Rainforest Solutions Project

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


The millions of hectares around B.C.‘s Great Bear Lodge are rich with the big critters

October 8, 2005

‘‘Look, look, another… big!” echoes through the yellow school bus.

Piero, a visitor to the wilds of British Columbia from northern Italy, has just spotted a grizzly bear and is finding it tough to get the words out in English.

The seven of us grizzly-watching with him are just as astounded as we watch a huge grizzly clamber from the river to the shoreline, shaking itself and sniffing the air.

Lured by the rank smell of rotting salmon, it gets on with its lunch, without giving our yellow bus even a nod.

This is day two at Great Bear Lodge and so far this morning, we have spotted five grizzly, although this one, about 35 metres away, is the closest view we have had. We are in the Great Bear Rainforest, at 3.2 million hectares (eight million acres), it is the largest intact, unprotected coastal temperate rainforest left in the world.

Renowned for its wild landscape where 1,000-year-old red cedars touch the sky, it is one of the few places in the world to view grizzlies.

On this four-day stay at Great Bear Lodge, we spotted dozens of bears on our twice-a-day excursions. (The most we saw in one day was 16, the least was five.) Our adventure was magical as soon as we lifted off in a float plane from Port Hardy on the northern edge of Vancouver Island. (This was where my husband and I met Piero and Monica Perucchini who came to Canada for their honeymoon.) Within minutes our pilot did a wing-down circle above two huge humpback whales and then, heading over land, we crossed a series of glacial inlets that made brilliant blue tongues in the vast, green landscape below.

After 50 minutes we swooped into Smith Inlet to find Great Bear Lodge floating in a serene corner. Tom Rivest and Margaret Leehane smiled and waved a welcome from the deck.

Each year tens of thousands of salmon return to the Nekite River, making this a supreme grizzly-bear-spotting region.

Tom, a wildlife biologist, has run Great Bear Nature Tours since 1999. He and Margaret own the eco-friendly accommodations along with silent partners. The five-bedroom lodge is wind and solar powered and has full facilities; each room has a bathroom and there are hot showers downstairs.

As well as grizzly, there are black bears, wolves, river otters, black-tailed deer and bald eagles in the area.

Here’s our routine: at day break, fortified with coffee and healthy snacks, we board a school bus. Yes, it is strange to be jostled along a wilderness route by a big yellow bus. However, when I asked Tom about it, he commented that he needed a safe, tough vehicle and the bears “simply become used to it and they know we won’t harm them.”

The first morning, Tom gives his bear talk. We stay in the bus or in one of the blinds that he has built, except for an occasional guided walk.
Should a bear approach, he puts himself between it and us. “I’ll do the talking to the bear,” he advises.

It is pleasant among the gnarly, moss-laden hemlock and fir trees. Occasionally an eagle soared down for lunch. It was like being dropped down into Emily Carr’s world. However, we all wanted bears and so we sat, at the whim of the grizzly.

Would they show? Then, “Running Bear” arrived and I had to control myself from hollering with surprise. Tom names the bears by their behaviour patterns and Running Bear lived up to her name. She hit the gravel bar loping, charged into shallow waters, chased a few salmon and roared at the sea-gulls.

A grizzly bear, that may weight over 390 kilograms (800 pounds), may consume up to 40,000 calories per day and gain as much as 2.7 kg (six pounds) daily in the fall when it is preparing to hibernate. Within five minutes six other grizzly arrive.

The morning viewing sessions last a couple of hours, depending on the action, then it is back to the lodge for a full breakfast. There’s time to hang out, do some kayaking, or take a boat tour in the aluminum skiff. Mid-afternoon, we head out for our afternoon session.

Talk about co-operative grizzly. As soon as we arrive two bears amble out of the bush. We spend 30 minutes in silence, watching and clicking shutters. They dig for salmon roe among the rocks, head into the river and, at one point, have a little tussle over a salmon. It’s the perfect grizzly nature film.

I feel fortunate to have experienced what Margaret describes as “the serendipity of the wilderness. You never know what you will see and that’s what makes it special.”

Aside from the bears during out trip, we also enjoyed the guests. We met people from Australia, Calgary, Victoria and Arizona as well as our Italian friends.

As we said good-bye to Piero and Monica, I asked Piero what he thought of this time in nature we had shared. “It was a gift,” was his reply and that pretty much sums it up.