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Sanctuary II-- Part II on Khutzeymateen Inlet & Marine Provincial Park


Salad To Go! Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. 2023

Usually, when I travel to photograph bears, it is in September or early October, and salmon spawning season. I am most often along a river corridor, and the fall colors are amazing.

"Lets Go... There"! Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. 2023

This trip was different. Spring blooms instead of fall foliage, sedges instead of salmon, and, while still technically on a river, out in the estuary where the tidal saltwater mixes with the fresh currents pouring down from the mountains. An extra bonus, for someone who loves gradient and flow, the rivers, waterfalls, and the estuary were swollen and pumping from the melting glaciers far upstream.

River Crossing! Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. 2023

I have seen bears in the spring before. Just a few months ago I was watching bears and wolves in the melting snow of Yellowstone. But this was maybe a once in a lifetime opportunity, a trip specifically to view and document bears in a remote location, and I had reservations, with less spring experience, on how successful this trip might be?

Seashore Lupine (Lupinus littoralis)! Khutzeymateen Inlet. 2023

So, I got into bear mode early on. I knew that my entire trip up to Prince Rupert would take me through some amazing bear country (all of British Columbia is prime habitat for black, brown, and the elusive Kermodi spirit bear). I drove as many unpaved back roads as I could find. I focused on roads where I had seen bears and other wildlife before. I got up early, and drove late in the evenings, always prime viewing times for wildlife. And I kept my eyes open, constantly alternating my view from down the road to gullies, wetlands, and woods to either side, and frequently checking the rearview mirror to see if I had missed anything.

Immature Bald Eagle. Prince Rupert, British Columbia. 2023

Perhaps most importantly, I kept my camera gear in close proximity. Nothing worse than finding your subject only to have your camera in the bag, or a dead battery, or set up for landscapes and sunlight when you need to shoot something moving and in low light. Unfortunately, that I do have experience with.

Flower Child! Babine Lakes Provincial Park, British Columbia. 2023

Early on, the signs were good. I saw nearly a dozen black bears before I ever got close to Khutzeymateen Inlet. As usual with bear sighting, most were bear butts disappearing into the woods, or moving too fast and leaving me with frustratingly fuzzy, out-of-focus images. With any photography, and regardless of skill level, you are still hoping for something to come out, for that one amazing National Geo image that will make it all worthwhile. On this excursion, it was the black bear in the dandelions. Sometimes you just know this is the moment, and I sat here taking photos of this bear for nearly an hour before he or she plucked that flower and then looked up at me.

In Search! Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. 2023

Later on, in the Khutzeymateen, all of us photographers sat in our zodiac patiently waiting for the grizzly to step in front of the purple lupine. In that instance, we didn’t so much know that it was “the moment” as knowing it might be, or could be, depending on so many factors beyond our control. We waited for the bears to enter the water, to poke up from the grass, to get together so we could have multiple bears in our framing, and often for the person in front to get out of the way!

Chillin! Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. 2023

It was mating season, so we waited for the bears to get together for that as well. But, at least for me, it was uncomfortable and I really felt that, in this place and at this time, we were interrupting something private and special. You won’t see mating bear photos from me, but the close-up images of two bears face-to-face, and side-by-side, were irresistible and produced some really intimate moments that, in my mind, are some of the best photos of the expedition. Some of the looks were adoring, some were “what the heck,” some were puzzled, one withering look (directed at a huge, lazy male) said “get-off-me-NOW.” All presented a rarely seen window into the lives of these amazing predators. Thank you, each and every bear, for letting us be there with you!

Looking Glass! Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. 2023

I use “predators” here intentionally, as after a few days of watching them graze the late spring sedges, they somewhat reminded me of cows in the field. Four-to-seven-hundred-pound brown fuzzy cows with teeth and claws. But bears are technically of the order Carnivora, essentially omnivores that eat plants, insects, clams, fish, and other animals. After the skunk cabbage and sedge season is over (bears lose a lot of weight in the spring), these bears will move on to high-energy berries (elderberry, salmonberry, blueberry, huckleberry, and more), then to salmon, then to winter and very little to zero food as denning begins. In more populated areas, like the Bella Coola valley, bears are often seen munching on fruit trees. Basically, they eat anything and everything.

Mirror! Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. 2023

A bucket-list trip of a lifetime! Tons of grizzly, more than a dozen black bear, eagles, otters (a brief view), mink, and beautiful country and an amazing, remote, and wonderful estuary locked far away from phones, development, and civilization. The Khutzeymateen is now fully protected, and I hope that never changes, and I am thankful and humbled by my opportunity to get there, Thankful also to the people on Ocean Light Adventures that made it possible. Most importantly, I am forever thankful to the bears of Khutzeymateen that allowed us, for a few days, to share their lives, loves, and home.

Home Sweet Home, Afterglow II! Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. 2023

Endnotes:

· Adult grizzly males tend to be 30-50% larger than females. Bears weigh the least when they emerge from their dens in the spring and can increase their weight by over 50% during late summer and fall. Alaska’s Kodiak bear can weigh up to 1,600 pounds, about the same as a polar bear.

· Spirit bears are exceedingly rare and are found only in the Great Bear Rainforest, further south than Kutzeymateen, mostly on Gribbell and Princess Royal islands. Spirit bears are a subspecies of the American black bear (Kermode bear), but with a recessive genetic mutation that turns their fur white or cream It is estimated that only five-hundred exist in the wild. They are special to the Coastal First Nations people who call them “moskgm’ol” (white bear).



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