Until I heard about Knight Inlet Lodge, I didn't know it was possible to watch grizzly bears -- safely, at least, in Canada. But putting humans up close to animals from which most people flee has brought the lodge a bit of fame far beyond its quiet, woodsy setting.
Anchored in pristine Glendale Cove, 65 kilometres up Knight Inlet on the coast of British Columbia, the 12-room floating lodge was recently rated the world's fifth most exotic destination by the Arts & Entertainment TV channel. The main reason for that honour: Knight Inlet's proximity to the largest concentration of grizzlies in Canada. Up to 50 bears have been counted within a seven-kilometre radius of the lodge.
The fact that few Canadians know about the lodge is no accident, at least according to owner Dean Wyatt, who, with his greying, grizzled beard, looks a bit like a grizzly himself. Wyatt says he has tried to avoid encouraging copy-cat operators who might end up making the bears feel threatened, and so has been reluctant to advertise the area to people in B.C. and elsewhere in Canada. "We know that when we get too many people, the grizzlies disappear."
As we set off this spring for a long weekend at the lodge, we were excited to be among the few who make it there. As thick fog unfurled around us, we flew low in a six-seat float plane from Campbell River on Vancouver Island, up the rugged wilderness coast and into the remote, forest-lined fiord of Knight Inlet. Thirty minutes later, we splashed down in front of an assortment of cedar buildings floating on log decks, connected with gangplanks, all chained to the adjacent bank in Glendale Cove.
After signing waivers warning us that grizzlies are wild and unpredictable animals, four of us were whisked away by a guide for a high-speed morning boat tour of the soaring granite walls and thunderous waterfalls farther up Knight Inlet. Another group of four went off with their own guide to search out the grizzlies.
To enable intimate viewing, the lodge limits the number of guests going out at one time to watch the bears. Non-bear viewing times are filled with other eco-activities, including sea kayaking; boat trips to famed Johnstone Strait, where killer whales are seen from July to October; salmon fishing from May to October; jet boating up a remote wilderness inlet; and marine excursions to abandoned, 10,000-year-old First Nations villages, where remnants of decaying totems lie beside the skeletal remains of once-grand longhouses.
In the afternoon, it was our turn to quietly motor out in a flat-bottom skiff to look at the grizzlies that gather by the nearby estuary flowing into the cove. Come spring and early summer, the bears are found munching on the protein-rich sedge grass at the estuary's edge. Spring and early summer are also the seasons for photographing the young cubs born from the previous year's matings. Along with their mothers and other grizzlies, they can be seen at the edge of the estuary flowing into the cove. From the vantage point of a flat-bottomed skiff, we were close enough to hear one particularly voracious eater chewing on her meal. Not that we got too close.
"We try to maintain a distance of 100 metres, so the bears don't become too habituated to us," explained Brett, the young naturalist who acted as our guide.
That same afternoon we got a good look at nine bears, including a male and a female who batted each other playfully, rolled together in the grass -- and mated.
In late summer and fall, when millions of pink salmon return to spawn in the estuary channel, raised viewing platforms up river are used to observe the bears. This is the time to see them fish out the salmon and feast on the roe.
Anytime of year though, visitors should expect the unexpected. One afternoon, we were "tracking" grizzlies, stocked with supplies to make plaster casts of paw prints, and looking for the day beds they dig in raised hillocks. As we noisily hiked along an old forestry road, several grizzlies pushed their way out of the mountainside forest just ahead of us.
Four grizzlies. Five humans, pepper spray at the ready. We and they equally startled.
Backing up slowly, we waved our arms. Evidently that was a wise move: About a minute later, they turned back into the forest.
Knight Inlet Lodge itself is basic, but comfortable. A former fishing lodge dating back to the 1920s, with its lopsided kitchen and dining room, it's the kind of warm and friendly place that fosters an easy intimacy between guests, guides and staff. Over jugs of wine and superb dinners of fresh crab, salmon and lamb served by the ever-inventive Chef Carlos, we enjoyed lively conversations with guests like Dave, who first visited from Ireland last year and is now working on a photographic book about the grizzlies that live in and around Glendale Cove.
After dinner, evening can be spent in the quiet outside, or inside taking in nature shows (about bears, of course). By the end of our long weekend, we felt a fulfilling sense of appreciation for the grizzlies and a deeper respect for these fine animals of the wild. Knight Inlet Lodge is accessed by a 25-minute float plane ride from Campbell River on Vancouver Island. Package prices start at $675 a person a night and include the flight, accommodation, tours, meals and wine with dinner. The Internet site is http://www.grizzlytours.com . To connect with the morning float plane, an overnight stay in Campbell River is needed. The best accommodation is Painters Lodge. Call (250) 286-1102.
Another popular area for viewing grizzly bears, also on British Columbia's Pacific Coast, is the Khutzeymateen Valley. A number of tour operators offer packages. They include Ecosummer Expeditions, (800) 465-8884 or (604) 214-7484: Adventure Canada, (800) 363-7566 or (905) 271-4000; Ocean Light II Adventures, (604) 328-5339; and Sun Chaser Charters, (250) 624-547. Janice Mucalov is based in West Vancouver.
COMING BACK ALIVE
There are plenty of times you don't want to see a bear in the wilderness. Parks Canada offers these tips for avoiding the animals -- and surviving a chance encounter. Avoiding bears. Both black and grizzly bears generally avoid humans, but may threaten and even attack when they become accustomed to people, are surprised, or are forced to defend themselves, their young or their food. Make noise to let bears know you're there. Travel in groups on established trails in daylight. Properly store food and garbage;even empty pet-food bowls can attract bears. Leave the area if you see fresh signs of bears -- tracks, droppings, diggings, torn-up logs, turned-over rocks or large, dead animals. Dispose of fish offal in fast-moving streams or the deep part of lakes, never on shores or banks. Never approach or feed a bear. Keep a distance of at least 100 metres. Report all bear sightings to park staff. If you meet one. No single strategy works in all situations. Stay calm. Most bears just want to ensure you're not a threat. Pick up small children and stay in a group. Your pack can provide protection. Back away slowly, never run. Remain still and talk calmly and firmly. A scream or sudden movement may trigger an attack. Leave the area or take a detour. If this is impossible, wait until the bear moves away. Always leave the bear an escape route. If attacked. If you surprise a bear and it defends itself, use bear spray if you have it. If contact has occurred or is imminent, play dead -- lie on your stomach with legs apart. Protect your face, the back of your head and neck with your arms. Remain still until the bear leaves the area. If the attack continues for more than several minutes, consider fighting back.
If a bear stalks you and then attacks, or attacks at night, don't play dead -- fight back. First, try to escape, preferably to a building, car or up a tree. Otherwise, use bear spray, or shout and try to intimidate the bear with a branch or rock. Bear spray. Effectiveness is not guaranteed. Wind, spray distance, rain and product shelf life can influence how well it works. Read directions in advance. More information. www.worldweb.com/ParksCanada-Banff/bears.html.