Most adventures carry with them a ‘pinch paid to write articles me’ moment. That very moment where the hair stands up on the back of your neck, tingles run down your spine and you can hardly believe what you are seeing/feeling/experiencing. And few things could perhaps be the better definition of that moment than a Great Bear Experience in the wilderness of Canada.
Bears are on the ‘most wanted’ list for Aussies travelling to Canada. Drive through this beautiful country and you will find yourself constantly scouring the nearby roadside and forests for a black or brown shape. We are all secretly terrified by them, but at the same time have a yearning to run to one for a hug. If you can find one, that is.
A Great Bear Experience in the Canadian Wilderness
Many people travel to Canada and do not see a bear. Bears prefer solitude and wilderness and instead spend most of their time hidden from us humans – so it is only the lucky few who come across a bear, and hopefully it is from the safety of a vehicle.
However the opportunity to observe them in their natural habitat in the wild is absolutely unique.
To get to Great Bear Lodge, we turned up at Vancouver’s South Terminal early on a foggy day in October. Our excitement was clear and was only slightly dimmed when we heard that the fog was going to delay our departure. An hour later, the same announcement was repeated, and four hours later, we could barely believe our ears when we heard we would finally be on our way.
A one-hour flight to Port Hardy at the top of Vancouver Island followed, and we arrived ready to board our seaplane to the lodge. Plane access is virtually the only way in and out of the floating lodge, which is located smack bang in the middle of British Columbia’s ‘Great Bear Rainforest’, on the mainland coast. It was beginning to be apparent that things were named quite literally in these parts of the world.
As we took off from Port Hardy, and soared towards the green wilderness before us, the excitement in the plane was electric. We flew for around 30 minutes over pristine rainforest, inlets and lakes… It was an absolute natural wilderness and we couldn’t wait to spot the floating lodge that would be our home for the next two days and take us to some of the most amazing wildlife spotting locations on the planet.
Marg Leehane and Tom Rivest part-own, manage and host groups at the Great Bear Lodge and, after our spectacular landing on Smith Inlet, were waiting on the deck of the beautiful timber lodge to welcome us. We meet all the staff as we exit the seaplane and are instantly made to feel ‘at home’. The cosy nature of the lodge, the amazing home cooking that takes place in the kitchen adjacent to the lounge and the way we are welcomed as if we are old friends just begins to sum up the atmosphere that exists here.
We are fed immediately, fuelling up on huge and tasty sandwiches, home-baked cookies that were still warm from the oven, and fresh coffee. Outside, the sun was still high and there was plenty of time left in the day to head straight out and find some bears.
Marg and Tom have built and maintained every inch of this experience from scratch ensuring it is as harmonious to its natural environment as possible. Their core vision is to share the wonders of nature with others, and only accommodate very small groups of around ten people at a time to do so. They also live at the lodge twelve months of the year. When most other tourism businesses in this part of the world shut down and vacate over winter, Tom and Marg feel it is their responsibility to stay at the lodge, so that poachers do not feel comfortable being in this area at any time of the year.
We travelled in their 4WD along tracks they built themselves, to a place about fifteen minutes from the lodge where the bears like to congregate. At the confluence of the Piper and Nekite Rivers, bears are most active in the late afternoon towards dusk, and this is salmon season…
Each year, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of salmon return to their birthplace to breed and it is a smorgasbord for the bears. Fattening up for their impending months in hibernation, bears are fantastic fishermen and are attracted by the salmon that we can literally see jumping out of the water.
Hidden away in a bear hide built by Tom on the side of the river, we wait in almost silence, with baited breath, all of us praying for some visitors.
And within in an hour, Tom quietly points out that a bear is making her way towards us…
Hearts beating, and cameras ready, we spot the adult bear walking casually up the river bank. She is taking her time, stopping occasionally to sniff the air (or us?) and almost as if on cue, right in front of us, she charges into the water and pounces on a salmon, wrestling the fish with her teeth and paws, and dragging it back to the bank.
I’m not sure if any of us actually took a breath as we watched this unfold before us, but it was literally one of the ‘pinch me’ moments I described earlier. This was nature at its very best and we had a front row seat.
As the bear tucked into the fish, Tom and Marg shared a wealth of information on the bears, their habits, their habitats, and their daily lives. You could see the passion for what they refer to as their ‘neighbours’ in their eyes and faces, and it was clear that this kind of experience does not get any less exciting for them, no matter how many times they have it.
As the afternoon turned into evening, we watched several more bears arrive at this location. One mum and her cub caught several salmon seemingly just for fun, eating only the bits and pieces that took their fancy. In between visits, spectacular bald-headed and white-bellied eagles would swoop upon the leftover fish, only allowing the seagulls a few moments to get their share themselves.
In all, after watching close to about ten bears go about their daily fishing activities, it was almost dark and time to head back to the lodge.
The day and our wonderful great bear experience ended around the communal dinner table, recounting incredible experiences that day and tucking into the most delicious meal of slow cooked lamb shanks with a glass of red. We would do it all over again in the morning, and as we slept soundly on the floating lodge, I am sure we all dreamed about those beautiful bears….
Places We Go travelled to Great Bear Lodge with www.aptouring.com.au