Written by photographer and guest blogger Kristian Gillies.
Raindrops pelt the windscreen, their staccato rhythm creating a familiar percussion that welcomes the changing of seasons. The boat cuts through the water below, a symphony of rich green hues swirling in its wake. Inside the cabin, the mingling scent of sea salt tangles with the chatter of fellow adventurers. Each sentence carries a subtle undercurrent of excitement, electric in the air.
There are twenty of us, bound for the adventure of a lifetime. At the helm stands Captain John, a retired-DFO captain with a rugged, salt-of-the-earth demeanour. As if carved from the very landscapes he navigates, his steady hands guide us. By his side is Zoe, a deckhand wearing the dual hats of mariner and our Naturalist for the day.
The ancient Inlet we’re bound for was sculpted eons ago in the heart of the Xwémalhkwu people’s ancestral territory. The air is heavy with the history of Coastal British Columbia, once cloaked in glaciers that lorded over the land. Over millennia, these glaciers retreated, bequeathing pristine river valleys, deep inlets, and mountainsides adorned with emerald greenery. Beyond, a panorama of granite peaks, and formidable sentinels, stretches along the B.C. coastline.
In these lush river valleys, a vibrant tapestry of wildlife thrives – wolves, black-tailed deer, Roosevelt elk, black bears, and elusive cougars, all part of the daily tableau. Yet, our focus today is on the magnificent coastal grizzly bear. Through summer, they graze on the bounty of organic offerings until the annual salmon migration beckons. Then, like clockwork, they descend from their alpine refuges, gorging on a staggering 100,000 calories a day. During the salmon run, their world narrows to the singular pursuit of devouring as many salmon as their massive frames can accommodate, seemingly unperturbed by the onlookers tracing their every move.
Despite the persistent rain, our journey to the Inlet is a voyage of wonder. Bonus encounters with humpback whales thrill us, their white breaths carving through the moody blue expanse before they slip beneath the surface. Captain John, chuckling, reminds us that this is a bear tour, not a whale watch. Such is the allure of this region – where every departure from Campbell River carries the promise of a rendezvous with these marine giants, especially at this time of year. Humpback whales and transient orcas are woven into the tapestry of islands and inlets that make up this stretch of coastline.
Perhaps I speak too soon, for shortly after the humpbacks’ final salute, the engine falls silent. Captain John’s voice, laced with a touch of resignation, reaches us – the windscreen wiper has surrendered. These waters, concealed beneath their calm exterior, harbour lurking giants – silent logs poised just above the surface, biding their time for an unsuspecting outboard engine. Like a true Captain, John sacrifices his dry refuge, ascending to the top deck to take command. In moments, we’re underway again.
After another forty minutes of steady progress, we arrive at Orford Bay, a sanctuary roughly thirty nautical miles from the head of Bute Inlet. We step onto the welcoming embrace of the land, greeted by Cheyanne, our local guide. She offers a traditional Xwémalhkwu welcome, her words laden with history and reverence for the territory. At the interpretation center, a roaring woodstove welcomes Captain John, now drenched from his topside vigil.
Following a brief respite and a tour of the interpretive center, we divide into smaller groups, eager to embark on the next leg. We eagerly slide into a small bus. Ian, a local Xwémalhkwu man, takes the wheel, with Tony, a younger counterpart, by his side. Together, they form a dynamic duo. After a safety briefing, we begin our bus ride, the forest looming around us. Each guest peers into the dense underbrush, anticipating the appearance of the formidable grizzly bear around every bend.
Navigating a serpentine path through the forest, we reach our first observation point. Positioned high above the river, it unfurls below us, a sinuous ribbon of water coursing ten meters beneath. Across the way lies a wide expanse of gravel, a testament to the river’s relentless power during past floods. A few tenacious plants reclaim this territory, a glimpse into nature’s relentless drive to reclaim and regenerate. The river twists in every direction, and we stand at the very apex, with a sweeping view both upstream and downstream, embracing the expansive gravel bar. The forest’s edge, an impenetrable curtain of leaves and branches, demarcates our vista.
Yet, after a half-hour vigil, the bears remain elusive. We press on to the next vantage point, this time at a clearer tributary called the Algard River. Tony informs us that the absence of glaciers at its source grants the Algard with crystal clarity. A viewing tower, reached by a tiered staircase, affords us an elevated perspective. Positioned directly at the river’s curve, our view extends even further. As before, a sprawling gravel bar stretches from either bank, an open canvas for bear spotting.
A guest’s exclamation draws our attention to an adult bald eagle perched in an aspen behind us. Its keen gaze measures us, weighing whether we pose a threat from our elevated post. Concluding we’re benign, it holds its ground, a majestic sentinel overseeing the river’s bounty. Much like the bears, these eagles convene in these coastal river valleys, drawn to the annual salmon banquet. For millennia, these fish have sustained the Coastal B.C. ecosystem, a feast preluding the winter’s arrival along this coastline.
As the eagle captivates our attention, Zoe points to a bear on the far riverbank. We scramble across the viewing tower, squinting to discern its form in the distance. The bear stands beside a sprawling tangle of fallen roots, a silhouette against the backdrop. Yet, without binoculars or an extended lens, the details elude us. Before most can truly glimpse, the bear meanders along the bank, swallowed by the verdant embrace of the forest. A fleeting encounter, yet a reminder that in the wild, certainty remains elusive. The gamble, the unpredictability, is the essence of the adventure.
With the forest withholding its secrets, we progress to the next vantage. This time, we find ourselves at a tower parallel to a straight stretch of the river. We file into the viewing box, commencing the age-old watch. I perch on one of the steps, seeking a lower angle should a bear grace us with its presence. After fifteen minutes of anticipation, Zoe’s swift motion draws our gaze to the left, where the outline of a small bear materializes. As my eyes adjust, its identity solidifies – a black bear. In moments, it spots us, and with a fluid grace, vanishes into the thicket. Skittish and wise, these black bears tread cautiously, for they stand no chance against their larger brown kin, constantly ceding their ground around food sources.
Our guides opt for a change of scenery. En route, we cross paths with the black bear once more. Its gait betrays a wounded leg, a poignant reminder of the harsh realities of survival in the wild, even amidst nature’s lavish bounty.
Around the next bend, Zoe’s sharp eyesight strikes again, spotting a bear half a kilometre distant. We halt, disembarking the van with a hushed reverence. As I round the front of the vehicle, the bear sharpens into focus – a behemoth! Partly shrouded by a mound of gravel, it pauses, acknowledging our presence. A moment suspended in time. After two hours of anticipation, we are finally graced with a clear view, as the bear continues its feast. Ten minutes pass, revealing its full, contented form, its belly nearly grazing the earth. This bear, engorged and satiated, nears its winter slumber. It ambles toward the forest, engulfed by the emerald foliage. A surge of triumph courses through us – at last, a true encounter. Our guides share our relief; seldom must they labour so ardently to locate the bears in this domain.
As our tour nears its end, we reunite with the other half of our group at the first observation point. They had just observed a bear feasting by the river as we arrived, yet it chose to retreat into the forest’s sanctuary before we could witness it. Fortunately, within moments of our vigil, another bear emerges downstream, bestowing upon us one final sighting, bidding us farewell.
The voyage home transcends the morning’s conditions, bathed in a golden glow as the sun pierces through the parting clouds. Captain John resumes his post at the helm, this time unburdened by the absence of windscreen wipers. A handful of us join him on the top deck, treated to one of the most breathtaking afternoon voyages etched in my memory. A pod of Dall’s porpoise pays us a visit as we round the corner into Discovery Passage. Before we know it, we’re back at the dock. A day of unparalleled beauty etched into the annals of memory, a place I am already yearning to return to next year.