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Experience bear watching in British Columbia's wilderness
Read time: 5 mins
British Columbia, Canada is home to some of North America’s most diverse wildlife habitats. With its dense, sprawling forests, mountains peaks and expansive coastline, you can expect to see all sorts of animals, right from behind the wheel of your car. The magnificent grizzly bear which once roamed much of the continent is now largely confined to British Columbia and Alaska, while black bears can be seen in many areas of Canada and are the most common to be spotted just driving around. Spirit bears, also known as the Kermode bear, which are actually black bears with a cream-coloured coat, are rare and elusive animals. Spotting one takes lots of patience and even more luck, along with tracking skills of an expert guide – if you’re fortune enough to glimpse a Spirit bear, the First Nations people believe it’s a sign of good fortune to come.
There are less than 400 Spirit bears left on Earth, and they’re only found here in the Great Bear Rainforest. This is the world’s last vast wilderness expanse of coastal temperate rainforest, a 6.4-million hectare area along the north and central coast.” This remote and wild land is home to moss-draped mountains dotted with countless waterfalls that plunge from great heights, cedar trees that are more than 1,000 years old, and glacier-carved fjords. Wildlife is abundant, in addition to bears, there are wolves, mountain goats, Sitka deer, cougars, orca and humpback whales, sea lions, and more.
Peak bear viewing season is in late summer and early fall, from about mid-August to the end of October, when salmon swim up the rivers, battling the currents as bears gather to feast on this constant source of food, fattening themselves up for winter hibernation. From late May to the middle of August it’s a quieter time, though bears can still be spotted, wandering the banks of the many coves, particularly at low tide, when they feed on the grass and flip over rocks to consume insects and mussels.
If you’re searching for that once-in-a-lifetime bear watching experience, these opportunities are some of the most unforgettable. Keep in mind that booking a total wildlife package that includes accommodation, tours, transportation and meals is often the best way to go. As many areas can only be reached by floatplane, an all-inclusive tour that covers everything is far more convenient, and often less expensive, than paying for these necessities separately.
Great Bear Lodge
Accessed by a seaplane flight from Port Hardy, which is included in accommodation rates, Great Bear Lodge is a low-impact wilderness retreat that hosts a maximum of 16 guests at any one time. This fully self-contained floating lodge is located right in the heart of the pristine Great Bear Rainforest on Vancouver Island. Expert biologist guides lead guests to view and photograph grizzlies for two bear-viewing sessions each day. Other guided activities are also offered, such as boat trips and interpretive walks. High quality gourmet meals are served, and included in rates, and include fresh, local organic ingredients whenever possible, along with complimentary wine and beer.
Knight Inlet Lodge
Knight Inlet Lodge is another option for premier grizzly bear viewing in Canada. Set in Glendale Cove, Knight Inlet in a remote location, the floating lodge offers a range of wildlife viewing packages, from two to six nights. Guests stay the night in Campbell River before embarking on the 25-minute float plane trip to the lodge, which is inaccessible by road. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks are included, along with complimentary wine at dinner. Guests also have the use of warm waterproof gear.
There are four daily activities, including two bear viewing sessions, and the option to choose a bear-tracking walk deep within the forest, following the bears paths and seeing the trees they’ve marked, as well as kayak tours, a speedboat trip to Glacier Bay to view waterfalls, and take a “Walk Above the Clouds,” a walking platform that sits high up in the mountains offering gorgeous vistas of Knight Inlet, Glendale Cove and more.
Bear and wildlife watching at Knight Inlet
For the ultimate experience, you may want to book the 7-night wildlife experience: Bear & Wildlife Watching at Knight Inlet. Everything from start to finish is included, with trips beginning in the beautiful city of Vancouver before flying to Campbell River on Vancouver Island. From there, you’ll venture to Knight Inlet, with three overnights at Knight Inlet Lodge on a full board basis. Just some of the activities featured are the bear viewing tours; wildlife tracking for making animals prints or plaster casts; a scenic boat excursion of the inlet to view grizzlies from platforms; a trip to Johnstone Strait, renowned for its high concentration of killer whales, for marine wildlife viewing; bald eagle viewing trips; a scenic boat cruise through Glendale Cove and an interpretive forest hike.
Spirit Bear Lodge and the Spirit bear
Spirit Bear Lodge is a tour/lodging outfitter located in Klemtu. The local Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nations community owns and operates the lodge, and provides visitors the chance to explore the Spirit bears natural habitat of the Spirit bear as well as the home of the only Kitasoo Spirit Bear Conservancy on the planet. This is your chance to not only see the elusive Spirit bear, but to immerse yourself in the culture of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nations people, and enjoy unique tours in their ancestral lands.
You’ll be right in the heart of the home of the world’s only white-coloured black bear, believed by scientists to be a genetic variation of the animal that roams throughout the province. The Spirit bear, as it’s referred to by the Tsimshian Coastal First Nations, fascinates both wildlife enthusiasts and geneticists. Researchers are conducting DNA analysis on the bear to learn more about it, and to find out if it’s a specific race, or the product of a concentration of a gene in a specific area. The scientists have been analysing fur samples, retrieved from the “rubbing” trees the bears are known to use. They set snares out across the trails, capturing their hairs to examine for genetic information. The Kitasoo Xaixais people have lived among these rare animals for thousands of years – in their culture, a myth says that “Raven made one in every ten black bears white to remind the people of a time when glaciers covered this land and how the people should be thankful of the lush and bountiful land of today.” In addition to bringing good fortune, they believe these magnificent bears have super-natural powers, which is why they’ve named them Spirit bears.
This provincial mammal of British Columbia is truly a must-see for wildlife lovers, with the best chance of spotting one arguably found by booking the four-night tour at the waterfront Spirit Bear Lodge, which was constructed in traditional west coast First Nations longhouse style. You’ll have multiple opportunities to view them in their natural habitat with a stay here, including watching them catch their salmon meals from the streams, and soaking up the sun along the braided channels of an estuary. Spend your days tracking the Spirit bears that live near the lodge, and taking part in other exciting excursions too, like whale watching, walks through the rainforest, kayaking, and a First Nations cultural tour to United Nations World Heritage Candidate Site Dis’ju. In addition to watching for the Spirit bear, you’re likely to see many other creatures too, including bald eagles, sea lions, grizzlies and whales.
After a day of Spirit bear and other wildlife viewing, you can share stories with other guests in “The Great Room,” which boasts 20-foot-high ocean view windows and comfy couches for gazing out at the Pacific, watching for the orcas, dolphins and sea lions that pass by. In the evening, guests enjoy educational entertainment too, learning more about the area and its geology, history, culture and wildlife through slide show presentations and interpretive tours.
The lodge offers an intimate experience, with just 12 rooms in total, for the ultimate wilderness retreat. While you’ll spend much of your time in the Great Outdoors, when you’re in your room, you can take in magnificent forest or ocean views from the floor-to-ceiling windows. Your breakfasts, lunches and dinners with table wine are all included, as is that all-important rain gear, including rain jackets, rubber boots and rubber rain trousers, so you won’t have to try and lug all of that with you.