The Great Bear Rainforest
Author: Pam Bacich
It was the darkest of dark nights. The half moon had set behind the hills and there were no towns or villages within many, many miles. It was 2:30 in the morning and we were anchored snuggly in Cameron Cove on Princess Royal Island on the remote North Coast of British Columbia. The black sky was peppered with thousands of stars of the Milky Way. The bright points of light were doubled as they reflected in the glassy calm waters of the bay. We sat back in the silence and made wishes on the many falling stars. Out of the quiet night came a series of deep breaths in the water near the boat. We could hear something, but we couldn’t see anything in the darkness. Suddenly a hungry seal appeared next to us, lunging in and out of water as he fished in the starlight. It was pretty perfect night.
That night was just one of many magical nights we experienced last summer as we explored the northern reaches of British Columbia in the area known as the Great Bear Rain Forest. We’ve traveled to Alaska on our Fleming 55, Mola Mola, four times. We’ve passed through the Great Bear Rain Forest with interest and awe. The popular anchorages such as Khutze and Lowe Inlet have always taken our breath away….But our goal on our past trips has been to get to Alaska as quickly as possible and spend the maximum time in the grandeur of that wilderness state. This summer we decided to go no further than Prince Rupert and to concentrate a month of our summer boating in the area from the top of Vancouver Island to the very edge of Alaska.
(Seen below: The beautiful Khutze Inlet.)
The Great Bear Rain Forest is also known as the Central and North Coast forest. It is a temperate rainforest ecoregion that encompasses 19-million acres and it is part of the largest unspoiled, intact coastal temperate rainforest in the world. Coastal temperate rainforests are unique because of their proximity to the ocean and the mountains. The moist airflow from the ocean collides with the mountain ranges and results in large amounts of rain. It is this magic collaboration between the ocean and mountains that produces and supports a healthy population of unique water and land animals and creates deep fiords and anchorages of staggering beauty. Here you will find trees up to a 1000 years old that are as high as tall buildings. You will see wolves, black bears, grizzly bears and the rare and mystical white spirit bear. As you explore the remote inner reaches of the rain forest with it’s rivers, streams, inlets and islands, expect to go days without cell or internet service. In some areas the fjords are so high and steep that VHF radios have limited functionality and even Satellite phones can be worthless. Be prepared to be alone. Many of the anchorages are cut deep into the mountains and it takes time to get there. It is the definition of “off the beaten path” and you will almost always have anchorages to yourself. If you’re tired of the usual “hot spots” and this sounds like your kind of adventure, here are some of the areas we enjoyed exploring.
Kumealon Inlet is on the north side of Grenville Channel and is surrounded by towering mountains. It is easy to enter and has plenty of room. There are anchorages behind Kumealon Island and in the much larger Kumealon Inlet. We took a long dinghy ride back to check out Kumealon Narrows which connects to a large lagoon. We never actually made it back into the lagoon . The rapids were boiling on both attempts with waves and at least a one foot fall. We timed our approach to high tide in Prince Rupert, but we were way off. Slack was gong to be at least another 45 minutes and it was getting dark. It’s just another excuse to return to this area.
Over the years we’ve made some of our favorite memories in Cameron Cove. We saw our first Spirit Bear in that area with our guide from Hartley Bay, Marven Robinson. The Spirit Bear is a subspecies of the black bear that has naturally white fur. About 10 percent of the black bears born in this area carry the recessive gene. It is estimated that there are fewer than 400 Spirit Bears in the world and they are all in the Great Bear Rain Forest. It is the thrill of a lifetime when you are lucky enough to see one. On another visit, we came across Marven as he taught his grandchildren to hunt for seals for a village feast.. It was fascinating to watch this centuries old tradition being passed down to the next generation. This year we watched enthralled as three thin, long legged Timberwolves scoured the beach for food. Wolves can be hard to spot. These three blended almost seamlessly into the colors of the rocks and kelp on the low tide beach. Cameron Cove is also where we first met Janie Wray. Janie and her partner Herman Meuter founded The North Coast Cetacean Society in 2001. Janie has an education in Marine Biology and a lifelong passion for whales. NCCS has now established three research stations near Cameron Cove in the very heart of the Great Bear Region. They have numerous hydrophones placed along the islands and closely monitor the comings, goings and activities of whales in the area. They were the first to identify humpback whales “singing” outside of Hawaii and have now recorded hundreds of hours of their magical songs. Another important part of this research is the monitoring of marine vessel activity and the effects of this noise on the cetaceans. They are moving forward with plans to use drones to study the health of the whale population. There are more females arriving without calves and they hope to figure out why this is occurring. Janie told us that their most surprising findings have involved the way Humpback whales and sea lions are socially connected and how they will often hunt in the same areas. Their research is privately funded and driven by a need to protect this fragile environment.
(Seen below: In the Great Bear Rain Forest the water can be so still that it’s hard to tell where the trees end and the reflection begins.)
Kent Inlet is a part of the Kitasoo Spirit Bear Conservancy. The conservancy is co-managed by the Kitasoo Nation and the Province of British Columbia and is the world’s only protected area for the White Spirit Bear. Wildlife is abundant throughout the conservancy and the highest concentration of Spirit or Kermode bears is found in this area. Philip Narrows is the tricky (read scary) narrow entrance to Kent Inlet that commands watchful attention. The narrows is short and straight, but very narrow….maybe 60 feet wide including ominous rocks. I can’t imagine a boat much bigger than our Fleming 55 going through. We wouldn’t want to get caught sideways in there! During Neap tides there seems to be a pretty long window of calm water . We never encountered more than 1 ½ knots and we ran it at several different times in the dinghy. We used Meyers Passage slack as our guide and Bella Bella high and low water. Once inside you anchor back in a lovely round bay that feels more like a lake. There is a tide water waterfall that’s fed by a beautiful large lagoon and a smaller waterfall at the head of the bay. It was late August and salmon were doing aerobatics all around us.
Aristazabal Island – Weeteean Bay
Aristazabel Island is the largest of a patchwork of islands and islets that lie south west of Princess Royal Island. We dropped into Weeteean Bay on the southern end of this remote and pristine wilderness. The western shore is fully exposed to the Pacific Ocean and the island is surround by islets and wave-cut rocks. It Is remote and wild and it feels like you’ve been dumped into a flooded rock quarry. We spent the afternoon exploring the area and saw some of the largest Lion’s Mane Jellyfish we’d ever seen. The Lion’s Mane is the largest known species of jellyfish and it’s stinging tentacles can be over 100 feet long. They range in color from light orange to vivid crimson. They were an awesome sight as they swam past the dinghy. The next morning our trip out of Weeteeam Bay and across the channel back toward Princess Royal Island was one of the strangest in all our travels. We headed out at 7:30am into an odd gloomy brownish fog. The sun was a giant orange ball that reflected a broad orange swath across the sea. The waves crashed over the impossing rock piles that surround the western show of Aristazabal Island. An eerie, apocalyptic air chocked the skies. We could hardly see where we were going and though the waters were quite calm, it was unsettling and uncomfortable in an unnerving way. We had been out of communication range for quite a while. We had no way of knowing that over 600 fires were burning in British Columbia. The winds had shifted and the smoke had moved to the coast. Gone were the towering mountains, the distant green islands and the brilliant blue skies. In their place was a dirty brown emptiness. It was a thick mixture of fog and smoke. It was cold and creepy and we didn’t like it!
Alston Cove is off Laredo Inlet and features an easy, open entrance that is surrounded by mountains. On the day we were there, they were shrouded in fog and smoke from the fires in British Columbia. It turned everything an unnatural, otherworldly orange, but made for a beautiful sunset. There is a large drying flat that would provide sedge for bears in the early summer….but none were visible in late August. We were able to take the dinghy up Blee Creek on the north side of the bay. Chantal Pronteau, a First Nation’s Watchman from Kemtu told us that there are fish traps across the entire bay where the creek comes in. You need a low tide to see them. Partly because of the history of the fish traps, Alston is her favorite anchorage. Just south of Alston at the start of Thistle Passage is the magical anchorage of Quigley Creek Cove. Wind through a string of enchanting islands and drop anchor in the basin at the mouth of Quigley Creek.
Fiordland continues to be one of our favorite parts of the world. It is a large marine park that encompasses two spectacular bays and estuaries, Kynoch and Mussel Inlets. Sheer granite cliffs climb more than 3200 feet and are dotted with dense coastal forests and imposing waterfalls. In Muscle Bay we were greeted by two Watchmen from the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation that co-manages the Conservancy with BC Parks. Chantal Pronteau and Serein Basi-Primeau boarded Mola Mola and explained the limitations for river explorations in the cove. These young ladies are knowledgeable and enthusiastic guardians of the Conservancy. They told us that only 14 people are allowed up the river at any one time and only one small boat.
(Seen below: A grizzly bear at Muscle Inlet.)
If the tour boat from Spirit Bear Lodge in Klemtu arrives, they have priority. Even if this happens we have had plenty of time to explore the area at other times of the day and we’ve had great bear viewing from our anchorage. We dropped anchor at the head of the bay and spent an hour or so floating in the dinghy watching a grizzly munch on the grasses on the shore. The salmon were just beginning to appear and so the protein from the sedges would have to do. We spent the next day exploring Kynoch Inlet and Culpepper Lagoon. Both bays have shallow areas that come out a lot further than is indicated on the charts. At low tide you can see a light colored border under the shallow water that clearly indicates the edge of the sand bar and changing depths. In Culpepper we looked on as a hungry seal wrestled with a huge salmon. He dove repeatedly under the surface and would rise out of the water to yank a juicy bite. Seagulls floated nearby hoping to catch any leftovers and a dozen seals barked from a nearby log.
(Seen below: Culpepper Lagoon and Kynock are the two main attractions of Fiordland. Both feature spectacular bays and estuaries surrounded by towering cliffs.)
It takes quite a commitment to visit Roscoe Inlet. It is a deep cut into the mainland of British Columbia that goes the opposite direction that most boaters are traveling. You have to travel 22 miles in and 22 miles out. It’s a long cul-de-sac rimmed by giant mountains with forested green walls that defy description. The entrance to Roscoe Inlet is at the intersection of Return Channel and Johnson Channel. The first 10 miles of the inlet are beautiful…..but no more so than several other inland passages and anchorages in the Great Bear Rain Forest. We named these JABA….Just Another Beautiful Anchorage. After days and weeks of exploring the area, you almost begin to take this beauty for granted.
(Seen below: Mick and Pam enjoy Roscoe Inlet.)
It lies around every corner and you have to pinch yourself periodically and remind yourself how special it all is. But the beauty coefficient is boasted ten fold when you cross through Roscoe Narrows. From this point, the mountains are taller and there are more of them. The peaks are more dramatic and sheer rocky stone faces come straight into the channel. The water is a deep emerald green and the stunning reflections look like islands in the still water. It is simply unlike anywhere else we have been. On our journey up the Inlet, we poked into each bay along the way. All six of the potential anchorages had their own uniqueness and would serve a boater well depending on the wind. We ended up anchoring for the night at the head of the inlet in about 80 feet. The quiet stillness of the night was magical.
Kwatna Estuary Conservancy
Kwatna Estuary is located approximately 22 miles east of Bella Bella and 22 miles southwest of Bella Coola off Burke Channel. At the head of Kwatna Bay sits the largest of the river estuaries and tidal flats that we visited. It is a vast sedge-filled estuary and Sitka spruce flood plane forest that is surrounded by giant snow capped mountains. At low tide the drying flats come almost a half a mile into the bay and span the entire width. We launched our drone at the lowest tide so that we could try to locate a path thru the remaining shallow water. A wide open trench is shown on our electronic charts which makes it look easy to take a dinghy ride all the way up to the river. Over time, this has slowly filled in and the obvious route no longer exists. By following a slow meandering course, we were able to explore about a mile into the estuary. I’m sure at a higher tide you could go even further. It required patience and a watchful eye. We saw river otters, sea lions, geese and a variety of seabirds. Although the conservancy serves as a feeding area for grizzly bears, the salmon were just starting to run and we didn’t see any bears the day we were there. We anchored in about 90 feet on the northwest side of bay and found Kwatna a fascinating place for a day’s exploration.
(Seen below: Kwatna Inlet was the largest of the river estuaries and tidal flatlands that we visited.)
Janie Wray and the North Coast Cetacean Society, Marven Robinson and the Hartley Bay First Nation Community, The Watchman from Klemtu and the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation and the Kitasoo Spirit Bear Conservancy are just a few of the many groups that are working together to protect the forests, estuaries, bays and special wildlife that make up the Great Bear Rainforest. These conservation groups work tirelessly to protect this unique sanctuary from logging, hunting and the threats from oil pipelines and potential oil spills. This amazing land of mountains, fiords, islands, bays and great river estuaries is unique in all the world and it is worth savoring and protecting. Because most of the Great Bear Rain Forest is accessible only by boat or seaplane, we, as boaters, are privileged to have the opportunity to explore this area of glorious beauty and to experience wildlife viewing and whale watching that is second to none. We share in the responsibility to protect this awe inspiring and fragile ecosystem. Put the Great Bear Rain Forest on your bucket list. You’ll be glad you did.
(Seen below: Kwatna at low tide.)
Wildlife viewing contacts
Marven Robinson Spirit Bear and wolf viewing and photography
Hartley Bay, Canada
Spirit Bear Lodge