Anna from our North America team has recently been to Canada to explore the great wilderness at Tweedsmuir Park Lodge in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, and was lucky enough to see some Grizzly Bears.
Even the journey here is spectacular. Taking to the skies I watch as Vancouver gets smaller and smaller in the window and the mountains loom magnificently in front. For the next hour I watch as we fly across majestic mountain ranges, deep blue fjords and impressive glacier fields. As we dip down toward Bella Coola, we fly between the mountains, making for an exhilarating final approach and landing (Pacific Coastal Airlines have been doing this for many years so I’m confident I’m in safe hands). Here, Neil, one of the guides from Tweedsmuir greets us cheerfully and starts our wilderness experience by taking us in to the forest just by the airport to show us an incredibly large cedar tree. It would take three of us to link together and stand around it…but this is just the beginning.
We’re in wild country now, with tall peaks still snow capped lining the roadside and lush green forest in front, this is far off the beaten track British Columbia. Just 40 minutes from the airport and we turn in to Tweedsmuir Park Lodge. A little oasis in the wilderness, it’s charming and welcoming with the most awesome view (to put it the Canadian way!). My cabin is at the bottom of the lawn, the lawn which I am told grizzly bears often frequent at this time of the year. I’m advised not to wander off on my own and if I head down to the newly erected bear viewing platform down by the river, to walk with at least one other person and make a bit of noise so we don’t surprise any of our furry friends. The cabins are warm and cosy, propane fireplace in the corner, comfy bed and even WiFi coverage if you need it, although after a day here it’s hard to believe the outside world still exists. The silence is glorious and the view inspiring. Each morning brings a crisp clear day full of possibilities…for me, it’s the bears!
From late August each year, the salmon swim up the Atnarko River to spawn and then die. This somewhat brutal event is a magnet to the grizzly bears of the region who head down from the mountains in droves as they smell the first of the dying salmon. The promise of easy pickings in the river is just too tempting and an opportunity to gorge themselves before the winter freeze.
I meet my guide for the morning, Doug has lived and breathed this stunning area for decades and it shows, his enthusiasm and passion for the region draws you in and the excitement of new adventures is in the air. The salmon are late this year, he explains, this means that there are less bears in the region than would be expected. Although the river is bubbling with salmon racing to their breeding grounds, the spawning is still in its early stages and as bears are lazy and would rather catch dying or almost dead salmon rather than the somewhat livelier ones currently in the river, the normal onslaught of the bear community has not yet commenced. We’re not disheartened though, this man knows his stuff and if anyone can find us a bear, he can. So we set off by truck first for our first search point. Doug knows this place like the back of his hand and he, like all of the guides at Tweedsmuir, has his own “secret” spots to head into in search of these fascinating creatures. He pulls up at the side of a densely forested area, jumps out of the truck and checks that no one can see us before disappearing into a gap in the trees, hurriedly followed by us. This is exciting, we have no idea where this will take us but we already have total faith in Doug and follow closely behind. He’s already briefed us on bear safety. Stay together, stay calm and quiet, if we surprise a bear we have to be confident, say “Hey Bear” and draw together in a group to look larger. I’m rather hoping we don’t have to test out this scenario but feel safe in his capable company so we press on.
Doug our guide looking for signs of Grizzly Bears
Most bears are found down by the river but this morning we are leading through dense forest, Doug points out giant cedar trees, bear “day beds” and cheeky squirrels pulling fir cones from the trees and dropping them to the forest floor ready to stash for winter, we walk on through the forest when Doug stops, gesturing at us he then points in the distance and we hear “Hey Bear, hey momma” escape his lips. There is a mother bear and her two cubs. They’re larger, probably last year’s newborns, and they’re all looking right at us. We clump together, staying as quiet as possible, they stare at us, we stare at them. She considers us for a moment then sniffs the air, she can smell us, Doug says she looks stressed so we prepare to back away slowly together, however, after a few seconds she settles again, wonders over to a tree root and plops herself down as if ready for a nap. One cub follows and nestles in to her belly and the other stays close but settles on another tree stump. For now, this fascinating family is accepting of our presence and we are mesmerised.
For the next 45 minutes, we watch as the mother dozes, large paw lazily strewn to one side, with its all too menacing claws on display, a gentle reminder that she is not as cute and cuddly as she looks. The cubs doze for a while, one rolls on to his back and gently touches the mother’s face with his paw, the other gets up, sniffs the air, he can smell us too and looks a little less relaxed than mum, he looks at her, concerned, but is guided by her and eventually settles back down again. We could watch all day but eventually decide it is better to leave them in peace and continue our day elsewhere, we retreat slowly and head back to the truck. The rest of the day is spent searching through canyons, heading up the old “Tote” road and walking through long since deserted homesteads and fields. We catch two further glimpses although neither are as long as the first encounter. One bear is swimming through the river, catches our smell and makes a bolt for the bank and vanishes, the second bear is wandering across a gravel bar and casually leaps into the river and leaps straight back out, and again, he leaps open pawed back in to the water with an almighty splash and plucks a live salmon out with his teeth. He drags it ashore and disappears back into the trees.
We return to the lodge, exhausted and exhilarated by the days sightings. Dinner is a delicious feast shared with our fellow guests in the wonderfully comfortable lodge dining room before collapsing in a sofa in front of the log fire or retiring early to bed after the rigors of the day. My next day starts with a delicious breakfast and then a quick visit up to the bear lodge’s bear viewing platform to see if there is any thing on the river. It’s a great spot to be quiet and watch for bears, in the peak of the season there is often much activity but not today so I head back to the lodge.
Today I’m off for a “drift” on the river. Tweedsmuir have their own unique drift boats that take a maximum of 4 passengers and a guide, normally there are no more that 2 in the boat. My guide is Sam, young and very capable, he already has so much experience and I can tell I’m in safe hands. We drift along the river, this is normally one of the best ways to get to see the bears as we make no noise and are more likely to see them in their natural day to day activities. The drift is around 3 hours and alas, no bears for us today although I’ve learnt a whole lot about the salmon which actually is more interesting than it sounds. The whole eco system is affected by this annual phenomenon and it’s vital for the natural world, not just the bears but the trees and future generations of salmon and many other aspects.
I feel like I have been pulled into a completely new and fascinating world away from the daily office grind and commute, away from shops and restaurants and noise and people, maybe I’ll stay…it’s tempting, this is a wondrous place and I am totally captivated by it in my few days here. This is a different way of life, there’s a peace, a solitude, a wonder of being in such a natural environment. I swear I will be back, I haven’t had a chance to see the bears in full flow, fishing in earnest, I haven’t done a heli hike up in to those monstrous mountains, I haven’t learnt how to fly cast, I haven’t been mountain biking along the trails…just a few more day, please??