Tom Rivest maneuvers a light skiff through the narrow channel. He's standing at the stern of the small boat, completely upright, a pair of big Bausch & Lomb binoculars held up against his eyes. As he methodically scans both shorelines, Rivest uses a three foot length of plastic plumbing pipe for extra reach. Cleverly snugged down over the throttle on the Yamaha outboard, the pipe is an ingenious way to adjust our speed as needed from a standing position, and a resourceful solution to the problem of how to navigate an aluminum skiff down a narrow, shallow slough in fading light while keeping a sharp eye out for grizzly bears. But here in the Nekite River estuary, just where it flows into British Columbia's remote Smith Inlet, one learns to be creative.
Besides the gentle gurgle of the tide, it's quiet in the boat as the four us-Rivest, a couple from the Netherlands, and me-take in the beauty of the Coast Range, looming to the east, as we remain alert for tell-tale movement. Grizzly bears are the reason we've come, but there's abundant wildlife to see among the big timber, and bright green grasses of this wild coast. In just the past 10 minutes we've watched a merganser female with 12 chicks in tow scoot off in alarm, a curious seal poke his head up long enough to emit a few barks, and an agile mink clamber over a fallen tree by the shore. The sky glows pink to the west, reflecting off distant glaciers. The river is glassy in the dead calm of evening.
"There we go," Rivest says, just above a whisper, his low-key delivery revealing no excitement. I look up to the left and see at first only a pair of furry black tufts. Soon I see they are ears, actual grizzly bear ears, as a hulking, reddish bear emerges from the undergrowth and turns its head toward our approach. Standing near the shore, up to its belly in the vegetation, the bear chews away on what looks like high grass to me, but Rivest calls it sedge. He quickly kills the motor and, as we drift, starts to pole us silently toward the creature with oars.
My reactions are complex, and I find myself actually squirming with conflicting emotions. I've seen big bears before, in Alaska and Canada while hiking, and each time I've done everything possible to avoid them. In Denali Park, I once made a five mile detour across the tundra to put big distance between me and a sow with cubs. But here I am, not 20 feet from a thousand pound bear, actually moving in for a closer look.
The Dutch couple are veteran bear watchers by now, this is their third day, and they have grown blase'. "We've seen a bear on every outing," they told me earlier, so a better vantage this time is merely icing on the cake. We already are so close to the creature I can hear the grinding of the bears' molars as it munches away at the vegetation. The grizzly, a female, absolutely knows we're here. She lifts her head to watch us for a few seconds, and, seemingly unconcerned, goes back to foraging, ripping the top half off each clump of sedge with a graceful movement of her giant head.
Rivest does this for a living, so I decide to trust in his experience and settle in to see what happens. There's no denying the thrill of watching this magnificent animal so completely at ease in its wild habitat. The bear moves slowly about on the bank, selecting fresh grazing patches, throwing only the occasional glance in our direction while chewing. I feel a dose of adrenal surge into my system as the animal moves a few steps in our direction, but it's only moving to the bank to have a drink from the river.
As dusk turns to nightfall, and visibility fades, it's time to head for home. Rivest poles us quietly away as the bear wanders off into the high grass. With a yank on the starting rope, Rivest cranks the outboard, and we slowly motor back down stream. We all dig for our hats now, as the temperature drops and the lingering orange glow to the west gives way to stars. I'm still processing the experience of having been that close to a grizzly bear when we round the bend and the twinkling lights of the lodge come into view on the west bank. They are the only sign of civilization to be seen for miles. Carl Jensen and Marg Leehane come out on the dock to help us make fast to the floating lodge, and inside I can see Eddy Mysliwiec-the Paris chef who now calls Canada home-has wine and pastries on the table. I'm thinking, I could get used to this.
Wildlife Viewing in the Great Bear Rainforest
My trip up to the wild west coast of British Columbia began at Vancouver airport's funky, down home South Terminal. Here, most of the passengers are fishermen headed up to Port Hardy or Bella Bella on scheduled flights, or catching Beavers and Grumman Gooses and other vintage bush planes up to the high-end fishing lodges that dot the coast. But kayakers and wildlife buffs, hikers, even surfers, are starting to find their way up here thanks to a handful of small lodges and operators that cater to them. I caught the Pacific Coastal flight up to Port Hardy, at the north end of Vancouver Island, then waited for the fog to clear so Bryce, one of Pacific Coastal's bush pilots, could fly me up to Great Bear Lodge in the DeHaviland Beaver.
It was just the two of us as we cruised low and slow over the saltwater channels of this remote place. The views stretched from the Inside Passage snaking through the islands to Mount Waddington, the highest peak in the Coast Range, presiding regally to the east at the head of Knight Inlet. After about 40 minutes Bryce swooped low over the pass at the head of Smith Inlet and put down in the waters of the lower Nekite River estuary, just as the lodge came into view. No permanent buildings are allowed here on the inlet, so Great Bear Lodge is actually a series of structures built on big floats and securely moored to the shore.
Lodges like the Great Bear make it possible for visitors to live comfortably in a totally wild environment, and to briefly experience the sprawling, legendary rainforest. Tom Rivest and his partner Margaret Leehane have operated Great Bear Nature Tours on this coast for more than six years. Rivest was on the dock as we roared up, and held the Beaver against the dock as I tossed out my duffle to begin a three day stay in search of wildlife.
Having spent decades in Alaska and British Columbia working with and around grizzly bears, Rivest is actually known locally as "Grizzly Adams" for his encyclopedic knowledge of bear behavior. Every visitor's stay at the lodge begins with a strident briefing on how to stay safe.
"You've got to respect the bears, unequivocally," Rivest says, adding that guests are not permitted to leave the lodge on their own. "If you find yourself confronted, hold your ground. Never run from a bear. If you're the kind of person who freezes in panic, then you'll probably do pretty well in a bear encounter."
In all the years Rivest has worked with grizzly bears, he's never had to defend himself with a firearm or even bear spray. He carries only high-pepper-concentration bear spray now, saying that it's superior to firearms. But Rivest relies on his knowledge of bear behavior, not guns or pepper spray, to avoid dangerous confrontations.
"Most bear fatalities happen to well-armed hunters," he comments, "but the attacks are so fast the victims don't have time to shoulder their rifles. Bear spray is probably the better deterrent, but the best course of action is to avoid a situation that might turn dangerous."
Rivest was impressed by Alaska's famous state preserve at McNeil River. There, for decades now, wildlife buffs have without serious incident viewed in close proximity grizzlies feeding on returning salmon. He and Margaret Leehane realized that the large grizzly populations along the rivers flowing to the wild west coast of British Columbia could offer the same sort of viewing opportunities, but with advantages. There's no need for a lottery to determine the lucky few who could come, and the close proximity--within float plane range of Vancouver and Seattle--makes the experience available to more people.
Life On the Nekite River Estuary
Life at the lodge, where outstanding food and good wine lends an air of gentility, nonetheless revolves around wildlife viewing. During the spring and early summer, when the bears feed on sedges near the river, guides make at least two runs a day up the estuary. The schedule--early morning and evening--coincides with the times of day when bear sightings are most probable. The tide rules here, as even the skiffs can't get all the way upstream at low ebb. Depending on the tide chart, the morning run might be at dawn or mid morning. For my stay, that translated into one early morning run, pre-breakfast, a magical ride up the still waters under a low fog, the estuary resonating with bird song.
By late summer and fall, the bears have begun to feed on returning salmon, making it one of the best times of year to see these amazing animals. In fall, instead of cruising the estuary in a skiff, visitors view the bears from large blinds built on the shore near the best salmon feeding shallows.
"This September we've seen an average of 12 to 15 bears per outing," Rivest told me last week. "But the drought conditions along the coast have made it difficult for the salmon to get upstream, so a lot of the bears are going away hungry. It makes for fascinating action as the animals jockey for position."
No matter what time of the season you go--from spring through early October--the lodge is a civilized and comfortable base to watch the varied wildlife of the region. Sometimes you don't even need to leave the deck of the lodge. Humpback whales sometimes actually congregate just off the lodge, breaching and spy hopping just yards away, as stunned guests watched the display while sipping a chardonnay. While I was there, a family of otters jumped up on one of the floats supporting the deck to check out the humans before diving back in to perform otter antics.
An afternoon paddle in one of the kayaks was a good way to get a close look at the nesting pair of eagles working away at rebuilding their nest. Then there was just enough time for wine on the deck to chat with other guests before Eddy called us in for one of his signature evening meals. After dinner, another three hour cruise up the estuary would offer another opportunity to see everything from wolves to bears. It's this opportunity to spend extended time in this wild place, in almost ridiculous comfort, that makes a stay at a lodge like the Great Bear so memorable.
For more information on visiting the Great Bear Lodge and other wildlife viewing venues along the West Coast of British Columbia, see: