Ben is on the ultimate wilderness adventure with a close encounter of the grizzly kind. Welcome to beautiful Canada!
Prince Rupert is the last spot of civilisation on the wild west coast of British Columbia. Just 45km north-east of it in the Khutzeymateen River Valley of the Coast Mountains lies the Khutzeymateen grizzly bear sanctuary. Once the traditional territory of the Gitsees, who used the valley for fishing, hunting and growing food, now there are no people, houses, electricity or roads. The only access is by float plane and the only shelter is a little boat.
When Europeans arrived in North America, an estimated 200,000 grizzlies lived on the continent. Now the number hovers around 25,000. Khutzeymateen was designated Canada's only grizzly bear sanctuary in August, 1994, under the joint management of British Columbia and the Tsimshian Nation. Just 180 people a year are allowed to enter.
Khutzeymateen, a Tsimshian word meaning "a confined space of salmon and bears", gives 45,000ha of protected wilderness to the grizzly, a species at serious risk. The rainforest, river mouth estuary and ocean fjord all provide refuge for around 50 bears whose future was made uncertain by urban expansion, agriculture, logging, mining, hydroelectric development, oil and gas exploration and increased recreational use of back country. To lead a normal, productive life, grizzlies, which have a very slow reproductive rate, require a home range of up to several hundred square kilometres.
The valley has a rich wildlife population of moose, wolves, migrating owls, grouse, shorebirds, geese, harlequin ducks, kingfishers, harbour seals, orca and humpback whales.
The grizzly bear is Canada's largest carnivore and this is the last place it survives in significant numbers. They eat grass and roots, wild berries, insects, fish and other animals. Coastal bears are great fishers and make salmon the main part of their diet.
Females are not ready to bare young until they are between five and eight years old and males may not mature until aged 10. Females average fewer than one kitten-sized cub a year. These are born blind and defenceless while the mother is in hibernation and for survival need to remain under the mother's protection for two years.
Males require as much as 1350 square kilometres of pristine wilderness as a home range, while females can do with less than 27 square kilometres. Their habitat may be mountainous, salmon estuaries or the treeless tundra of the Northwest Territories.
Their natural life span can be more than 25 years, but the Canadian government has estimated that each year around 6355 bears are shot and killed before reaching maturity. Bounty hunters receive $10,000 per grizzly from British Columbia outfitters, a hideous slight on human vanity.
On the other side of the coin, only 16 fatal attacks by bears on humans have been recorded in BC over 20 years. There were more spider bite fatalities!
It is comforting to know, if ever confronted by a 700kg bear, that they instinctively retreat from human contact and are reclusive by nature.
Sun Chaser Charters has been taking wilderness tours along the coast of BC for more than 25 years. Skipper and guide Dan Wakeman is one of two operators allowed to take tourists into Khutzeymateen. He was involved in the saving of the Khutzeymateen almost from the beginning, over 20 years ago, with intense lobbying against logging and other human destruction.
The Sun Chaser is a warm and comfortable 13m teak sailboat used as a home base for expeditions. It comfortably sleeps four to six people. On the way to the Khutzeymateen, there is the bonus of whale watching and seeing some of the world's most breathtaking scenery.
The best time to view the bears is from May 1 to early July. They are usually around the estuary at that time of year, as they descend from their winter dens to mate and eat the tender sedge grasses. Mothers can often be seen teaching their young survival in their natural habitat.
August and September are still good for viewing. By then, waters are teeming with salmon, which swim up the river to lay eggs, reproduce and then begin to die. That's when the hungry bears pounce.