Grizzly Bear Adventure, June 7th 2014 by Les Stegenga
June 13 2014
On June 5, 2014 I flew from Calgary
to Prince Rupert, on a one day safari to the Khutzeymateen sanctuary. I'd been
waiting for this opportunity a long time; three decades in fact! The
Khutzeymateen is famous for its coastal grizzly bears and is located at the end
of a long inlet 40 kilometers north of Prince Rupert. Its survival was
threatened in the 1980's when it was slated for logging. In 1984,
biologists and conservationists, recognizing the importance of this old growth
forest, for both salmon and grizzlies, began petitioning the British Columbia
government to leave the valley undisturbed. I added my voice to this growing
movement writing a protest letter. In 1994 the fight was won when British
Columbia created Canada's first sanctuary for grizzlies. The sanctuary is 443
square kilometers in size, with a 3,000 square no bear hunting buffer. As
Charlie Russell, a bear conservationist, regarding the near loss of this
incredible watershed said, "It seems remarkable to me, that it would have
taken so long to set aside a sanctuary for these animals that represent the
essence of our country".
For nine years I've lead trips to Churchill, Manitoba with Classic Canadian Tours where we routinely see dozens of polar bears, and I thought those trips would be hard to match. But the West Coast has its own iconic creatures, and a setting of compelling beauty. The Khutzeymateen trip takes place on board a 72 foot catamaran, The Inside Passage, made in Canada, and incredibly comfortable with great windows and comfy seats. Twenty minutes out from Prince Rupert we came across a pod of killer whales lazily swimming at the surface. In the midst of all those misty B.C. greens and greys, the startling white and blacks of the orcas come as a bit of a shock. Fittingly, the sight of this predator's towering dorsal fin seemed menacing, as it would to harbour seals and porpoises.
What was so great about this sighting was the varied behavior as the juvenile whales did some pectoral fin slapping, and an unusual gentle form of lob tailing.
Another burst of colour was the fiery, blood red feet and inside mouths of the pigeon guillemot. In the breeding season they turn this colour as an aid to mating and breeding. There were also rhinoceros auklets (related to the puffin); the name referring to a horn like extension on the beak, only present in breeding adults. These birds display some astonishing behavior in their efforts to breed. They build nests in burrows up to five meters deep in the forest floor and incubate their eggs for 45 days. And if that wasn't enough to ensure success, they feed their young at night to avoid kleptoparasitism by gulls...gulls being very good at stealing food! These auklets are truly deep sea divers descending to nearly 60 meters.
But the highlight of the day was the grizzly bear sightings in the Khutzeymateen sanctuary. Once we cruised into the inlet, bear viewing etiquette required that we keep our voices low and to tread quietly on the deck. There was a hushed excitement as everyone was caught up in this rare spectacle; the serenity of the Khutzeymateen Valley, the towering peaks shrouded in mist, covered in ancient trees that have never been touched by the bite of a chainsaw.
All we heard were the click of shutters and on occasion the warbling call of the varied thrush. Each spring grizzly bears come down from the mountain slopes where they have denned for the winter to feed on the lush sedges that grow along the beaches. Many of the females with their cubs that we saw were wary of male bears. They would often stand on their hind feet looking and smelling for any males that could be a threat to them. It is breeding season, and the males are on a mission. We saw one very heavy, battle scarred male crossing a stream his back, shoulder, and legs covered in healed wounds. Spring is the time to see these bears, and fortunately I get to go back to the Khutzeymateen with Classic Canadian Tours two more times in July. As we left the magic of the Khutzeymateen, I was happy I wrote that letter to the British Columbia government so many years ago.