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Grizzlies in the mist

Tour of the Khutzeymateen sanctuary provides close encounters

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BY MARY L. PEACHIN
Big Mama and her yearling stood about 10-feet from our zodiac boat ravenously chewing tall stalks of sedge.
I realized then I had arrived.
After a 30-minute flight from Prince Rupert in Canada, the Beaver float plane touched down in Khutzeymateen’s inlet in British Columbia, the largest grizzly bear sanctuary in North America. I’d come for three days to the largest grizzly preserve in North America to photograph and observe bears in a remote and intimate setting. I was one of five on the trip, joined by two Canadians, a University of San Diego tennis coach and a retired University of Arizona deputy athletic director. All of us were serious about our photography.
Before we finished unpacking cameras, a blonde bear sauntered along the shore, its coat not yet darkened from the feeding it would do later that summer on spawning salmon.
Jumping into the Sunchaser Charter’s zodiac, we noticed the young male’s back was covered with bite scars.
“He’s one of Lucy’s, perhaps the Khutzeymateen’s most distinguished matriarch, offspring,” said Dan Wakeman who has spent more than 20 years observing the Khutzeymateen grizzlies.
It was early June and still mating season. Sows with newborn cubs would not venture out until the males departed. The young male was on the prowl looking for a mate, Wakeman said. The bear wasn’t the valley’s dominate male, meaning it would have to get lucky to find a female without a cub that was also in estrus. If it happened across a female with a cub, it might kill the young, but still wouldn’t mate with the mother until its hormones were right to sire a cub.
Wakeman spent his summers in the Khutzeymateen studying the bear since they were cubs.
Life on the 40-foot sloop, Sunchaser, typically moored in Cedar Creek, evolved around the tide, the time when water was deep enough to navigate up the estuary, high tide affording the best opportunity to view bears. While we waited for the evening tide we ate Dungeness crab pulled from a nearby trap and boiled for dinner.
High tide arrived around twilight and we headed in the zodiac up the Khutzeymateen estuary. In about an hour we’d observe nine bears. One large male with a sizeable scar on its back stomped on a dead log hissing, warning us to back off.
Wake reversed the boat when the bear stomped again.
“If we’d been on land, we’d be dead,” he said. “This is his sanctuary.”
We watched a cub swim across the estuary and another run through the sedge. We spotted a large male lumbering out of the woods Wakeman thought wanted to mate with the female wandering the beach. Seeing us it loped back into the trees growling as though we’d interfered a romantic interlude.
That night we retired to our bunks at 9 p.m. even though the summer sun didn’t set for another hour.
Rain pounded the bow skylight over our twin bunks and we awoke to a day of viewing grizzles in the mist.
By noon, we observed 11 different bears: a mating pair, several shy runners, a few yearlings, sub adults, cubs, and both male and female adults.
Weather interfered with the rest of the day’s viewing plans. A torrential afternoon rain remained steady throughout the night. Layering in long underwear and fleece, we spent the night tucked under blankets and quilts. The temperature was a mild 59, but the dampness of the rainforest was penetrating.
High tide on our third and final day allowed us to explore further up the estuary where blue lupine bloomed, chocolate lilies budded and bald and golden eagles ruffled wet feathers. The Khutzeymateen River, which channels into the estuary, ran swiftly. Again we saw a variety of bears.
Camera shutters clicked rapidly in the rain as we looked eye-to-eye with more than 20 different grizzlies.
We boarded the zodiac again that evening for short final tour and returned to where we’d seen a sow and two cubs earlier. Near the forest we spotted a dark colored head in the grass. It was Barney, the Khutzeymateen’s dominant male which hadn’t yet been sighted that season. The bear was too far away to photograph, but close enough to wish us farewell.
That night while drifting off sleep, the distinctive call of a loon reminded us we were in a spectacular place where we had just enjoyed intimate encounters with grizzlies.

Want to go?

Visit Sunchaser Charters at grizzlytour.com or email sunchase@citywest.ca.

Prices for 2015 per person including all taxes and park fees

Three day trip: $1650.00
Four day trip: $2200.00
Five day trip: $2750.00
Six day trip: $3300.00
All trips are limited to a maximum of four to six people. Space is limited throughout the summer season. Accommodations are basic with one shared bathroom.

Getting there

Vancouver, British Columbia, is the gateway to the Khutzeymateen. From there, head to Prince Rupert and depart to the Khutzeymateen by boat or by float plane charter. It is necessary to spend a night in Prince Rupert both departing and returning. Air Canada Jazz and Hawk Air provide air service to Prince Rupert.
— Mary L. Peachin is an adventure travel writer who specializes in scuba diving and sport fishing articles. Her books, in both print and digital format, include “Close Underwater Encounters: What you Should Know about Sharks, Caribbean Scuba Diving, and Caribbean Sport Fishing.” Check her out at www.peachin.com or email mary@peachin.com.
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