One is a young female, unknown to the guide. It disappears into the woods the moment it spots us, then appears again farther downstream. It works its way along the shore away from us, dipping into the shallows, balancing along the wet logs and searching for salmon. Later, there's a bigger honey-coloured bear, making its way along the edge of the sedge - a bear they have named Bo Diddley.
Rivest says the bears in the inlet learn not to fear humans when they're watched this way - which is why he and Leehane stay in their floating home over the winter months, guarding against poachers. For now, there is a moratorium on grizzly hunting in this part of the Great Bear Rainforest, but Rivest and other members of the Commercial Bear Viewing Association of British Columbia (of which Rivest is president) are lobbying to end trophy hunting of bears, a practice that continues in both Alberta and B.C. In 2008, 318 grizzly bears were legally shot in B.C. by hunters, with the provincial government collecting more than half a million dollars for the sale of grizzly hunting licences.
It's estimated there are now only 581 grizzlies in Alberta, and 16,000 in B.C., a number conservationists dispute. The grizzly is listed as "a species of special concern" but is not considered endangered, despite rapidly dwindling numbers.
Conservationists and wildlife guides seeing fewer and hungrier bears this year raised the alarm last week and called on the B.C. government to close all chum salmon fisheries and cancel the fall grizzly-bear hunt. But the province's Environment Minister, Barry Penner, is not alarmed: He asked ministry staff to update bear-population counts before drawing any conclusions or taking action to protect coastal grizzlies.
While observing bears does lead to a change in their behaviour, guides - including Rivest - argue that by watching wildlife we help to ensure its future protection.
On our final day at the lodge, with Rivest in tow, we bump through the forest in a big school bus and, at his first blind, come across a bear.
Standing high above the river, sheltered from the drizzle, we watch the young grizzly splashing through the fast-moving stream to search the gravel bar for fish. There are none spawning today, but we see the telltale signs, flashes of silver and concentric rings breaking the still pools.
An eagle cries and wheels overhead - like us extremely lucky humans, waiting and watching and hoping for a plentiful fall season with an abundance of healthy, spawning salmon.
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Pack your bags
GETTING THERE Smith Inlet is 400 kilometres northwest of Vancouver. It's a 45-to-55-minute flight from Port Hardy, a community at the northern tip of Vancouver Island. From Vancouver, you can fly directly to Port Hardy, or take BC Ferries to Nanaimo, then drive north.
WHERE TO STAY Great Bear Lodge 1-888-221-8212; www.greatbeartours.com. The rooms in the floating lodge are compact but cozy - each with private half-bath (showers are downstairs). Food is fresh, local and organic, when available, and all meals and drinks, beer and wine are included. From $2,120 for a two-night fall tour to $3,610 for a four-night fall tour.
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