Rainforest Solutions Project

Promoting conservation and economic alternatives in British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest


I spy a grizzly: Ecotourists in British Columbia track bears, very carefully

June 29, 2006

(Great Bear Rainforest, BC) – I’m crouched in the long grass, just 75 yards from a large grizzly bear, trying desperately to follow instructions and not move a hair. The 400-pound predator, oblivious to the presence of its three human onlookers, is feeding quietly on sedge nearby, enjoying the sunshine that reflects off her chocolate-brown back.

“Now. Stand! Quickly!” says my guide, Fred Seiler, urging me upright while the grizzly’s head is turned away. “No sudden movements,” he warns. With shaking hands, I raise the camera to my eyes. That’s when the bear notices us for the first time, and with ears alert and nose turned to the wind, she stands on her hind legs and raises her body to its full height – a position that reflects her immense stature and power.

Meanwhile, my heart is palpitating and my pupils are wide. I’m all too aware of this massive animal’s abilities – the fact that it can outrun and outswim me, kill me with a single swipe of its powerful paws and cover the distance between us before I can make it back to our boat, sitting in the estuary a few steps away.

“I think I’m ready to go back to the boat now,” I say, trying to hide the tremor in my voice. Responding to my fear, Seiler moves our group steadily backward, his eyes never leaving the bear, which has returned to feeding and is ignoring us once again. In his 20 years of photographing and watching bears, Seiler knows precisely when a situation can get dangerous, and in this case he assures me we’re perfectly safe. Still, I’m shaken.

Watching a grizzly in the wild will do that to you.

In grizzly country in northern British Columbia, you’re surrounded by pristine, isolated and magnificent tracts of mountain, river and ocean. Since launching the motorboat in the town of Kitimat an hour earlier, we had not seen a soul.

With the confidence bred from years of familiarity with this land, Seiler steers the boat through the channels that wend their way through this nearly 4-million-acre rain forest, home to one of the largest grizzly bear populations in North America. Of the 150,000 grizzly bears worldwide, approximately 13,000 are to be found in British Columbia.

Heavily forested mountains surround us, some still wearing their winter-white snowcaps. Steep granite rock faces form the banks of the channel, with trees growing from every crevice, covering the landscape in a lush, thick carpet of green. Around our small boat the head of a curious seal glints in the light, while a bald eagle scans the water in search of lunch.

Soon we reach the estuaries that comprise prime grizzly bear-watching. A large stretch of waterfront field is covered with green sedge, shaking gently in the breeze. Its high protein content makes this the food of choice for grizzly bears in May and June as they patiently await the arrival of spawning salmon in late July.

We motor into one of the estuary’s shallow channels, turning off the noisy, 300-horsepower motor and using a quiet electric-powered motor instead to cover the last distance. Out goal is to not disturb the grizzly bears.

“We have to leave as light a footprint on this land as possible because these bears are not habituated to humans, and we want to keep it that way,” Seiler says.

Intent on adhering to strict ecotourism, Seiler has all his guests sign a waiver before he guides them, a document in which they promise never to disclose the whereabouts of the grizzly tour, and never to return unless accompanied by a guide from his company, Silvertip Eco-tours.

“We put a lot of trust in the people we take, so we screen them first and never take more than four out at a time,” he explains. “This is what we have to do to ensure we’re engaging in sustainable ecotourism. I couldn’t sleep at night knowing I was screwing up the bears.”

As it is, they face enough challenges, he says. The old-growth rain forest that has been their home since time immemorial is under constant threat of logging, and with each passing year, the grizzly habitat shrinks more. Seiler and his business partner, Greg Knox, have found themselves the sole advocates for the bears’ rights in this area, defending their privacy and territory with passion.

When a segment of the rain forest was logged recently, the two were up in arms. They hired a biologist to prove the area was rife with grizzly tracks, scat and hair, and protested that further terrain in the vicinity should be protected from logging and preserved for the bears. This battle, they won.

But the next battle promises to be even more formidable – Alberta-based Enbridge Gateway Pipelines is pursuing plans to build an underground crude oil pipeline from Alberta to northern British Columbia, and Seiler hasn’t a hope of stopping them. Instead, he’s resigned himself to be involved in the implementation process, to try to ensure its impact on grizzly habitat is as minimal as possible.

On this sunny springtime day, though, the world still looks bright and beautiful in northern B.C., and the grizzly bears are out to play. From the boat, we watch a sow and cub swim gracefully across the estuary, marveling at the sound of their heavy breath on the water. On another nearby embankment, a different sow carefully watches her three cubs cavort on a fallen log, later lumbering reluctantly into the forest behind them.

With his palm outstretched, Seiler invites me to taste the starchy grains of the Indian rice bulb coveted by the bears. I sample fresh mint and wild Indian celery too, before Seiler points out an innocuous-looking plant.

“This is water hemlock,” he says. “One drop of this plant and you’d be dead in 30 seconds.”

The bears, of course, know instinctively what plants to avoid. They’ve been walking these parts for generations, preying on berries, moose and other animals that come their way, and watching complacently as the sedge turns from green to a blond-white in the fall.

This is the allure of the province’s wilderness, a place where nature coexists in a perfectly seamless balance.