I stare out to the shore from aboard our 72 foot-long catamaran, scouring the water’s edge. Long grasses, a large overturned tree, a big rock and beyond, thick, pristine coastal rainforest. “How can I not see it?” I say to myself, then, I look again, this time further to the left.
There it is – another large rock-like bump, this one much lighter brown in colour, gingerly moving along the shore. Peering through my zoom lens, the bump emerges as a grizzly bear, coming closer into view as the boat silently approaches the shore. Silent, because in the Inlet, despite dozens of passengers on board, boat decks are a place of human silence while in the presence of the bears – no talking, no flashes, just the gentle click of camera shutters.
It’s my first of many grizzly sightings of the day in B.C.’s Khutzeymateen Inlet, located just north of Prince Rupert. Just that morning, I had boarded a chartered Canadian North flight out of Calgary with Classic Canadian Tours (famous for their Churchill, Manitoba polar bear trips) and flew to Prince Rupert, before seamlessly being transferred to the “Inside Passage” catamaran, which would take passengers up the coast approximately 30 km before turning into the famed Khutzeymateen Inlet.
On our way to the Inlet, our group was fortunate enough to come across a pod of around 15 orcas, lazing and playing in the waters just outside of Prince Rupert. Overhead, the number of bald eagles in the vicinity rivalled the number of seagulls one would typically see in a coastal city. Pure, wild, exhilarating. This is B.C.’s northern coast.
Turning into the Inlet, porpoises and harbour seals would make occasional appearances in the calm coastal waters.
Our group was accompanied by famed naturalist Dr. Brian Keating, who offered a fun and educational flavour to the day’s activities. Visits to this area are important for a number of reasons. According to Keating, “We are finally seeing grizzly bear tourism become more lucrative in B.C. than grizzly bear hunting. A trip to the Khutzeymateen is a glimpse of an intact ecosystem that is thriving, and gives greater awareness of the value of places such as this.”
A significant accomplishment, given the area had been slated for clear cutting in the 1980s. Through the dedicated efforts of many, today the Khutzeymateen is a protected landscape – no roads, no power lines. Approximately 50 grizzlies live in the sanctuary which envelops the Inlet, one of the most concentrated natural populations found anywhere on the planet.
In June and July, the bears voraciously eat the protein-rich sedge grass that grows along the edge of the Inlet, as they await the summer’s berry crop and salmon run to arrive. This is why sightings at this time of year are so promising. Inside Passage’s Captain Doug Davis has been cruising the Inlet’s waters for 20 years, and has gotten to know many of the bears in the sanctuary from the water. His success record last year for grizzly sightings? 100 per cent.
On board the Inside Passage, our sightings throughout the day include grizzly sows with yearling and two-year old cubs, an older male bear, and a lone black bear, seemingly minuscule compared to the grizzlies, which can grow to weigh upwards of 1,200 to 1,500 pounds on the salmon-rich coast.
Says Keating, “Coastal bears are 100 per cent reliant on old growth forest and salmon, which is why areas like the Khutzeymateen are so vital. Going on a trip like this is not only a great natural experience, but an important way to acknowledge the importance of the B.C. grizzly bear.”
The Inlet itself is stunning – mountain peaks rise over 2,000 metres up from the water’s edge, and a variety of marine birds make regular appearances. After eight hours on the Inside Passage, with hundreds of frames on the camera, the boat returns to Digby Island and the Prince Rupert Airport. The group of 96 nature and adventure seekers are thrilled about the day, and mood is light and energetic all the way back to Calgary.
Returning home that night, my trip to the Khutzeymateen feels like a dream, like days of adventure all rolled into one. From watching orcas in the cool, salty ocean air, to witnessing the awe-inspiring grizzlies in their natural habitat, the “Khutz” is a vital addition to anyone’s bucket list. It’s a privilege to know firsthand that places like this exist.
Classic Canadian Tours is offering its next day trip from Calgary to the Khutzeymateen on Saturday, July 19. Visit www.classiccanadiantours.com for details.