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Springtime Bear-Viewing in Canada

An isolated British Columbia retreat is a haven for wildlife lovers

Grizzly standing on a beach in the Great Bear Rainforest with its reflection in the water

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Small guided tours allow visitors to view bears in their natural habitats.

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.  

Great Bear Lodge

Courtesy of Great Bear Lodge

The Great Bear Lodge offers seasonal itineraries from May through October.

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.

As if to prove her point, the light rain lifts after dinner; the Sitka spruce, draped in lichen, color the water with their reflections. We head back into the estuary where, to our delight, several grizzlies have yet to finish their own dinners of sedge grass and grubs.

“Unlike black bears that evolved in the forest, grizzlies came from the shrub-steppe habitat, so they’re very comfortable out in the open on these islands,” Rivest whispers as we float up behind a feeding pair.

There’s another boat in front of them, and they are clearly aware of it, but when I take a burst of photos with my camera, the male is surprised. He turns, raises one paw, puffs once or twice, then returns to feeding with his mate before ambling down a log, out of sight.

Rather Go South? Bike San Diego

Many cities now offer bike share programs, but cycling in San Diego offers a special lure: miles of car-free bicycle paths. Rent a bike in town and cruise at your own pace down the Bayshore Bikeway, a 24-mile designated biking trail loop — including about 13 miles of dedicated bike trails. I took that trail south of Chula Vista, into downtown San Diego for lunch and back to Loews Coronado Bay Resort, where I had collected my hybrid mountain bike that morning at Action Sport Rentals onsite. My trip got even better that afternoon when my wife joined me for a sailing lesson, which was offered by the resort. We sailed across San Diego Bay, my wife taking the helm for most of the excursion. You can also book a kayak tour, rent stand-up paddleboards and even go waterskiing. A true spring break.

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