It’s hard to put my recent trip to British Columbia into words. I could say that it was a trip of a lifetime, that it reinforced in me a great pride in Canada and its wilderness, that it was the most memorable vacation I’ve ever been on, or that it proved how lucky I am to be able to experience the things I did and meet the people I met (thanks Tom, Barrett, Pitt, Vanessa, Don, Jeanne, Jan, Bev, Lois, and Nicci!). All are true, but they just don’t seem to fully capture it. Suffice it to say, British Columbia’s coast is spectacular!
The focus of my vacation was a trip on the Ocean Light II, starting in Shearwater and ending in Hartley Bay and travelling through the Great Bear Rainforest on British Columbia’s northwest coast. The trip was my first to BC, so I spent time beforehand in Pemberton and afterwards in Prince Rupert.
Pemberton was about a two-hour drive north from the Vancouver airport along the Sea to Sky highway. The drive was highlighted by some great vistas with views of the ocean and mountains.
I knew I would like Pemberton the moment I arrived. It is a small town nestled in the mountains, with many nearby nature destinations. Within 24 hours of my arrival, I had seen three separate black bears, hiked into glacial Lower Joffre Lake, and watched a gorgeous sunset on Pemberton Meadows Road. That doesn’t even count the family of raccoons I saw enjoying a nutritious garbage lunch in Vancouver’s Stanley Park!
The only downside of Pemberton was that I was there prior to my trip through the rainforest. I was looking forward to it so much that I was very hesitant to do anything the least bit risky. I went on a few hikes, but I was so careful with my footing that I probably looked even more like a frail senior citizen than I usually do. My timidity resulted in me starting the Great Bear Rainforest trip in 100% health.
There are a few obstacles to the Great Bear Rainforest trip. Firstly, you have to book well in advance because space is limited and it’s a very popular trip (helped I’m sure by the word-of-mouth advertising that clients like me provide… I can’t stop thinking or talking about the darn thing!). Secondly, you have to get yourself to the trip’s starting point. My trip was south-to-north, starting in Shearwater and ending in Hartley Bay. Neither is reachable by car. You can either take a long ferry ride or fly in. I chose the latter, booking a flight with Pacific Coastal Airlines on a 30-seater Saab 340 aircraft from Vancouver to Bella Bella.
The flight included a stop in Port Hardy and I was informed prior to takeoff that there was so much fog in Bella Bella that the final leg of the flight might be delayed. Oh no! Thankfully, the fog lifted after a brief stay in the Port Hardy airport and we were on our way to Bella Bella. There are no places to stay in Bella Bella, so I had to take a taxi from the airport to the dock and catch a water taxi to Shearwater. Finally, I was where I needed to be to get to the Great Bear Rainforest!
I explored Shearwater with my camera, hoping to see some west coast bird species that I had never seen before and possibly even get some photos of them. I wasn’t disappointed when I got to the abandoned fish plant - a flock of black turnstones with a few surfbirds mixed in for good measure! I thought that all of the birds were turnstones and didn’t realize until I got home that some of the individuals were surfbirds (identified by the black and orange on their bill; turnstones have bills that are solidly black).
Great Bear Rainforest
The day the boat trip started was very exciting. I met the other people that were to share in my experiences, got assigned my bunk (as the only single guy on the trip, I got lucky and was assigned the largest bed and didn’t have to share my room), and we were on our way! The first few hours were spent enjoying the scenery as we travelled to our first destination.
In the evening, we got to a protected inlet, put down anchor and headed out in the Zodiac in search of bears. In no time flat, we saw a momma grizzly with her cub.
As we watched and photographed the first two grizzlies, a male appeared behind us. We got to watch and listen as it took a large salmon on shore, ripped its skin off to eat it first, and then bit into the head. You could hear the bones being crushed! It was awe-inspiring and a sign of things to come. This was only the first day of the trip and none of us knew of the even more amazing things in store for us.
We went back to the same place the following morning, saw three grizzlies (presumably the same ones as the day before), took up anchor, and headed for our next destination. The next few days were spent cruising up the coast, seeing the occasional humpback whale, getting up close with some waterfalls, taking in the majestic wilderness, and searching for wildlife. We eventually arrived at the Great Bear Rainforest, ready to search for Kermode Bears (also called Spirit Bears), a subspecies of the American Black Bear that has a whitish coat due to recessive genes (even though they are not albinos).
Our trip leader, Tom, spotted a Kermode Bear in the river on our first hike in. How lucky am I? My stretch of luck reached even higher proportions over the next couple of days as we got to observe Kermode Bears each day. It was so incredible to be able to see an animal that may have fewer than 1000 individuals, and it made me especially proud to do so in Canada. What a great country we have!
We even got to watch as the bears hunted for salmon, each with its own technique. I was really just in awe of the whole situation. I would have been happy to catch a glimpse of a Kermode Bear, but to be able to watch them up close, photograph them, and take videos while in their home was simply more than I could ever have wished for. It was truly a humbling experience.
At times my most pressing issue was deciding whether to take photographs or videos. It was incredible!
We even got to see a Kermode Bear in the river at the same time as a “regular” American Black Bear. (I say regular, but that’s not really fair. Black bears are special in their own right, but, c’mon, we were looking at Spirit Bears!) Alas, there were no struggles between the two. It was as if they had already decided to just leave each other alone. There’s no need to fight other bears when there’s enough salmon to go around I guess.
On the final portion of our trip, we continued north towards Hartley Bay. We had seen a few humpback whales earlier in the week, but nothing like we saw this time. A humpback breached right in front of us many times. Yes, you heard me correctly! A gigantic whale actually jumped completely out of the water, over and over again. If the bears were memorable, this was downright heaven!
I don’t want to peak too early in life, but it will be hard to top September 11, 2012 in my personal history books. Kermode and black bears in the morning and a breaching humpback in the afternoon. Wow!
After the whale show, we got to Hartley Bay, docked for our final night on the boat and packed for the float plane ride the following morning. I had never been on a float plane before, but it was a piece of cake. The landing in Prince Rupert was so soft that the only sign of landing was the sight of the splashes. We said our goodbyes and ended the most amazing tour I could possibly imagine. This one was a life changer!
Prince Rupert was a time to decompress and wring as much as I could from coastal BC. I hiked with a couple of other stragglers from the boat trip in a nearby park, searched for birds to photograph, and drove up to Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park.
The travel day home was a long one. I had to return my rental car in Prince Rupert, ride on an Air Canada bus on a ferry to the Prince Rupert airport, fly on Air Canada to Vancouver, fly on WestJet to Toronto, call for the hotel shuttle to take me to my parking spot, and drive back to Belleville. Whew!
I had a fantastic time in British Columbia and I can’t wait to go back!