Notes on the Great Bear Rainforest Cruise
The central coast region of British Columbia’s scenic and intricate shoreline has a long history. Stretching from Vancouver Island north along the mainland coast, it forms a significant section of the famous ‘Inside Passage’ route to Alaska - a term that started with the gold rush of the 1800s. Many of the gold seekers stayed on the coast, attracted by the enormous trees and waters full of salmon. Native peoples have lived along this coast for at least 10,000 years, and built a renowned culture based upon these same fish and trees. Unfortunately, diseases spread from the first European traders decimated the old villages, and now the native peoples are centered in a few, small coastal villages with names like Bella Bella, Klemtu and Hartley Bay. It is only in the last few years with the introduction of the name “Great Bear Rainforest” that this magnificent wilderness has found itself in the spotlight of international attention.
The description ‘Great Bear Rainforest’ was created because the region holds the largest remaining areas of original coastal rainforest left on the entire Pacific coast. Ecologically, the name refers to the significant populations of black, grizzly and kermode bear that are supported by the abundant salmon runs for food, and lack of human development. It is a long, convoluted maze of narrow waterways and fiords. Emerald forests of western hemlock and red cedar cloak lush river valleys and broad estuaries. Biologically abundant and diverse, the area is also ecologically fragile.
This remote wilderness had been ‘forgotten’ in the public eye, and large forestry companies had plans to cut the prized valley lowlands of this public forest. In 2001, significant portions of the Great Bear Rainforest were proposed for protection through the cooperative efforts of First Nations, forestry companies, conservation groups and government. With continued public support these initiatives will be completed and protect some of the most unique wildlife and wilderness on this incredible coast.
One shouldn’t misinterpret the name “Great Bear Rainforest” and thereby the focus of this trip. The trip is more then an exploration aimed at seeking out bears. The focus is on the richness, the biological diversity of this special area.
You will visit and explore with permission of the local Gitga’at and Kitasoo native groups (both members of the Tshimshian Nation). It is planned to spend a day with local Gitga’at guides sharing their culture and history, and leading you to their favorite bear viewing sites.
The Great Bear Rainforest is home to the magnificent grizzly bear, a species that requires large areas of habitat undisturbed by human activity. These great bears once roamed across North America but due to the advance of civilization, diminished food supply and continued hunting; they are now threatened in their remaining range .Weighing in at more than a quarter of a ton, grizzly bear sit at the top of the food chain and are a critical part of the coastal ecosystem. These bears are drawn to the estuaries of large coastal rivers to feast on the salmon moving upriver to spawn. They depend on these salmon to survive. The Great Bear Rainforest supports one of the last sustainable populations. It is planned to explore up remote coastal fiords in the hope of seeing these majestic creatures.
Scientists have recently discovered that bears and salmon provide the major source of fertilizer in the coastal forest. Evidently, each bear may distribute the remains of 700 fish, providing 1600 kilograms of natural, nitrogen-rich fertilizer. Thus, a Sitka spruce grows to be three times larger near a salmon bearing stream
The Spirit Bear
These primeval forests are the only habitat of the Kermode, or “spirit bear.” An elusive and rarely seen wonder, the Kermode is a genetic throwback - a black bear with a “recessive” gene giving it snow-white fur. Princess Royal Island is one of the few areas on the coast where one can find the Kermode. Only 10% of black bears in the area are Kermode, so though you might expect to see black bears, it will require good luck and perseverance to spot a Spirit Bear.
The Great Bear Rainforest is home to a significant population of gray wolves. Scientific studies presently underway suggest they may be genetically distinct from their inland cousins. Many of the islands are home to populations of wolves, although it is unlikely you will spot these shy creatures.
During the voyage there are excellent chances of seeing various species of marine mammals. Fitzhugh Sound and Whale Channel are good areas for viewing humpback whales. The coastline near Cape Caution supports a summer population of gray whales; and this entire coast is famous for its population of orcas (killer whales).
Weather permitting, you will visit the exposed outer coast, perhaps going ashore at remote Goose Island to explore deserted beaches and comb for glass fishing floats that have drifted across the north Pacific from Japan. Here, vast kelp forests are home to sea otter. Hunted to near extinction, they remain shy and elusive and are difficult to observe at close range. With luck, you might see them swimming on their backs at the surface. During the last 30 years sea otter have been successfully reintroduced along portions of the British Columbia coast and are now protected. The voyage will travel from deep mountain fiords to low outer islands and at the points of transition you will find tremendous biological productivity. The famous light stations at Egg Island and Pine Island are among the few that remain manned on the British Columbia coast.
Bella Bella, located on the famous “Inside Passage” is the centre of Heiltsuk native culture. This small coastal village was once the site of an early Hudson’s Bay Company trading post. It is also the gateway to historic Dean Channel, where Sir Alexander Mackenzie became the first European to reach the Pacific Ocean traveling overland on aboriginal “grease trails.” He preceded the better-known expedition of Lewis and Clark by 12 years! These trails were important trade routes linking coastal native people with those of the interior. Boxes of eulachon grease were carried inland to trading sites where different cultures met to exchange goods. Grease and fish were traded for items such as moose hide and obsidian. Eulachon or “candlefish” are a smelt-like fish renowned for their oil when rendered. Archaeologists have discovered native middens dating back some 9,000 years at Namu, one of the most ancient sites of human habitation on the northwest coast.
This area has a very rich and varied bird population. Many people will be amazed at the number of bald eagles they see on the trip. Colourful seabirds such as oystercatchers, pigeon guillemots and rhinoceros auklets are common and we see large numbers of smaller water birds, such as phalaropes.
Throughout the journey you will explore the myriad narrow channels and waterways, and venture ashore daily to walk river estuaries, forests and beaches. People with a keen interest in natural history will thoroughly enjoy this trip. A highly experienced naturalist will accompany the trip and provide talks, slide shows, and lead shore excursions. With the help of interested trip members a list will be kept of the birds and animals seen during the trip.
The Great Bear Rainforest is a large area extending over 250 miles along the coast and for thousands of miles if you include all the waterways and islands. One cannot hope to see all the highlights in one voyage, and thus, most of the trips simply cover a portion of the area. There is no detailed day by day itinerary prepared in advance of the trip as daily plans are flexible to accommodate the surprises that are encountered each trip, the requirements of tide and weather, and the interests of the group. Wildlife is wild life and have their own agenda.
A professional cook is in charge of all the cooking during the trip. The boat carries ample quantities of fresh vegetables, fruits, meats, grains and dairy products for the duration of the voyage. Meals are served buffet style. You will be very impressed with the variety and excellence of the meals that are prepared for you. Complimentary wines are served with dinner. There is no bar onboard to purchase additional drinks. Guests are responsible and welcome to bring their own cocktails, beer and soft drinks.
There is no smoking allowed onboard the boats.
While guests should come prepared for some gusty winds and the possibility of rain, we usually experience clear skies and a good amount of sunshine. It always feels cooler on the water than actual temperatures may be.
Recommendations for the serious wildlife photographer: a 300mm camera lens seems ideal, while 180-300mm lenses generally give good results with orcas and bears. Consider bringing fairly fast film to capture moving wildlife, and to allow for photography in the low light of morning or evening. Most people use more film than they expect.