It’s the second time in as many days I’ve heard the startling sound of snapping branches.
The first mimicked the sound of a bear charging through the forest, scaring the living heck out of a group of us. After all, at the time, we were standing on a bear trail, staring at a bear’s day bed, and had discovered moments earlier a bear had preceded us.
Thankfully, though, that racket was just a Sitka spruce losing its mossy branches.
This time was different.
Crossing B.C.’s Charlotte Strait from Port Hardy, seven of us land in Smith Inlet via a rare Grumman Goose plane, one of only three remaining in Canada.
Audible gasps escape as we climb out of the floating aircraft; the coast mountain range’s snowcapped peaks and lush forests of towering Sitkas, Western Hemlocks and Western Red Cedars reflect perfectly in the calm water. Its 360 degrees of stunning surroundings.
We’ve arrived in the Great Bear Rainforest with hopes of observing grizzly bears in the wild. As one of the world’s few remaining temperate coastal rainforests, coniferous canopies, fern-filled floors and rich river systems make it an ideal home for bears and other wildlife.
Great Bear Lodge staff, including Tom Rivest, who co-manages the nearly fully self-sustained floating lodge with Marg Leehane, welcomes us to the lodge. The pair, who escaped corporate lives in Silicon Valley, started running grizzly bear viewing under Great Bear Nature Tours in 1999.
After a brief orientation, we eat and then head out to look for bears.
Guided viewing in spring is done when bears are most active, mornings and evenings. Cruising the estuary in aluminum boats, guests safely observe bears refuelling after hibernation on protein-rich sedge grass and other vegetation such as silverweed.
It’s also mating season, and one of the best times to observe dynamic and fervoured hormone-induced behaviours. Besides bear interactions, male grizzlies leave their scent behind in stomping trails, by bathing in watery wallows and rubbing off bits of fur (and stench) onto well-worn trees.
We luck out on night one, playing witness to a courting session between a male named Logwalker and female, endearingly named Alien, thanks to an odd pattern on her head.
We are all wowed to be a mere 30 metres away watching bears just be bears.
“We have half of our bears named,” Leehane says. “We tend to get the same bears and build trusting relationships with them.” She shares that once they get used to the guides, most don’t mind the company. However, there’s always an exception . . . or two.
The next evening over dinner, Rivest speaks of an exception. He recounts a tale of how an interaction with Roxanne, a notoriously pushy bear, resulted in the one and only time he’s had to use his spray. He also mentions her like-minded cub, three-year-old Diablita (or “little she devil”), joking how “she’s probably the next in line to be sprayed.”
Later, Rivest and I go looking for grizzlies. We head for the east slough where he says, “magic happens,” and see a bear immediately. Speak of the devil! It’s Diablita.
However, drama doesn’t ensue. Instead, she strolls nonchalantly, munching sedge and sniffing the air. It’s serene and otherwise silent beyond the sound of her eating, and a Barred Owl’s “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?” hoots. Shortly after, Diablita wanders off past apatch of wildflowers. “She’s got her own program tonight,” Rivest says.
“She’s sure beautiful,” I say awestruck. “She thinks so,” Rivest replies.
To break up boat time, midday guided outings down an old logging road introduce us to a variety of forest ecology. We spot minks, pine martens and a cute Douglas squirrel. We learn about rainforest flora and the guides point out yummy bear treats, salmon and elderberry bushes.
We examine fresh tracks in the mud and also see evidence of where bears have recently stomped, wallowed and rubbed. By the last day, we’ve racked up 15 hours of bear watching as we head out for one last ride.
It’s the calmest day yet, the water still and glassy. Five of us hop aboard guide Taylor Green’s boat. Known for finding the bears first, we enter the mouth of the east slough just as she spots a bear at 11o’clock. Its fuzzy ears emerge just above the tall grass.
It’s low tide, so Green hops out and wedges the boat sedge-side of the narrow channel. We wait, keeping our eyes peeled ahead to the left. It’s to our right, however, where the sound of twigs snapping occurs.
We all glance at Green.
“There’s definitely a bear in there!” she says in a low, whispered voice. “There” being a bush less than five metres away, where only a small section of grass separates us. Still in the water, Green calmly eases the boat to the other side of the channel.
Passion in the Great Bear Rainforest
My heart races as the crunching gets closer. Staring without blinking, I wait for the “magic” that’s about to happen. Almost as if on cue, the show begins. Not one, but two bears spring from the bushes, causing me to jump.
It’s Diablita and Logwalker, and they are feisty. Biting each other, they wrestle on hind legs, growling and gruffing, completely immersed in bear foreplay. This leads to, well . . . bear magic.
Once finished, Logwalker flops down for a sleep while Diablita, who seems much more like a little angel, peacefully eats and strolls, not the least bit concerned about her audience.
“This will be one of the most memorable moments of the season,” Green says. We all smile knowing that for us, it will be a memory that lasts a lifetime.
**This article previously appeared in the Toronto Star and on thestar.com.