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Great Bear


Morning view. Fiordland Conservancy, Great Bear Rainforest, BC. Achiever in background.

When my family and I moved to the Pacific Northwest, I had grand expectations for outdoor exploration and adventure. Previous work had taken me all through Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and other states, but I had only one trip to Alaska and had never been to British Columbia. I kept looking at the map just north of Bellingham and thinking how much I needed to go there. I had no idea!


Nor did I, at that time, know that the Wild West Coast of Vancouver Island, north to the Great Bear Rainforest, and into the southeastern Alaska Panhandle (Juneau, Sitka, Skagway) would become my favorite destination which would draw me back repeatedly!

Inside Passage to Sitka, Alaska. 2019

Within a few months of landing in Bellingham in 2001, my wife Stephanie, daughter Danna, and I were on our first trip to Juneau. For recent east-coasters, an 824-mile, 34 wonderful hour trip up the Inside Passage on the Alaska Marine Highway was the ultimate submersion into the Pacific Northwest. A small plane flight to see bears at Pack Creek on Admiralty Island (home to more grizzly than all the lower 48 states combined), and we were hooked forever.

Great Bear Rainforest Morning Migration. BC.

The following fall, I planned an end-of-season, solo hike on the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island. Forty-six miles (75 kilometers since we are talking about BC) of mud, coast, forest, mud, bears, cougars, walrus, more mud, and moss stretching from Bamfield south to Port Renfrew. I remember waking one morning, after setting up a quick camp inside a shallow cave, to see bear prints oozing and steaming in the moss a few feet from my sleeping bag. * I had a great trip, but quickly realized backpacking on beautiful but difficult trails required a level of planning and fitness that I thought I had – but did not. A great introduction to coastal BC and …. I was into the wild!

Kayaking in the Bunsby Islands. Wild West Coast Vancouver Island, BC.

That winter, a friend told me about an upcoming sea-kayak trip to the Bunsby Islands and BC’s Brooks Peninsula. He talked about campfires on the beach, bears and wolves along the shore, and a place isolated and exposed and that exemplifies the wild nature of Vancouver’s rugged coast. It was maybe the only time in my life where I could not contain my excitement and I blurted out “Can I go?” Limited gear, twenty-five-mile paddle days, heavy wind, and waves, and my first time on the open ocean – I was in heaven.

Through all of this, Stephanie and I heard stories of the remote Great Bear Rainforest. An area roughly the size of Ireland, and one of the largest remaining tracts of unspoiled temperate rainforest left in the world. Home of whales, coastal wolves, salmon, and bears. The Great Bear quickly focused our attention, and over the years Stephanie and I planned a trip there and chipped away at its boundaries with many trips to Bella Coola, Sitka, Vancouver Island, and Alaska.

Grizzly Lunch. Kynoch Inlet. Great Bear Rainforest, BC.

In the early fall of 2017, we flew into Bella Bella, located on Campbell Island, entry to the Great Bear Rainforest, home of the Heiltsuk Native Band, and the largest community on BC’s central coast. Once there we rendezvoused with the crew and three other international passengers on board the SV Achiever, a sixty-eight-foot sloop and research vessel for the Raincoast Conservation Foundation. We picked that trip because the Foundation was working to stop trophy hunting of grizzly bears. Our trip fees to the Foundation were used to purchase a hunting license for each of the five passengers, although we chose to photograph, not shoot, bears. In addition to paying for our trip, and supporting a worthwhile nonprofit, we thought this was a way to have our fees go directly to protecting the lives of wild grizzly. The effort was successful, and in November 2017, the BC provincial government announced the end of trophy hunting of grizzlies in the Great Bear Rainforest. Note: Coastal wolves and black bear do not have this protection yet, so there is still work to do.

Humpback Feeding Frenzy. Great Bear Rainforest, BC.

From Bella Bella, we took a short boat trip to the Shearwater community on Denny Island, and location of the Achiever. Once loaded and berthed, we headed north up the Mathieson Channel approximately one hundred kilometers (62+ miles) to Kynoch Inlet and the Fiordland Conservancy, a world of inlets, bays, islands, fjords, old-growth western red cedar and sitka spruce, waterfalls and glaciers. All located in the Kitimat Range of the Coast Mountains and we spent days watching grizzly and salmon in the streams, rivers, and bays of the Conservancy.

Bald Eagle & Moss. Great Bear Rainforest, BC.

Then back south past Swindle and Roderick Islands. Northeast up the Dean Channel and then back southwest on the Burke Channel, completely circumnavigating King Island. We continued past Namu, a small fishing port, former cannery town and Heiltsuk First Nations community. Crossed the Queen Charlotte Sound and over to the Hakai Protected Area where we spent several days looking for coastal wolves. The wolves proved elusive, but what special mornings sitting on the beach at dawn looking at wolf tracks in the sand and listening to them howl from the forest just across the water. Then a short sail back to Shearwater and the Bella Bella airport.


More than a week of great food, companionship, magnificent views, whales, bears, eagles, otters, amazing sunrises, and golden sunsets. And then, back to civilization and planning to escape again to that magical, coastal land shrouded in mist and fog, and populated with just about everything we want to see and photograph.


Endnotes

· (*) All of my food and gear was hanging safely in a tree a good distance from the cave (more a cliff overhang).

· I have talked about the Raincoast Conservation Foundation in my previous travel blogs; they are scientists and conservationists empowered by research to safeguard the land, waters, and wildlife of coastal British Columbia. They are deserving of your support. They have mine!

· Kyuquot Sound is the starting point for most trips to the Bunsbys. The Kyuquot/Checleseht First Nation maintains launches at Artlish and Fair Harbour. With the exception of Big Bunsby Island, which is a provincial park, all of the islands and their surrounding waters lie within the vast Checleset Bay Ecological Reserve.

· If you are interested in more information, there is an enjoyable book called “Blisters and Bliss, A Trekkers Guide to the West Coast Trail.” In addition to mile-by-mile descriptions, this is hilarious, worth having even if you don’t hike the trail. The website has some good videos on the trail.

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