Exploring the Great Bear Rainforest on a budget

Great Bear Rainforest grizzly bears british columbia

A grizzly named Lenore and her cub eat sedges along the shoreline in Knight Inlet. Photo by Carol Patterson

How to get close-up views of grizzlies and Kermode bears of British Columbia

Two decades ago, conservationists branded a group of British Columbia coastal forest areas as the Great Bear Rainforest. The idea was that people would be more likely to protect an area evoking images of big bears in mysterious settings than one called, say, The Mid and North Coast Timber Supply Areas. They were right. Since then, the region has grown considerably as a tourism destination.

The chance to see the great bears — grizzly, black and the all-white spirit or Kermode — is exciting but expensive. A multi-day guided trip to the Great Bear Rainforest will separate you from at least five to six thousand of your loonie friends (the Canadian coins, not your buddies). Most trips involve a combination of flights and small boats to reach the rain-soaked forests favoured by the bears.

Although I wanted to see the Kermode bear, I was willing to reduce the probability of seeing one for a budget-friendly option. I traded a cramped airplane seat for a spacious truck cab with camper and drove 16 hours from Calgary to Prince Rupert, gateway to the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary in the Great Bear Rainforest.

Attempt 1: Prince Rupert

With a canary-yellow catamaran built for bear viewing, Prince Rupert Adventure Tours offers “the most inexpensive bear viewing on the coast,” says co-owner Doug Davis. At $245 for an eight-hour tour, it wasn’t dirt-cheap, but I could afford to see what all the fuss was about.

The catamaran skimmed north over the ocean for two hours before we reached the Khutzeymateen watershed, stopping only briefly as we admired two humpback whales feeding. Luck was not on our side, as we saw no bears; the first time in two years the bruins have failed to show for a tour group, Davis lamented. “We are as disappointed as you are.” I wasn’t sure about that, as he hadn’t suffered through two days of gas station food and three-dozen mosquito bites for the chance to see a bear.

But there are no “bearantees” when it comes to wildlife.

Attempt 2: The ferry to Port Hardy

I took my quest to see more of the Great Bear Rainforest to B.C. Ferries. For $663, a person and their car can cruise from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy through more of the Great Bear Rainforest including a close pass of Princess Royal Island where Kermode bears have been seen fishing at Canoona River. I asked the ship’s purser if there was a real chance of seeing the bear, or was it the stuff of marketing lore. “Yes, I’ve seen the Kermode bear,” said the purser.

As we passed Princess Royal Island I scanned the coastline, glued to my plastic deck chair — this isn’t a major cruise line, so outdoor seating is less than deluxe — but alas, no bear. I was rewarded for my efforts with three humpback sightings. This isn’t a whale-watching cruise either, so the captain doesn’t slow down for wildlife, but if there’s a reasonable chance people will see the animal an announcement is made. Still, it doesn’t pay to linger in the gift shop through the narrowest parts of the Inside Passage.

Great Bear Rainforest, grizzly bears, british columbia

Visitors to Glendale Cove estuary maintain a respectful distance from its resident bears. Photo by Carol Patterson

Attempt 3: Telegraph Cove

Spit off the Northern Expedition ferry just before midnight, I overnighted in Port Hardy before heading down Vancouver Island to Telegraph Cove, a small village perched on a boardwalk over some of the richest waters on the north coast. Disney wouldn’t agree, but for me, it’s the happiest place on Earth. Summer tourists can hop a whale watching boat or zip into the southern part of the Great Bear Rainforest. Still looking for the bears that spawned the brand, I booked a $299 tour with TidalRip Grizzly Bear Tours.

I showed up at 6:45 for a water taxi transfer to Knight Inlet — home to an estimated 50 to 60 grizzly bears. The head — code for very tiny bathroom — made the B.C. Ferries facilities I’d experienced two days prior look positively luxurious. But I wasn’t here for the frills, I wanted to see bruins. Shortly after crossing Johnstone Strait, a passenger drinking enough coffee to keep his eyes open spotted a black bear with four cubs. “I’ve never seen a black bear with four cubs,” said guide Lindsay Pattinson, sounding as impressed as I felt. We stopped for photos before heading to our ultimate destination, Glendale Cove estuary.

We arrived to see two grizzly sows and their cubs mowing sedges — grass-like plants — along the shoreline. We scrambled into aluminum herring skiffs converted for bear viewing tours. Elevated platforms provided great views while the boat’s shallow draft allowed our guides to pull us through the water. At first, I was alarmed when our guides waded through chest-deep water while big carnivores — that swim well — grazed metres away. “We always keep one hand on the boat,” explained Pattinson, “that way the bear identifies us a part of the boat.” There’s never been a conflict with the bears, so the method seems to work.

Once I got used to floating close to these apex predators with nothing but water between us, I was able to enjoy the cubs climbing on mom for a better view and running faster than any human I know. Pattinson — a 15-year guiding veteran — anticipated where bears would be and when. It meant lunch ended abruptly when Pattinson exalted, “Get in the skiff. There’s a sow with cubs up the estuary.” Digestion was forgotten as we spotted another four grizzlies, 15 for the day.

I didn’t find a spirit bear on this trip, but my spirits were high as I left the Great Bear Rainforest. I’d seen the bears the forest was named for, and I could afford to return again. Next time, maybe I’ll see the famous white bears.

Getting there

Check with Prince Rupert Adventure Tours for best bear-viewing dates.

Reserve a cabin for the B.C. Ferries Inside Passage crossing. For $90 it feels like a first-class upgrade. I stored my gear and, later, napped and showered during the 16-hour crossing.

Tide Rip Grizzly Bear Tours are popular with travellers from around the world. Book early to get the dates you want and book more than one day to ensure you see bears.

Carol Patterson inspires everyday explorers with words and video. When she isn’t travelling for work, Carol is travelling for fun. More of her adventures can be found at carolpatterson.ca.
Instagram: thecarolpatterson
Twitter: @Reinventure
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