Wild life in British Columbia

In search of killer whales and sea lions at sea - on land the legendary grizzly bear

In search of killer whales and sea lions at sea – on land the legendary grizzly bear

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I finally followed a long-time dream to visit British Columbia (BC”) Canada last year in search of the creatures that have long occupied it – glorious, wonderful, powerful grizzly bears.

Part of my fascination with bears did, in truth, begin with watching the old Hanna-Barbera cartoon character in “The Yogi Bear Show.” This fondness was boosted by Boy Scout training to respect the woods. And who taught that to us all? You guessed it, Smokey the Bear, mascot of the United States Forest Service. Then Walt Disney documentaries cemented the love of these amazing creatures forever, leaving me with a longing to meet one up close.

Distinguished Animals

Grizzly bears are also known as North American brown bears, silvertip bears or just “grizzlies” (due to the “grizzled” or grey hairs mixed into their fur), they have a wide range that spans not only North America, but also parts of Europe and Asia. Grizzlies are distinguished from black bears in the wild by their distinctive shoulder hump.

Part of my interest in these beasts, like many visitors, is that they are believed to have migrated from the eastern edge of what is now Russia to Alaska about 100,000 years ago. Critters with that kind of history and adventurous spirit deserve observing, and anyone who has ever seen these amazing creatures on TV or in captivity knows that they manifest great strength and grace, as well as surprising speed when they need it. They are, of course, much more spectacular to watch in the wild and can still be spotted in many parts of Canada, with a population of about 25,000. The Yukon River, which dominates BC, is home to a good few grizzlies, as it is rich with salmon.

On Land and Sea

I opted for a group tour that included a marine trip, and I highly recommend this sort of ‘combo’ package. On one day you get views of killer whales, humpback whales, sea lions and seals of different varieties from the comfort of a 30-foot covered speed boat as well as a fine lunch. On the next day you head out on the land in search of grizzlies. Families should definitely take the kids along on the four or six hour tours, especially at the rate we humans are making these animals extinct.

The best part of the trip for me, of course, was the grizzly bear journey. It began at 8 am, and lasted all day. The region’s aboriginal lands have viewing platforms, from which we watched the spectacle of these independent creatures in awe. Be sure to bring a camera, and a zoom lens because there are many close-up shots to be had as the bears grasp at and juggle fish before they disappear down the animal’s huge hatch.

Excursion Selection

Private camping excursions that take you deep into grizzly country where there are no roads will give you a more intimate view of the bears. One exclusive trip, in Bella Coola valley along the Taku River, takes only four guests, and includes three nights at special camping sites that bears are known to frequent.

Trips are usually offered by most companies between the end of August and October, with all-but-guaranteed sightings between mid-September and mid-October. This follows the warmest weather times in BC for tourists, more or less mid-June to mid-September. More importantly, tours focus around the late August to September period because that is when the bears congregate at riverbanks to swipe spawning salmon up with their massive paws.

The Campbell River has several good trips, and offers plenty of good viewing areas. Make sure you question your prospective guide about his experience if you want a high chance of sightings. Most operators are Transport Canada-certified, and offer information-packed tours by experienced guides. Listen to all safety directions, as encounters with grizzlies are not something you want to experience by surprise. Unlike smaller black bears that run up trees, the grizzly will stand its ground and the outcome is often non-negotiable.

Extended Exploration

My next trip was to the natural fjord known as Knight Inlet BC, which allowed us to get a bit closer to the bears as they ate and frolicked about. Bald eagles and other predators swoop down to snatch salmon out of the water, as do the bears at the river’s edge. This area is also in the Great Bear Rainforest, home to countless grizzlies. We stayed in a fairly remote lodge and were fed incredible meals. We saw at least 20 bears!

Both of these journeys were made all the more fascinating thanks to the presence of experts on the area’s wildlife in general, and grizzlies in particular. Ask beforehand about how much information will be given, as this is key to appreciating these wondrous animals and their environment. Grizzly bears are an endangered species, so care and respect for them must be observed at all times.

Take a British Columbia bear-watching tour, and you’ll ‘bear-ly’ be able to contain yourself.

The bear essentials for those on a search for grizzlies in Canada:

Blond-haired grizzlies?  Yes, they exist, although they don’t go to Grizzly Salons for treatment. Fur on grizzlies can vary from blond to almost black. Look closely (with a telephoto lens), and you’ll see that all grizzlies have whitish tipped hair.

Diminishing numbers: Grizzly bear population estimates for British Columbia have dipped from over 25,000 when Europe’s first settlers arrived, to under 16,014, the 2008 count was based on DNA and hair-snagging research and mark and recapture studies. North America’s total population then was estimated at 55,000.

Grizzly grub: Essentially, although grizzlies are in the order of carnivores (meat-eaters), they are in truth omnivores, eating anything. Diets vary by location, shown by a richer diet in Canadian and Alaskan grizzlies, especially those near coastal and other waterways. Their greater size is thanks to protein-rich diets with more fish. While grizzlies eat moose, deer, sheep, black bears and carrion, they also dine on rodents, army cutworm moths, pine nuts, a variety of tubers, berries and legumes.

Elderly Grizzlies: As a subspecies of the brown bear, grizzly bears can live up to 30 years in the wild. More normal age expectancy is 20-25 years.

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