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In Smith Inlet, steep slopes of cedar come right down to the waterline.
In Smith Inlet, steep slopes of cedar come right down to the waterline.

The Eco-traveller

In B.C. where the grizzly bears (still) roam Add to ...

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.

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