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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 ...

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.

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