This post is part of a series about our trip to British Columbia & Alberta, Canada.
It's an understatement to say that Canada has a lot to offer a photographer and wildlife enthusiast. But the biggest draw for me was to watch grizzly bears in the wild. To see them go about their day and share their time with you is hugely fulfilling and enjoyable, and it had been an ambition of mine for a long time.
There’s a vast array of options available for seeing bears in BC. In planning our trip we tried to afford the time to see bears properly; on their terms, in their habitat, and at our leisure. We wanted a proper experience, staying in bear country and taking in their spectacular natural environment too.
After some research, I stumbled across the Bella Coola Valley, in Western British Columbia. Part of the Great Bear Rainforest, it’s a gem of a place. Mountains, trees, waterfalls, rivers, salmon, bears, and bald eagles. This seemed like the perfect spot. It’s accessible from Vancouver via road, plane, or ferry, which was important to us as we had lots of other places to see during the trip. Any further North, and we’d be in the territory of a specialist holiday. But being just close enough to Vancouver, Jasper, etc. it makes it a viable option to combine with other destinations on our road trip.
Your choice in accommodation and bear tours is fairly limited as this is a relatively undeveloped area. But rightly so; You can’t have wilderness and the luxury of choice. Still, all the places I looked at seemed pretty good. We booked with the friendly folks at Bella Coola Mountain Lodge. The lodge is beautiful, and the bear tours were really fantastic. I took two tours by river drift boat, and one by foot, and our guides on each occasion were friendly, knowledgeable, and engaging.
The river drift tours were run by Kynoch Adventures, and were a quiet row down the Atnarko river. No motors or engines. The only sound to be heard was the river itself.
After 15 minutes or so and no bear sightings, I was beginning to get concerned we wouldn’t see anything. OK it was only 15 minutes, but just a few days earlier, we spent 4-5 hours on a whale watching trip which ultimately proved fruitless, and that was at the forefront of my mind. I was struggling with the sun in my eyes, “am I too warm?”, “am I too cold?”, “should I use a tripod?”, “will we even see anything?”.
And then we drifted around a corner and saw this guy just a few feet away, and taking a real interest in us…
I looked around when I heard something rustling in the grass, and I had the shock of my life when he stood right up like this. It was surreal, scary, and incredibly exciting. He sniffed the air, and got back down on all fours. I suddenly felt very exposed; sitting at the front of a little rowing boat. In my inexperience, I had to reassure myself he wasn’t about to charge towards us and have my arm for brunch – even though that’s what it looked like to me. But of course, he really wasn’t that interested in us. In the Bella Coola Valley, the bears are relatively habituated to people. He’s seen the boats before, and he knows the river has plenty of salmon to occupy his attention and his appetite. He wandered across to the other side of the bank, and continued his quest for salmon. But what a feeling. Something I’ll never get back – my first grizzly encounter.
After that, and during the second boat trip, I was fortunate enough to see another six or so bears. All very relaxed, and a really enjoyable experience.
Conditions were tough for photography. I like to use warm lighting and strong, simple compositions in my images. I struggled with the light on the river. The tours were in daylight hours, which is understandable for safety and simplicity, and in the valley the ‘golden hours‘ were lost to the shadow of the surrounding mountains anyway. It was also unseasonably warm and sunny during our stay. This was great in many aspects – I mean who doesn’t want it to be warm and sunny on holiday? But that meant that the salmon weren’t yet pouring upstream in great numbers, so fewer bears around. And the light was terribly harsh during the daytime. Not really much scope for the more subtle lighting I try to stick to. In contrast, the shady spots out of direct sunlight were much darker than I expected, and I was frequently having to push the ISO into the low 1000’s. Still, I have to be practiced in all conditions, and I managed to use the harsh lighting to my advantage on a few occasions. Overall, though I was on the back foot the first time around, I slowly adjusted to the light and external conditions, and my photos improved as the days went on.
On the second trip, we were fortunate enough to encounter a mother and cub, who were completely unfazed by our presence, and stopped to fish, eat, and fish some more as we watched on.
As well as the boat tours, we also took a walking tour with Jeff from the Great Bear Chalet. Jeff was extremely knowledgeable, both about the bears and the ecology of the whole valley. He led us through the woods, showing us everything from bears, to woodpecker holes and a “squirrel condominium”! We sat on the river bank and watched a grizzly sow with two cubs, as she caught a salmon and looked for more. Sadly for us, she was feeling quite shy, and they kept their distance from us. But that’s the trade-off, right? If you want guaranteed close sightings, you go to the zoo. I had a more memorable experience that morning, watching them from afar than I will ever have in zoo. To share their river, and watch them with no bars or fence between us was a totally priceless experience.
The third form of bear watching we tried was from the bear viewing platform, in Stuie. I’d heard it gets pretty busy, and the locals seemed to suggest the same. But it wasn’t so packed on our visits. Maybe because the bears weren’t gathering in high concentration, or maybe just our good fortune. I found it an enjoyable place to spend an afternoon, and was rewarded after a few hours by three close-up grizzly sightings. It’s a slightly sterile place to be, surrounded by a knee-height electric fence to dissuade the more inquisitive bears from taking interest in people. It didn’t offer the intimacy of the watching from foot or by boat, and the angle was a little too steep to be much use for photography IMHO. But it was a nice vantage point from which to watch the bears, and a very worthwhile experience in addition to the more costly tours.
Two things I won’t miss about bear watching in the Bella Coola Valley:
But the two of those factors are instantly forgotten the moment you see a bear. The “thunderbolt hits you” (© Jeff), and you’re instantly transported elsewhere. Then as the bear wanders out of sight, the smell of the salmon would return.
If you’re looking for a bear viewing experience yourself, I would totally recommend Bella Coola and Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. For me it was the perfect blend of wilderness and home comfort. Not too remote, but not too busy either. The last thing I’d want is to be sat with a line of 600mm lenses, all firing off shots like Gatling guns. Or with a bus-load of tourists crowding around one poor animal. In the Bella Coola valley here, you get the opportunity to appreciate wildlife as it should be, and as it’s best enjoyed. The are plenty of marked walking routes in the area too, for everything from woodland wanders to mountain & waterfall hikes. And you must take up some tours by the local operators. You can sit at the bear viewing platform for a week, but that’s not going to help the bears, and you’d be missing out on so much yourself. You have to embrace local knowledge in a place like this. The insightful commentary from our guides really made the experience more rewarding. The more you know about what you see, the better you’re able to appreciate it, and the more brilliant it becomes.
I hope this is of use to you if you’re looking for somewhere to see bears yourself. If there’s anything I haven’t covered here, or you have any questions, just post a comment below or get in touch via email.
Post by George Wheelhouse, 2012.