, licorice root and berries, which she uses for jams, jellies, pies and sauces.

That night, on the floating dock by the fire, warmed by a sheepskin throw and digestif herbal tea, American guest Sharla Jahnke confirms what I already know: “The food is always amazing here.” She’s been coming to Nimmo Bay with her husband, Tim, a keen angler, for the past 10 years. “The natural beauty is just spectacular and we have such a fun time,” she says. “It’s one of the only places where we can be active and yet relaxed. And the people have become our friends. This is a special place.”

As darkness wraps itself around this pocket of pristine wilderness where the animals outnumber the humans, I am deeply comforted by the fact that while I don’t have a hunting trophy to take home with me, I do have a far greater prize: a close encounter with one of the planet’s most awesome creatures. Yes, there are definitely bears in there. And so much more.  

Nimmo Bay

Natural selection

With nearly 10 million square kilometres of terrain and the world’s longest coastline, Canada offers some of the greatest wildlife-viewing experiences. Here are just five.

Yukon

Vuntut National Park

This remote national park (pc.gc.ca) in north-western Canada is the place to see the spectacular migration of Porcupine caribou each spring and autumn. Moving between the Yukon and neighbouring Alaska to calve and feed, the travelling herd is among the largest of any land animal on earth.

British Columbia

Campbell River

Each summer, Vancouver Island’s Campbell River (campbellriver.travel) teems with millions of pink, coho, chinook and sockeye salmon running the gauntlet from the ocean back to their birth river to spawn. For a closer look at these fish, you can snorkel with them upriver.

Alberta/Northwest Territories

Wood Buffalo National Park

Brought back from the brink of extinction, wood bison – the continent’s largest land mammal – freely roam the boreal plains of this World Heritage-listed park (pc.gc.ca), which is also the nesting place for the endangered whooping crane.

Nunavut

Northwest Passage

A “safari” to this icy tundra (destinationnunavut.ca), where the Inuit people have been hunting game animals for millennia, gives you the chance to see the “big five” of the Canadian Arctic: walrus, musk ox, polar bears, beluga whales and narwhals (known as “the unicorns of the sea” for their three-metre-long tusks).

Nova Scotia

Cape Breton Island

Located beneath a migratory flight path, this rugged island (cbisland.com) off the eastern coast is a birdwatchers’ paradise all year round but especially from May to August, when an estimated 200 avian species flock to coastal and inland regions. Expect to spot bald eagles, snowy owls and penguin-like Atlantic puffins.

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