Whispering Sweet Nothings! Khutzeymateen Provincial Park, British Columbia. 2023
I was shrouded in mist, mountains, longing, and bears!
As the small floatplane descended into the estuary, we found ourselves enveloped in rain, fog, and fragmented beams of sunlight. An early morning hint of waterfalls surrounded us and there was an almost ethereal outline of the Kitimat Range emerging above us in the background of this twenty-plus mile fiord. This was Khutzeymateen Inlet, Canada’s only sanctuary for grizzly bears, and a place I had longed to visit for many years.
Here at Last! Khutzeymateen Inlet. British Columbia. 2023
The Grizzly is a symbol of freedom and understanding.
As the plane feathered onto the water and cut its engine, the serene calm, quiet, remoteness of place, an overall feeling of spiritual wellness, descended immediately. I had arrived!
Nearshore Reflection! Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. 2023
The expected greys and blues of the Pacific Northwest Coast were apparent all around, but the brilliant orange, yellow and ochres of kelps and eelgrasses along the nearshore, the interface between land and ocean, were amazing as they reflected back at us from the waterline at low tide. Also reflected in the river estuary were the deep greens of Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and western red cedar, the scudding whites of clouds and fog, and misty mountains. On this morning, among all of this color and beauty, the only sign of human presence was the plane (soon to leave) and one boat, the sixty-foot Afterglow I where I planned to spend the next three days.
Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. 2023
I had learned of this place from my bear research, from stories passed along, and from talking to those few lucky enough to have visited here. This is a haven for bears, not humans, and less than two hundred people get to visit here each year.
Bear In Sedges! Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. 2023
To no surprise, I had come to see and photograph bears! Driving from Bellingham, once again crossing the border into British Columbia (BC), north along the Fraser River Valley ("Sto:lo" in the Halqemeylem language of the area), a side trip to Babine Lake and Provincial Park to camp and look for moose and black bears, and another side trip (an entire morning) to visit Shames Mountain nestled among the peaks of the Coastal range. Finally, west down the Bulkley and then Skeena Rivers (the Skeena flowing some 350 miles as the second longest river in BC, after the Fraser), and then to the coast and Seal Cove in Prince Rupert, my destination to fly into Khutzeymateen the following morning.
Guardians Along the Shore! Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. 2023
I had reserved time with seven other visitors and two crew (Chris & Jenn) from Ocean Light Adventures to watch and connect with bears, coastal wolves, otters, and eagles enjoying the fresh sedges of spring, along with skunk cabbage, clams, and shore crabs.
Breeding Male Harlequin Duck! Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. 2023
Khutzeymeen/K'tzim-a-deen takes its name from the Tsimshian First Nations word that means sheltered place of fish and bears (also sometimes translated as “deep valley at the end of an inlet”). Far upstream, in the Kitimat Range of BC’s Coast Mountains, the Kateen and Khutzeymateen rivers join and flow into this wilderness area which represents the first protected and undisturbed estuary of its size along the north coast of BC. It lies within the planet’s last remaining intact coastal temperate rainforest and is home to perhaps the greatest concentration of grizzly bears on the northwest coast. This special sanctuary was established in 1994 in partnership with the Gitsi’is people (one of nine tribes making up the Allied Tsimshian Tribes) and is managed jointly with BC Parks and the Tsimshian Tribal Council. Along with the Khutzeymateen Inlet Conservancy, it encompasses 44,300-hectacres (over 100,000 acres) and approximately fifty to sixty grizzly bears, as well as wolves, mountain goats, and other species.
Guardian! Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. 2023
The bear in Northwest Coastal Native culture represents strength, family, and healing. For me, grizzly bears are a symbol of strength and grace, environmental health, wilderness, and everything wild. They once roamed most of North America, from Alaska to Mexico and as far east as Ontario and the American Midwest. Approximately 35,000 grizzlies now populate BC’s coasts and the estimate is that BC hosts more than one half of Canada’s grizzly population with more than sixteen thousand grizzly bears. A ‘keystone” species, grizzlies help regulate prey and disperse seeds, maintain plant and forest help (aerating soil as they dig for roots, pine nuts and squirrels), and, as I have written before, moving spawning salmon carcasses into the forest to fertilize trees, plants, and forest growth by providing high levels of nitrogen.
Spring Romance! Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. 2023
The inflatable zodiac we used was an excellent platform for taking images, regardless of the fluctuating tides. From our small craft, we were able to watch the bears eat so many different local foods (berries, seafood, grasses) and witness first-hand why they are at the top of a very complex food web. Like all species, grizzlies are at risk from habitat loss (development), climate change, the continued decline of salmon, and also from the slowest reproductive rate of any terrestrial mammal (one to four cubs only every two to four years). Bears usually reach sexual maturity between the ages of three and five, and we saw plenty of mating bears on our visit (as well as a few young bears that really hadn’t yet figured out the whole mating thing!).
Nurse Log! Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. 2023
Protecting this species is why the sanctuary was created and why human activity is not encouraged. It is the reason for the limited number of annual visitors, and why land access is not allowed. I love bears, and photographing bears, and to assure I had the least adverse impact possible from my actions, I signed up with one of only two commercial operators permitted to take small groups into the sanctuary (other operators are allowed to view grizzlies further out in the Khutzeymateen Inlet, and two First Nation Rangers are stationed in the inlet).
Cruzin! Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. 2023
For our time on the Afterglow I, our small party went out early in the morning, at the changing of the tide, and again in the evening. In between, we ate great food, told interesting stories on bears and nearly everything else, and reviewed our images incessantly from earlier in the day. We photographed bears from the safety of the zodiac (for us and the bears), which also greatly assisted with limiting our impact and prioritizing nature over photography. It provided a perfect, mobile blind as well as support for all of our cameras and large telephoto lenses (we had eight people in the boat, and at least a dozen cameras). All of the photos in this blog (and almost all of the others on this trip) were taken with those large lenses and, for my close-up images, cropped to bring the bears closer in.
Morning Reflection! Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. 2023
The term “Sense of Place” refers to the emotive bonds and attachments people develop or experience in particular locations and environments; it also refers to a feeling of well-being engendered by a unique place 0r environment. Khutzeymateen encompasses all of this and more. Most of my fellow cohorts (new friends) on this trip had been to the sanctuary before, some multiple times. They already knew what I had long suspected, that Khutzeymateen is a special place and a home for the species I love so much -- and one that I can’t wait to return to in the future.
Teddy Bear! Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. 2023
As our plane lifted off on our final morning, we raced the eagles along the inlet as we gained altitude. Fifteen minutes later, we lifted over the range just north of Prince Rupert and all of our phones went off -- accompanied by the sound of text, email, and voicemail flooding into the cockpit. The magic of Khutzeymateen was behind us, not forgotten, and instilling a new promise to come back soon.
Bears keep me humble. They help me to keep the world in perspective and to understand where I fit on the spectrum of life.
· See the Ocean Light Adventures website for really phenomenal photos of grizzly bears, cubs, wolves, whales, and otter. I heartily recommend them if you plan to go to any of the iconic areas along the BC coast (Great Bear Rainforest, Haida Gwaii, Vancouver Island). Tell Chris and Jenn I said hello!
· The Coast Range runs for over a thousand miles, covering the entire length of Western BC. It has three subdivisions: the Pacific Range in the south (includes Garibaldi Provincial Park & Whistler), the Kitimat Range (home of Khutzeymateen Park) and the northern Boundary Range along the mostly inaccessible Alaska-Canada border. The Kitimat Range includes the Khutzeymateen area as well as the largest temperate-latitude ice fields in the world. Kitimat has 262 named peaks, with Tsaydaychuz Peak the tallest at 9,053 feet. There are nearly thirty conservancies and protected areas in the Kitimat Range, including the village of Bella Bella (gateway to the Great Bear Rainforest), Fiordland Conservancy which I visited in 2017, as well as the Kitasoo Spirit Bear Conservancy which is the next place on my bucket list. To provide additional scope, the Coast Mountains are part of the Pacific Coast Ranges that includes the Cascade and Olympic mountains as well as the Saint Elias and Chugach mountains in Alaska, part of the American Cordillera that forms the western backbone of North, Central and South America, and Antarctica, and part of the Pacific Ring of Fire.
· Protecting Bears – While I am not a hunter, I do believe (most of the time) in hunting for those who provide food and sustainence for their families, and as an important part of native culture and heritage. But since I spend so much time taking pictures of wildlife, especially bears and wolves, it is no mystery to understand why I am no fan of trophy hunting. Trying to scare people about bears, setting them up as vicious predators so they can charge large fees to hunt them and hang them on a wall – really sucks! I mean, look at these photos. How cool, how gnarly would I be to have a rifle and scope and be able to kill something I can get within 100 yards of (recommended distance from Washington State Fish & Wildlife and Yellowstone National Park), or closer? And I am not alone. A 2017 poll suggests three-quarters of British Columbians think grizzly bears should not be hunted in the province at all (an earlier poll found seventy nine percent support a ban on trophy hunting of grizzly bears and an equal amount believe it is unethical).
· Hunting v. Photography -- In 1984, that public belief against trophy hunting led to a complete ban on hunting in Khutzeymateen, and in 2017 a complete ban within the Great Bear Rainforest just to the south. A report in 2012, by the Center for Responsible Travel, says bear viewing in the Great Bear generated 12 times more in visitor spending than bear hunting.