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2004 Trip Report

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Last year I was lucky enough to spend 3 months on the road, or rather very definitely off road in the wilds of Canada, scouting potential wildlife destinations that we could add to our ever expanding portfolio. Along the way I got to experience some of the most outstanding bear and whale watching opportunities British Columbia, Manitoba and Nunavut have to offer, and also had the pleasure of meeting many of you who travelled with us this year.

I started my 3 month odyssey in Churchill, Manitoba at the beginning of August. I'd been to Churchill last year during the fall, peak polar bear season, but was intrigued to see what it had to offer as a summer wildlife destination. There are still Polar Bears in the area at this time of year, but they are widely distributed and less conspicuous, if such a thing were possible for a 1,000lb white bear! In July and August the focus shifts to the thousands of Beluga Whales that gather to calf in the warm, shallow waters of the Churchill River. With a temperature differential of at least 10C when compared to the frigid waters of Hudson Bay, here the newborn calves expend less energy staying warm, and more piling on the pounds. In the space of 3 days I was able to witness this spectacular gathering from every conceivable vehicle- boat, kayak, and floatplane to name but a few, and even donned a dry suit to snorkel with these graceful, gentle, intelligent, inquisitive, and vocal marine mammals. I also got to check out Churchill's other summer residents like the Red Fox and Caribou.

From Churchill I travelled 20 miles north by floatplane to a remote lodge on the western shores of Hudson Bay. The lodge offers a true wilderness experience, albeit with plenty of home comforts, with an imaginative and varied wildlife program centred around Birds, Bears and Belugas. The owners of the lodge are very gracious hosts who have cultivated a wonderfully warm and welcoming ambience in this most remote but extraordinarily picturesque of locations. The guides, one an accomplished wildlife photographer who has published an excellent book on polar bears, and the other a veteran of many years working in the field with them, are top notch and great company to boot.

I didn't have long to wait for my first glimpse of a Polar Bear this year when on final approach to the lodge our pilot pointed out three large males on an island in a nearby estuary and took us in for a closer look. If that wasn't enough to whet my appetite, over lunch our guides regaled us with tales of polar bears walking right by the lodge, and of one particular large male they had seen this summer pursuing a unique and never seen before feeding strategy in the mouth of a river to the south of the lodge. The bear would apparently swim a thousand yards offshore to a semi-submerged rock on which he would perch, lying in wait for beluga whales passing by in as little as 4 feet of water. At regular intervals he would leap into the water in attempt to pin an unsuspecting beluga to the bottom and overpower it. The guides had seen this behaviour again and again but were yet to see it bear fruit, although they had seen the bear feeding on a beluga carcass nearby. I myself was lucky enough to witness it for myself the following day when we went out to see the belugas in a rigid inflatable boat. There standing proud of the horizon, apparently walking on water, was a magnificent 1100 pound white bear, pawing the water in nervous anticipation. We watched in amazement as every 10 minutes or so he launched himself into the water with a theatrical belly flop, only to clamber back out onto his rock empty handed. My abiding impression though was that a bear wouldn't persevere with such a risky, energy sapping strategy if it wasn't successful from time to time.

Having witnessed this magnificent and rarely seen spectacle, donned a drysuit and snorkelled with the belugas, enjoyed the beauty of the tundra carpeted in arctic wildflowers, and looked up from my breakfast to watch a caribou stag wander by, the highlight of my stay at the lodge came on my last night there. Just as we were finishing up another gourmet dinner, one of the guides announced that a polar bear had been spotted in the vicinity of the lodge. Along with the other guests I decamped to one of two watchtowers inside the lodge compound to watch the great white bear cautiously approach from a kilometre away. He slowly but purposefully headed in our direction, periodically disappearing from view behind the low lying arctic willows, eventually emerging beside some outbuildings where we were able to observe him through the large picture windows in the lounge area. When he attempted to break into a tool shed the lodge staff went out to scare him off, and he treated us to a full circuit of the lodge, pausing on the seaward side to playfully inspect two beached zodiacs and even use one as a trampoline! All the while we were able to move from room to room observing him from close range through the windows. It was a truly memorable end to our stay.

For the next leg of my journey I travelled across the country to Vancouver, and then northwards to Northern British Columbia. I started in the picturesque coastal town of Prince Rupert, the final port of call before Alaska on the famed Inside Passage. I spent a day watching Humpback Whales close to the territorial divide between Canada and south east Alaska, the only place in the world where these majestic whales can be seen "bubble netting" for small baitfish, and then spent 3 days in the area of the Khutzeymateen Bear Sanctuary, the only reserve in North America specifically designated for the protection of Grizzly Bears. This proved to be a totally authentic wilderness experience as I camped on a floating dock in an idyllic location just outside the reserve boundaries. The situation was not without its home comforts however, as my guide lives full-time on the dock from May to October, and has created his own piece of heaven on earth in this remote coastal inlet. In addition to an open expanse of deck where you can pitch 3 tents or even land a helicopter, half of the floating dock is covered by a permanent, timber framed shelter housing a bunkhouse, fully equipped kitchen, living room with satellite TV and video, and even a bathtub and shower. Myself and the other guests were treated to gourmet meals featuring freshly caught Dungeness crab, halibut and salmon, and daily boat tours to observe the local bear population. The camp is accessible only by boat or floatplane, and as well as multi-day stays, daily fly-in tours are also offered. My visit in mid August coincided with the bears transitioning from grazing on sedge grasses close to the shoreline when they are highly visible, to feeding on spawning salmon in less accessible creeks and streams flowing deep into the impenetrable forest. This meant fewer sightings than in peak Spring viewing season (May, June and July) but on the second evening we were lucky enough to see a mature make known to my guide as Cocoa swim from one side of the inlet to the other, a distance of about 2 miles. This was fascinating to me as while I've often seen grizzlies swim short distances in rivers, I'd never before seen one cross such a wide expanse of open water.

From Prince Rupert I then headed to an area 1½ hours east of Prince Rupert where two river valleys are home to very healthy grizzly bear populations. Here a top notch operator conducts very small scale bear viewing (max 4 people) by boat in Spring, or on foot in Summer & Fall. It's a rarely visited wilderness area and the bears here are far less habituated than in other areas where bear viewing takes place, so the guides have developed a real "back to nature" approach which relies on camouflage, stealth, patience, and venturing into seemingly inaccessible wilderness areas where fewer people have gone before than have walked on the moon. For 3 days my guides and I picked our way through dense, pristine old growth forest, donned chest high waders to ford river and streams choked with spawning salmon, and waited patiently in natural hides for that thrilling close encounter with a truly wild bear that is unaware of your presence. This is very much the approach taken by the top wildlife photographers and documentary makers, and for me it was a privilege to be totally immersed in, and truly at one with the bear's environment. It was also an education to spend time with the guides whose commitment to ethical, low impact eco-tourism is admirable, and I learned more in those 3 days than from all of my many bear experiences leading up to them. This pioneering approach is not for everyone however, and for a less active and adventurous experience the same guides offer first class Spring bear viewing by boat from mid May to mid June when it is not uncommon to see as many a 20 grizzlies grazing in the same area.

After a short road trip to Hyder, the most southerly community in Alaska, for some more bear viewing and to see the breathtaking Salmon Glacier, and then some more whale watching from Prince Rupert, I flew back to Vancouver for a quick fix of civilisation before to my next port of call - Tofino on the rugged west cost of Vancouver Island. Over the course of a week I got to experience firsthand what has made Tofino and nearby Ucluelet such a popular destination for those seeking an escape from the hustle and bustle of modern life. My visit got off to the best possible start when on my first day out I spent a fabulous morning watching and photographing Black Bears foraging on the remote beaches of pristine Clayoquot Sound from a zodiac just offshore, and then in the afternoon saw 2 Gray Whales, a pod of transient Orcas terrorising a Sea Lion colony, and a male Humpback Whale breach and tail slap for 10 minutes, before unwinding in the 50 degree waters of a nearby natural hot springs.

During the remainder of my stay on the west coast of Vancouver Island I did some more whale watching, got reacquainted with a sea kayak, and journeyed in an traditional Nuu-cha-nulth cedar dugout canoe to a nearby island where my First Nations guide led an interpretive hike through the old growth forest and spoke about her people's history and culture, and introduced me to various edible and medicinal plants. I was even tempted to take a surfing lesson (the west coast of Vancouver Island has a vibrant surf culture) but there was just so many other things to do and see. The highlight of my time in Tofino and Ucluelet though, was a visit to a remote island in the Broken Islands Group which was home to thousands of Stellar and Californian Sea Lions, most of which were large bulls. This was an incredible sensory experience with all of eye popping sights, deafening sounds, and pungent smells that go with such a large gathering of testosterone fuelled pinipeds. A wildlife enthusiast/photographer's dream!

Next on my agenda was a return to perhaps my favourite place in all of Canada, the Bella Coola River Valley in the remote interior of BC, where they were enjoying a quite wonderful bear viewing season with an unprecedented number of grizzly bear sightings. As well as getting to meet and spend time with some of you that visited Bella Coola this year, I had the added pleasure of getting re-acquainted with Eva and her cubs, a family group I got to know and photograph last year, as well as multiple encounters with a new cast of grizzly characters including Brady, a very rotund mature female, and Charles, a very entertaining sub-adult male with a penchant for snorkelling.

After a wonderful fortnight in Bella Coola it was once again time to seek pastures new, and the allure of a first encounter with the rare and elusive Kermode or Spirit Bear (a genetic variation of the Black Bear that is born white) led me to a vibrant First Nations community on a small island off the beautiful Central Coast of British Columbia, halfway between Port Hardy in the north of Vancouver Island, and Prince Rupert to the north. Here in a cluster of small islands covered in pristine old growth temperate rainforest these mystical white bears occur in greater numbers than anywhere else in North America, Here 1 in 10 Black Bears are born white due to a recessive gene, and on one island in particular the ratio is as high as 1 in 4. I wasn't getting my hopes up however as everything I had read and heard about Spirit Bears had reinforced how notoriously elusive and rarely sighted they are. After all they are spiritually very significant to the local First Nations population and an appearance by one is considered to be an extremely omen and potentially momentous. Despite all this my lucky streak with bears prevailed and I didn't have long to wait for my first glimpse of this Spirit of the Rainforest.

Led by our Tsimshian guide, myself and the other guests had only just stepped off the boat and got settled in a natural hide when, from the treeline on the other side of a river, a magnificent white mature female emerged. She was followed by her two first year cubs, bundles of mischievous energy, and as black as their father who obviously did not carry the Kermode gene. The small family group wandered the far bank for about 15 minutes before the cubs decided to raid a nearby crab apple tree. In the blink of an eye, as agile as monkeys they had reached the high branches, 50 feet up, soon to be joined by their mother, whose not insubstantial bulk seemed to defy both gravity and the seemingly spindly nature of the branches. Eventually they disappeared beyond the emerald green curtain they had emerged from, but an hour later they appeared again further upstream from us, spent some time fishing for salmon, and then swam across to our side of the river. We shifted our position to get a better look at them, but before long they melted away, back into their green world.

Our guide who had earlier told us that this bear was dominant in the area having chased off larger males and even a grizzly on one occasion (confidence is everything in bear world), then forecasted that she would head back downstream to where the river emptied into the ocean, circumventing us by following a well worn bear trail through the deep bush behind us. We therefore positioned ourselves accordingly, intently scanning the treeline 200 yards away for twitching branches that would herald their arrival, and waited. An hour had passed when suddenly we heard a commotion of snapping twigs nearby, and moments later the white bear in all her glory stepped into the open, only 30 yards away! For what seemed like an eternity she stood blinking, seemingly as surprised to see us as we were to see her, and time seemed to stand still with just the clicking of shutters to signal its passage. After man and bear had stayed rooted to the spot for what seemed like an eternity, the two cubs arrived on the scene, and an unexpected calm settled on all concerned. The white bear sat on her haunches facing the cameras, posing like a professional, while her two young cubs draped themselves over a fallen log behind her, looking drowsy. Time passed unmeasured until the bear family seemed to lose interest in the unfamiliar bipeds (the reverse was certainly not the case) and sauntered off downstream. As we watched them go I think we were all aware that we had been privileged to witness something quite extraordinary, a one in a million, certainly once in a lifetime moment of pure magic.

Although it's hard to top the most memorable wildlife encounter in your lifetime, the Great Bear Rainforest still held something in reserve. My luck held and the following day, after patiently waiting for hours, I was rewarded with a sighting, albeit in the middle distance, of a first year white cub with its 3 black siblings (clearly sired by a different father - the wonder of delayed implantation) and equally black mother who had obviously inherited the Kermode gene from one of her parents. Having been truly blessed by the rainforest spirits for 2 days, and enjoyed the wonderfully warm hospitality if the First Nations community in which we were staying, we elected to end the trip by spending a night at a remote beachfront wilderness cabin and the following day looking for Grizzly Bears on a nearby salmon river. We enjoyed a wonderful evening on the beach beside the campfire, learning to cook salmon in the traditional First Nations way using cedar wood, and then capped a veritable bear tour de force by seeing 5 grizzlies the following day, and then getting another brief glimpse of the female spirit bear as we cruised by the mouth of her river on our homeward journey.

Still on a high from being blessed with 3 Spirit sightings in 3 days, I travelled by floatplane back to Port Hardy, and then northwest to a newly situated floating lodge in a remote costal inlet of Lower Mainland BC. Here, seemingly cut off from the outside world, an American biologist and his Australian partner have an extremely well run and well thought out Grizzly Bear viewing operation with boat based spring and summer viewing in the inlet, and fall viewing a series of permanent hides at various intervals along a river with a very healthy salmon run, and between a hides from a vehicle (essentially a mobile hide) on a stretch of restored logging road which connects them. At the beginning of this year , after a long search for a river system with a larger grizzly bear population, they relocated their nicely appointed, 5 bedroom floating lodge from another inlet where they'd been conducting bear viewing for the past 5 years. What sets this operation apart, other than the organisation and meticulous logistical planning, is the sheer amount of time devoted to bear viewing during a stay. Whereas in Knight Inlet viewing is limited to a 2 hour session each day during salmon season, here two 4 hour sessions (one on day of arrival and departure) are offered, one in the morning and one in the afternoon/evening. While the area may lack the sheer density of bears found in Knight Inlet, it does have a very healthy bear population and with 8 or more hours a day to view them, sightings are plentiful.

During my 4 night stay I particularly enjoyed seeing some of the same bears on multiple days and getting to know their individual personalities and habits. Another highlight was watching the interaction between multiple sub-adult bears as they vied for position, trying to find their place in a complex and ever changing pecking order. Over the course of 4 days I became familiar with a number of individuals and family units, all named by, and well known to my guide, including "Struan", "The Boys" (twin 3 year olds), and most memorable of all, "Jocasta & Oedipus", a formidable team consisting of a mature female and her clinging 4-5 year old son. All viewing was conducted from a bus, and a series of 60 foot covered hides along a 5 mile stretch of restored logging that runs parallel with a river with a big run of Pink & Chum Salmon. On a number of occasions we actually met bears on the logging road, or had them emerge from the undergrowth beside the bus when we parked beside a particular section of river. Back at the lodge myself and the other guests had the benefit of superb cuisine, cosy private bedrooms, frequent slide shows, an extensive library of wildlife books & documentaries, and optional hikes and excursions by boat and kayak between bear viewing sessions.

Next on the agenda was a quick visit to Knight Inlet where I had an incredible day of bear viewing, the results of which can be seen on various pages of tjhis website, especially the Photo Gallery. My 3 month odyssey concluded with a memorable return to the Arctic Circle, the highlight of which was an incredible Polar Bear encounter involving a young male who came from a kilometre away to pace back & forth along the floe edge for 30 minutes while myself and some American filmmakers watched, filmed, and photographed him from a boat 10 yards away! Another incredible encounter with a white bear. How lucky can you get? You can read the full story of this encounter and see the photos in our Photo Gallery.

I hope that reading about my travels may inspire some of you to visit some of these incredible locations yourselves. Below are 3 sample itineraries showcasing the best of them, as well as the 3 distinct wildlife viewing seasons in Canada.

Happy travels

James Manson

Canadian Operations Manager

 British Columbia

 Manitoba

Nunavut (Arctic)

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