This is first of a series of posts from Prince Rupert, British Columbia.
When I posted this on Facebook a few days ago, people didn’t think it was real. “That has GOT to be a guy in a bear suit,” several friends said. But it was indeed real – and just one of five bears that I saw on my excursion to the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary in northern British Columbia.
My six-hour excursion started in Prince Rupert, a small city of 13,500 on the British Columbia coast. Prince Rupert Adventure Tours charges $195 for the tour, which includes lunch. You can judge for yourself from the wildlife photos below whether or not you think it’s worth it; I’d go again in a heartbeat (many Prince Rupert photography buffs buy season passes so they can go view the bears as often as there’s room).
The Khutzeymateen Valley is located about two hours from Prince Rupert by boat, on a secluded fjord just south of the Alaska border (you can see the US mountains clearly, although they don’t look any different from the ones in British Columbia). Along the way, captain Doug Davis and and guide Normand Aubin looked for whales, orcas and other wildlife. We lucked out with by spotting a seal colony.
Bear viewing in the sanctuary is best during May, June and July, before the salmon runs start in earnest. During these months, the bears come down to the beaches to eat kelp and dig for clams, mussels and barnacles. They even eat sage grass, up to 30 or 40 pounds a day. Once we entered the valley, Normand trained his binoculars on the coast, looking for movement along the coast.
The Khutzeymateen Valley has the largest concentration of grizzly bears in North America. Its conditions are also perfect for females, who must shelter their cubs from aggressive males that might kill them. Within a few minutes of entering the valley, we encountered one such mama.
Sound carries when you’re in a fjord, so we were instructed to keep still as we watched the bears dig in the sand for food. Binoculars were available, but I saw everything through my camera’s zoom and snapped most of these photos from inside the boat (people with larger cameras than mine were hogging space in the back). The little cubs were probably born earlier in the year, Normand told.
When our vessel was about 100 feet away, the mama seemed to notice us. Ever protective, she nudged her cubs back up the beach toward the forest.
At this point, we took a break for lunch. The outfitter provides sandwiches, chips and fruit, along with soda, water and coffee. We picnicked at the floating ranger station, which came with an outstanding view. The Valley is only accessible by boat or seaplane.
It wasn’t long until we came upon our next bear, also walking along the beach (this is the same bear that’s standing upright in the post’s first photo).
As you might remember from scout class, grizzly bears can be quite dangerous if provoked. They can run up to 30 mph on land and can also swim. While they can look skinny in the beginning of the season, as this one does, they grow fatter as the summer unfolds, particularly when fish come into their diet.
The bear became agitated at one point, and kept looking over the hill, as if he/she was nervous. After the bear went up on its hind legs, our captain became curious and motored over to see what was bothering it. We found another mama bear, this time with a single, more mature cub.
Cubs typically stay with their mothers for three years. Doug and Normand have watched this mama bear and her cub over the past two seasons. Next year, the cub might be ready to go off on his own.
Despite being familiar with the bears, Normand refuses to do anything that encourages people to think of them as anything other than free creatures. “The moment you give a name to a wild animal, it becomes a pet,” he said. “So we don’t give them names.”
This video shows the single bear walking across the beach, and gives you a long lens view of their Valley habitat.