A female grizzly bear paddles from the shore across a wide swath of the Nekite River estuary to a small island, sniffs the springtime air and retraces her swim. She shakes the brackish water off her back, scampers onto a granite ledge and samples the atmosphere once more. For 30 minutes I and the fellow tourists in my group observe this ritual while perched inside our 16-foot aluminum boat about 100 feet away.
“She’s looking for someone,” observes our guide, Tom Rivest. “And she won’t stop until she finds him.” Rivest is the cofounder and head guide of Great Bear Lodge, the floating nature center that arranged this expedition (the lodge offers grizzly bear viewing tours from early May through October).
As if on cue, the sow thrusts her snout in the air, then breaks into a lumbering sprint along the shoreline toward where, we soon discover, a 450-pound male grizzly is nonchalantly sampling fresh shoots. The boar tussles with her for perhaps five minutes before the mating begins. They’ll mate two more times over the next half hour.
This lodge in the Vancouver Island region of British Columbia seeks to help visitors observe grizzlies in their native habitat with minimal intrusion. To that end, the lodge books no more than 16 guests for three nights at a time. Visitors ages 15 and over (often, far over) come from the far corners of the world for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Floatplanes transport them from Port Hardy to Smith Inlet on the Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw First Nation territory. (I’m visiting in spring; in autumn, visitors take a bus upriver on historic logging roads to view grizzlies feeding on spawning salmon.)
Lodge manager Marg Leehane has created a setting on par with any luxury wilderness lodge in British Columbia. The meals — cedar plank salmon to rack of lamb — are gorgeously presented. Flowerpots on the wraparound deck overflow with lupine, fuchsia and daisies, complemented by what seems like dozens of reddish hummingbirds swarming the feeders.
Much as I love chatting with other guests around the firepit, I’m here to stalk bears. So I’m thrilled that we embark on two three-hour boat outings per day, plus a third daily excursion over land. The lodge provides insulated suits, so staying warm in the chilly north is never a concern. I do learn that spending many hours a day in a boat takes some stamina, though guests are under no pressure to make every excursion.
“Bears or no bears, it’s just a beautiful place to be,” says one guest who’s also exploring the Great Bear Rainforest for the first time.