Our guide cuts the motor and steers the flat-bottomed aluminum boat into a narrow channel of the estuary.
We float slowly past the gnarled roots of a fallen cedar, its rain-soaked trunk a burnished bronze sculpture, bare branches curving skyward like the ribs of a skeletal whale.
The forest is dark and thick, moss-draped branches almost grazing the gunwales. Here, in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, a grizzly may appear at any moment - at least, that's what we're all hoping.
Dusk settles around us. It's eerily quiet as we bob between two shores waiting for something to emerge from the tangled woods.
"This is bear-o-rama," whispers our guide, Blakeley Adkins, standing in the stern, and manoeuvring our craft along with two creaking wooden oars. "When you see a bear in here, it's really close."
While recent reports from bear-viewing guides farther up the B.C. coast suggest that this year's collapse of salmon populations might lead to widespread starvation among coastal grizzly and black bears, Tom Rivest, who runs Great Bear Nature Tours, is optimistic about the Smith Inlet bears.
This is perfect grizzly bear habitat. The steep walls of the fjord are nearly vertical, yet covered right to the waterline with towering red cedars, hemlock and Sitka spruce. Here, at the mouth of the river, layers of silt have formed a series of shallow islands covered in mounds of sedge, a grassy plant that is loaded with protein and perfect for a hungry bear emerging from its winter den.
Later in the summer, the bears can dine on root and berry appetizers and the fall brings a main course of spawning wild Pacific salmon. The salmon are vital to this rain-forest ecosystem, not only fattening bears for hibernation but feeding the soil with their decomposing carcasses. With salmon numbers dwindling, bears are threatened too.
This year, at Smith Inlet, the dry summer pushed the viewing season back by several weeks, but by mid-September Great Bear Lodge guests were seeing up to 20 grizzlies every day.
Floating in the middle of the grizzlies' fall feeding grounds, I'm holding my breath and wondering just what a grizzly might do if it came upon the six of us. The pink and chum salmon are beginning to run up the Nekite River and we're positioned to, hopefully, glimpse the local population of 40 or so grizzly bears gorging on the spawning hordes.
But after nearly three hours sitting here in the steady rain, watching the shores and gravel bars where the fish occasionally jump against the current, we spot a couple of seals, a merganser and a gangly great blue heron - but no grizzly bears.
Still, it's like entering an Emily Carr painting, a place so pristine that the bears literally outnumber the people. Great Bear is a small fly-in lodge for only 10 guests at a time who come to commune with grizzlies, the West Coast's most magnificent creatures.
Great Bear Lodge is a marvel in itself, a collection of floating buildings that comfortably house guests and staff, fully powered by a wind generator, solar panels and a micro-hydro plant that harnesses a small stream gurgling out of the trees behind the lodge. Energy is conserved at every juncture - power-guzzling appliances such as hair dryers and toasters are banned.
Smith Inlet is 80 kilometres by air from Port Hardy, and a difficult place to reach by boat, which is why there are no other tour operators here. Bears can be elusive in this vast, undisturbed maze of estuaries, inlets and dense rain forest, but that's a big part of the experience here.
And Rivest and his partner Marg Leehane work hard to keep it that way. They don't allow fishing at the lodge. They don't allow food in the boats or blinds while bear watching. And they are vigilant about garbage - every scrap is kept indoors until it can be flown out.
Just being here in Smith Inlet is a rare opportunity to glimpse the coastal temperate rain forest and all of its wild, rugged beauty. "It's pretty much an ecosystem that's undisturbed," says Rivest, scanning the valleys shrouded in mist. "All of the creatures that were here originally are still here, and in good numbers."
"The biggest threat to grizzly bears is salmon declines," adds Rivest, who went to Norway as a representative of the Wilderness Tourism Association in 2007 to express concerns about the effects of fish farming on wild salmon stocks. "In our area, we have experienced, also, several years of depressed chum salmon returns."
Yet, there are positive signs. This year's run is late, but "numbers of pink salmon in the river are up considerably over last year," and berry crops are the best Rivest has seen since arriving in the valley five years ago. Still, the bear population in Smith Inlet is smaller today than it was in 2004 - about 40 compared with 60 individuals.
Bears adjust by producing fewer cubs in lean years - one cub instead of the triplets many sows have when food is abundant. Rivest says bears here aren't starving and numbers would recover "with a series of good years."
"Of course, I am concerned that these diminished salmon returns could become the norm as that would eventually lower the bear population significantly," he says, "though they would not go extinct.
"There will still be bears on the coast - bears can live without salmon - but they're much smaller, and there's not very many of them."
And on our tour, we're yet to see the big grizzly beasts.
Between morning and evening boat tours, we hike along an abandoned logging road and through stands of young aspen and old growth calling "Hey Bear!" to let the residents know we're coming and tasting the same sweet thimble berries and huckleberries they enjoy.
Still no sign, but they're here. The evidence is all around us, from flattened "day beds" in the forest to berry-filled scat, Rivest explains as he leads us out to the bear blinds or "hides" he has built up on stilts next to prime bear viewing spots about 10 kilometres from the lodge. He has identified 40-odd individuals that frequent this corner of the Great Bear Rainforest, the largest intact chunk of temperate rain forest in the world.
"We call this the bear highway," he says, pointing to a trail leading off at right angles, across a low pass into the adjacent valley. Rivest has set up remote motion-detecting cameras here, and in other prime wildlife corridors, observing a variety of grizzly bear behaviours, catching the elusive local wolves and cougars on video.
Rivest chucked his first career working as an engineer with IBM to follow his love of nature nearly 20 years ago. A keen wildlife photographer, he earned a master's degree in biology before working as a kayak guide and eventually creating his wildlife watching company with a few local partners. Now, he oversees a staff of keen young guides with biology training, who lead visitors on daily bear-viewing trips while offering an ongoing education in local flora and fauna.
In the lodge, with only five bedrooms, the atmosphere is intimate and cozy. At dinner, we gather around a big table for Allison Barnes's fine cooking - wild sockeye salmon smoked on alder planks, and tender braised lamb shanks infused with garlic and rosemary. I head out with Leehane to collect big Dungeness crabs from their trap and Barnes dispatches them, serving the fresh legs alongside her seafood paella, loaded with scallops, salmon and sweet B.C. spot prawns.
Out in the wild again, after many hours of bobbing in boats and waiting in blinds, we see our first grizzlies. It's not exactly the National Geographic moment I had been dreaming about, but it's thrilling to see them at the shoreline, scanning the water and turning over rocks, searching for food.
Our guide cuts the motor and we drift in the current, keeping a respectful distance. We stay out in the estuary, snapping photos with our telephoto lenses, the bears at first oblivious to our presence.
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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