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Canada bear viewing holiday in Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary – Number 5

Posted in: Canada, Posted in: Bear Safari Canada

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Canada bear viewing holiday in Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary – Number 5 on our personal grizzly bear safari list

On of our more unusual and off the beaten track Canada wildlife holidays is a visit to Northern British Columbia, just south of the border with Southeast Alaska is a destination aimed at those seeking the path least travelled, or just keen to avoid the crowds. It offers wildlife highlights including the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary, the only preserve in North America specifically designated for the protection on Brown Bears, and the dramatic spectacle of Humpback Whales “bubble netting” and lunge feeding on schooling baitfish which is seen nowhere else on earth. Sightings of Orca and Gray Whales are also not uncommon, and a wide variety of other wildlife, both marine terrestrial, can be seen here.

In addition to some of the best grizzly bear viewing in Canada and the chance to see Humpbacks, the area also boasts some of the most spectacular scenery in the Pacific Northwest (many visitors say it is how they imagine Alaska to have been before it became a mass tourism destination), and is very rich in native history and culture, with many of the First Nations still well represented in the modern day population. The small, picturesque costal city of Prince Rupert is the gateway to this fascinating region. It is the nearest population centre to Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary and the departure point for our whale watching excursions which operate in August and September.

Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary lies at the head of Khutzeymateen Inlet, a deep fjord that runs inland from the Pacific Ocean. It is a heavily wooded, pristine wilderness area, inaccessible except by boat. As in other locations the Grizzly Bears that live here depend on very varied and highly seasonal food sources including estuarine sedge grasses, roots and berries, and of course the protein rich salmon which spawn in the headwaters of the numerous streams and rivers that criss-cross the area. Unlike other grizzly bear location, the bets time for seeing grizzlies in Khutzeymateen Inlet is actually Spring (May & June) when the bears emerge from their winter dens, some with newborn cubs, to graze on estuarine sedge grasses close to the shoreline, and all viewing is conducted from a boat sitting just offshore. The surrounding streams and creeks where salmon spawn from August onwards are densely forested and surrounded by difficult terrain so are relatively inaccessible. Boat based viewing continues in the estuary during the salmon run, but with most of the bears elsewhere, sightings are less frequent.

Wildlife Trails has teamed up with a local guide who has established a floating camp in Khutzeymateen Inlet, just outside the boundary of Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary, from which he conducts fly-in boat tours, and a unique 3 day grizzly bear education program. This is a real “get away from it all” experience involving bunkhouse (youth hostel style) or tented accommodation at the floating camp, but the spectacular surroundings and relaxed atmosphere more than make up for the lack of home comforts, and this is a genuine wilderness experience you’ll remember for years to come. The floating camp is however equipped with a small lounge with satellite TV, video, and hi-fi, a full kitchen, and an electric shower. Multi-day stays are offered on a self-catering, “bring your own food” basis.

A 1½ hour drive east of Prince Rupert following the course of the mighty Skeena River is the Kitimat River Valley which boats one of the highest concentrations of Grizzly bears anywhere in North America. Bear viewing in the Kitimat River Valley and the surrounding river systems is also at its best in spring when it is not uncommon to see as many as 20 grizzlies grazing the same sedge grass meadow. Bear Trails have enlisted the services of a couple of local guides, one a professional wildlife photographer, who have developed a wonderful small scale (maximum 4 people), low impact approach to bear viewing. In spring they use small, shallow draft, ultra quiet jetboats to get you close to the action, where no other boats can go. While sightings are less frequent in salmon season, all bear viewing is conducted on foot, often utilising natural hides, which is an adventure in its own right. Unlike the bears in other more well known locations, the grizzlies in this area have had little or no contact with human beings and are therefore not remotely habituated, and quite wary. The guides have evolved a real back to nature approach that has produced great success in terms of the quality of sightings, a fact born out by the photographer guide’s body of work. Their approach involves some fairly full-on hiking through dense old growth forest, and wading across streams and rivers in chest high waders in order to reach otherwise inaccessible locations where bears are known to fish. They then rely on patience, stealth and concealment (using natural hides, smearing natural plant extract on your skin to hide your scent, staying upwind of the bears, etc.). This is obviously a very different experience to all other commercial bear viewing initiatives, more akin to the type of approach used by professional documentary makers, and is aimed at the more adventurous seeking more intimate and natural bear encounters. A wide variety of other wildlife can be also be seen in the area, including Moose, Wolves, and even the rarely seen Wolverine.

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