I’m a bear viewing virgin, I’ve never seen a bear in the wild, which I suppose to some people that seems like a good thing. However, I’ve always wanted to see a bear in the wild, not because I’m some weirdo with a death wish, but it’s simply because I’d like to see one in it’s natural habitat.
Maybe I watched Legends of the Fall too many times where Brad Pitt not only stole my heart but this thought of a connection to a bear also intrigued me. Or maybe I’ll go a little Freudian on you and say that it stems back to my childhood when we went to Glacier National Park and there was news of a recent bear/tourist death which made me terrified to go out of our cabin, yet my dad drug me out and made me hike the trail practically in tears.
Who knows, but no matter how many situations I put myself in to see a bear in the wild – it still eludes me.
Past Bear Watching Fails
A year ago I went to Golden British Columbia and was excited to see Boo the bear – a bear in a grizzly bear refuge who they found as a young cub and raised by humans. Even though he was in captivity, I was still really excited to see Boo who lives in a large 20 acre enclosed area on Kicking Horse Mountain.
However, strangely even in captivity I still didn’t see Boo the Bear. For some reason he never wanted to poke his head out for me – he stayed hidden away for the days I was there. “Oh – he was just out an hour ago, but we haven’t seen him now,” the handlers would tell me and I’d walk away after an hour dejected.
The Great Bear Rainforest – Where Wildlife if Guaranteed
But this time it would be different. I was in Bear Country – The Great Bear Rainforest. The part of the world where they were so confident you’d see a bear in the wild that they marketed it on the brochures.
In the Wrong Boat
The first day I was at Nimmo Bay we split up onto 2 boats for whale watching and within 10 minutes the other boat had spotted a bear and radioed to us. However it was early on and Fraser, our Nimmo Bay Resort guide, knew we’d see plenty of bears in the 3 days we were staying – so he didn’t turn around and we kept on heading towards the whales.
A perfectly fine decision, he was the expert. But I won’t lie – my heart jumped a bit when I heard the news come over the radio and kicked myself for not getting on the other boat.
We saw no bears that day – but we did see plenty of orcas, humpbacks, and sea lions.
Going to Great Lengths to See a Bear
Day 2 was the day – the day in which we would go bear watching. I woke up anxious and excited. Fraser and Francisco loaded up the boat with supplies and ensured we all had the proper rain gear since this would include hiking and sitting in the forest. This was a true trains, planes, and automobiles type of day – specifically it was boat, truck, dingy, and by foot in order to get to the waterfall where the bears would be feeding.
Thompson Bay – Bears Guaranteed
After an hour and a half on the boat, we arrived in Thompson Bay at a rickety dock. “One at a time and try to stay to the right,” Francisco instructed us as I looked at the plank from the dock to the land wondering and hoping that it was much sturdier than it looked.
As we are waiting our turn I hear a car engine turn over and there is a yelp of excitement on the dock by Francisco – little did we know, but Fraser had arranged for us to use an old truck here left by the one man that lived here.
Trapper Rick, as they affectionately called him, happened to be away because he was sick. The day before, Fraser went to pick up keys to the truck on the Trapper Rick’s boat – he was told to get the green keys. However all Fraser found were purple keys – so little did we know but Fraser spent the whole 1 ½ hr boat ride to Thompson Bay hoping that Trapper Rick was colorblind – else we may not be going anywhere today.
Quite a gamble – but I learned from that experience that Fraser has nerves of steel. Just the type of guy you want leading a bear watching trip.
We all pile into the ancient Ford truck and Fraser says, “Wow, this is the first time I’ve driven anything but a boat in 6 months!” I laugh as I know that feeling after being on the road for extended periods. We took off bouncing along a ‘barely there’ road for about 25 minutes.
At some point in the middle of this bumpy ride we came across a grouse in the middle of the road. Fraser slowed down and tried to move it along and out of our wheel path as quickly as possible. After all we were on a mission to see bears, and the more time we had at the river the better. We had no time for cute little chicken-like birds.
Over the River and Through the Woods
We finally arrived at a dead end where the forest was declared the victor and simply took over. Francisco unloaded the truck and gave us a quick bear talk about how to react if we saw one.
I felt like I was 11 again in Glacier National Park – scared to death about being so vulnerable out in the forest walking around on what they call ‘bear trails’. However, they also assured us that they had bear spray, an air horn, and each of them had a firearm on them.
Somehow knowing that they had a shotgun and a pistol made my stomach turn in butterflies yet also made me calm at the same time. We took off for a short hike through the dense woods. It felt good to be walking for the first time in a few days – but we were abruptly stopped – by the Kakweiken River.
We made it across the river in two groups on a dingy secured with a rope and pulley system that went across the river. It was pretty rudimentary – but it did the job.
I went over in the first group and Francisco and Fraser went back to pick up the others and left us alone and immediately I was tense. My bear experts and protectors were in a dingy in the middle of the river and we were just hanging out on the bank – I felt rather exposed all of a sudden.
They got everyone over the river and we started off hiking again. Soon we came to a rustic cabin with a million dollar view. This was our bear watching destination.
I looked out and saw the river swiftly flowing, it looked like bear heaven!
If You Want to See a Bear, You Have to Go to the Salmon
Why would they come here near this remote cabin? Because there was food here – salmon. There was a waterfall in front of the cabin and a fish ladder had been built here years ago.
Fish Ladders are constructed to help the fish get upstream easier. When we walked down to the bottom of the waterfall you could see the masses of pink salmon jumping upstream – or at least attempting to jump upstream. It was fascinating to see their struggle and I found myself enthralled by them.
However they were our bait – the reasons the bears would come – so I couldn’t get too attached to them!
We sat down on the rocks at the bottom of the waterfall and waited. I’d scan the rocks downstream by the riverbank just like Fraser taught us trying to see any movement I could. I felt like I was on a police stakeout…waiting, waiting, waiting for something to happen.
But nothing happened.
Wildlife Watching with No Wildlife
We waited for a few hours and no bears showed up. My mind went into a spiral wondering if I was cursed. I mean really, how can you not see bears sitting in the remote forest at a waterfall full of salmon for 3 hours? They were getting ready for hibernation – they are in their ravenous eating mode – but still they didn’t show up.
It’s not only me who was dejected; Fraser was distraught. He told me he was really disappointed that we didn’t see any bears – more than normal since he knew I had never seen one before.
I consoled him. After all, it’s not his fault, the bears just don’t like me. Everyone else on the trip was also feeling a bit down that I didn’t get to see a bear as they had all witnessed one before.
A Bear Watching Curse
We continued for the next day to scan the coastal banks while on the boat and even scanned the roadside while driving to Port Hardy – but we saw nothing.
Someone suggested that I hang out at the garbage dump and I would most certainly see a bear. I told them that having my first bear sighting at a garbage dump was sort of like losing your virginity in the back seat of a car – more of an unfortunate experience than a good experience.
I loved everyone’s enthusiasm around trying to have me see a bear – but only a bear in the wild would do.
Adjusting Expectations and Finding the Silver Lining
So, I went to the Great Bear Rainforest and didn’t see a bear.
But I did see a grouse.
Fraser said he had actually seen more bear in his lifetime than grouse in this forest – so in some ways seeing a grouse is actually more rare. I wasn’t sure if he was trying to make me feel better or not.
I actually think my #BearWatchingFail was a good lesson.
Real travel adventures have no guarantees.
If I wanted a guarantee, then I’d just go to a zoo, or maybe Disneyworld for a manufactured experience. No, I wanted a real experience and this was a great reminder that Mother Nature doesn’t always hand those over easily.
Just because a place offers bear or whale watching, it doesn’t mean that it will actually work out. It’s always good to keep your expectations in check no matter what the marketing material says.
The Great Bear Rainforest Does Guarantee Beauty
Regardless, I can sit back and say that my overall experience in the Great Bear Rainforest was phenomenal even without a bear. The landscapes, culture, stillness, and unique environment was enough for me to fall in love with the area.
It’s not about one bear, it’s about the overall experience and your attitude. As I sat on the little 18 seater planer on the way back to Vancouver, I silently rejoiced in my grouse siting. In fact – I bet no one else on the plane saw a grouse in the Great Bear Rain Forest except me.
Where to Stay in the Great Bear Rainforest
Find other great places to stay in Bella Coola Valley – the nearby town and gateway to the Great Bear Rainforest.
Don’t fear! I actually went back to the Great Bear Rainforest for a 2nd try 5 years later – find out what happened on my Bella Coola Bear Watching Trip!
PIN IT FOR LATER!
Disclosure: For this trip to the Great Bear Rainforest, I am a guest of BC Tourism. However all opinions expressed here are my own.