Salmon spawning attracts grizzly bears in abundance. Jean-Pierre Sylvestre
Our eight-passenger seaplane flies not far above a misty fairy-like panorama of tiny and medium-size islands, hairy with the points of forest green trees. Far off to the east, we can see impressive ranges of craggy coastal mountains playing with the clouds. Already they are snow-tipped in late September. After a magical 30 minutes in the air, the plane noses down toward a cluster of wooden buildings, floating mysteriously on log platforms at the end of the world. Welcome to Knight Inlet Lodge and grizzly bear country!
Situated about 50 air miles north of the Vancouver Island town of Campbell River, Knight Inlet Lodge is actually across the strait on the mainland of British Columbia. It provides rare evidence of human activity on one of the largest deep ocean fjords along Canada’s wild western coast. This fjord is in the heart of British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest which hosts one of the highest concentrations of grizzly bears in this vast and largely unpopulated province. When we arrive, the salmon are returning to spawn in the rivers and streams. This means that the bears will be even more visible than throughout the rest of the year.
Arrival at the lodge is usually by seaplane. Jean-Pierre Sylvestre
A Rendezvous with the Bears
After checking into the lodge, passengers are quickly invited to take their cameras out of their luggage and to dress warmly for a small “trek” by boat along the shore about five miles, then by school bus into a wet old growth rainforest. Two observation towers have been built close to the best salmon rivers. From these platforms, it is safe to watch one of the most beautiful land mammals in North America, not to mention the most dangerous too!
Thousands of pink salmon and some sockeye salmon can be seen swimming into the river to lay their eggs. The tired and dying salmon make easy meals for the grizzlies, black bears and other predators attracted to this great abundance. It is one of nature’s most dramatic rendezvous on the edge of the rainforest. Our guide tells us that close to 40 bears come to this site, 60% are females, and most are accompanied by one, two, occasionally three cubs.
Grizzly observation tower. Jean-Pierre Sylvestre
A rare sight: mother grizzly with three cubs. John Marriott
For an hour, we stay on the top of the tower and watch the salmon. Of course, we are really waiting for the bears. We must be patient with wildlife – after all, this is not a zoo! Suddenly, a large grizzly bear strolls out the bushes; then another smaller one appears a few feet away. How can we not be excited by this mother and cub? The mother grizzly nurses her 18-month old cub and lazily scoops up some of the salmon as they swim by.
A few minutes later, we are lucky to see another mother grizzly, this time with three cubs! This sight interests my friend, Brian Horejsi, a University of Calgary professor and bear expert. It is unusual, he explains, for anyone to see a mother with three “young of the year” cubs. I am jubilant, aware of how privileged I am to spend the afternoon, so soon after arriving at Knight Inlet, with six of the grandest land mammals in British Columbia.
The human presence doesn’t seem to disturb the feeding bears. The females are always alert, smelling the air for some alien danger, possibly a lone male bear. The cubs are jumping in the water and playing with the salmon as they learn the skills they will need to survive. In the air, majestic bald eagles fly from tree to tree, swooping occasionally to catch a dead or dying salmon. A sleek river otter swims along the bank and takes its share with ease.
A Rendezvous with the Killer Whales
A boat ride on the inlet. Jean-Pierre Sylvestre
Of course, watching bears is not the only spectacular pastime while staying at Knight Inlet Lodge. Whale watching in this part of the world is mostly killer whale (orca) watching, but regardless of the label, all the marine wildlife – including seals, sea lions, and dolphins – is the best!
After spending two hours cruising towards the mouth of the inlet in a small speedboat, we arrive at our destination: Blackney Pass in front of Hanson Island. Immediately, we observe three high black dorsal fins, then four, six and more.
We quietly follow a pod of killer whales moving through Blackfish Sound while a pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins surrounds our boat, in playful porpoising, before joining the killer whales. I cannot believe my eyes when the killer whales and dolphins are joined by some Dall porpoises, all three cetacean species seeming to enjoy the same territory without incident. Since I am a marine mammal specialist, I am accustomed to observing many water-based species throughout the world, but this is the first time I have seen such peaceful association between the sea’s top predator and the dolphins and porpoises.
Killer whale pod. Jean-Pierre Sylvestre
In other places, I have observed that dolphins and porpoises are the main preys of the orca! Happily for the smaller marine mammals, most of the resident killer whales of British Columbia are salmon eaters.
Even Expert Guides Can Be Surprised
The importance of a good guide with steady nerves is confirmed during that trip to the mouth of the inlet. Paul Chaplow, who spent the past 10 years in these waters, shares his knowledge of orcas as he explains that dorsal fins and white-gray patches under the dorsal fins help us to recognize individuals. At just the right moment, we observe two big killer whales coming towards our boat. Paul stops the boat and alerts his passengers that the whales will soon emerge close by. It is R2, a 62 year old mother, and her calf-son, R3, aged 44 years old, he tells us with authority. The whale society is matriarchal which means that the son stays with its mother until her death.
Knight Inlet on a calm day. John Marriott
Knight Inlet on a stormy day. Jean-Pierre Sylvestre
We calmly wait for the emerging orca with cameras focused maybe 30 feet in front of the boat. Imagine my surprise when this 22-foot female (cow) emerges only three or four feet away, and I just have time to distinguish her huge head and two tiny eyes before she dives briefly and resurfaces so close I could have – but didn’t – touch her dorsal fin. I cannot help but register in my mind that she is a little bigger than our boat! It is interesting that Paul, with his long experience, is as surprised as we are that the two killer whales are so very close, though they are not at all threatening. In fact, I am caught by surprise in another way – not expecting to have the orcas breathing on me, I have mounted 300 mm and 200 mm lenses on my cameras when I really needed a fish-eye (16 mm) lens to record this important moment.
The Lodge Mixes History and Modern Comfort
Knight Inlet Lodge is like a small village of wooden buildings linked together with gangways. It is tucked into the sheltered anchorage of Glendale Cove, 37 miles up the channel of this 100-mile long fjord. With a history dating back to the early 1940s, the original float housed a logging camp, until its more recent conversion to a fishing and ecotourism lodge. Up to 30 guests can enjoy the tranquility and isolation of this area if every bed is occupied, but more often there will be 20 to 24 visitors sharing the wilderness in comfortable cedar paneled bedrooms, all with private bathrooms.
Prepared with flare by a French Canadian chef, delicious meals include one choice daily of the freshest possible seafood pulled from the surrounding sea. Meals are served buffet-style in the dining hall, which doubles as a theater for interesting evening interpretive programs.
Knight Inlet Lodge. Jean-Pierre Sylvestre
River otter. John Marriott
Every day, early in the morning and late in the afternoon, it is not unusual to watch wildlife from the wharf of the lodge. Black bears come to the water’s edge, perhaps to observe in turn these intruders in their territory. A river otter family has made its home among the log platforms. Curious otters pop up unexpectedly to surprise visitors, often making strange noises. I wonder what they are saying to each other about us.
Big Foot. Jean-Pierre Sylvestre
In spite of the distance from “civilization”, time flies and boredom is non-existent. A full week is best to appreciate the richness of the wildlife and the silence of the surroundings. Besides, you need some time each day to meet and stroke Big Foot, the lodge mascot. He is a lovely old cat with a rare six toes on each foot. At more than 20 years old, he makes me wonder if this remote and tranquil Knight Inlet also holds the secret of long life?
The Bear Facts
Knight Inlet Lodge’s eco-adventure packages range from two to eight nights, offered from early May to late-October. Package includes return transfers from your Campbell River hotel, return flights from the town to the lodge, meals and accommodation, wildlife viewing, guide services, daily excursions, evening lectures, rain gear if required, permit and user fees.
Low season is June 30 to August 20; shoulder season is May 1 to June 29; high season is August 21 to October 23 (when the salmon are spawning and wildlife is at its most active). About 70% of clients are older adults, with visitors coming from many countries around the world.
Mother grizzly enjoys her salmon. Jean-Pierre Sylvestre
Jean-Pierre Sylvestre is a French photojournalist and book author who has specialized in writing about marine mammals and other wildlife for two decades. He presently lives in Rimouski, Quebec,
email: firstname.lastname@example.org. For a photographic showcase of Jean-Pierre’s spectacular marine images and authoritative observations, see also The Photographer’s Lens in this magazine.
Additional photos by John Marriott, wildlife and nature photographer based in Canmore, Alberta.
Click on picture for more bear information and tour operators.