In good weather the flight from Prince Rupert to the Khutzeymateen Valley in northern British Columbia is a thirty minute hop. After two days of flying I was anxious to complete this final leg of the journey. We arrived at Inland Air’s seaplane terminal expecting an early departure. Several days of clear skies came to an end overnight as we stood in a grey drizzle looking at a very low cloud layer. We watched our gear get loaded into two chartered planes and stared at the skies willing things to change.
Our pilots arrived, looked around at the skies, and we overheard a short conversation between the two of them.
"It’s clear at the Khutz, scattered in between. We can follow the coast. Wanna try it?"
"Sure, why not?"
We piled into the two Dehavilland Beavers, taxied a short distance, and took flight. Through heavy, broken skies we followed the coastline north to Chatham Sound, flew through Steamer Channel where we intersected Khutzeymateen Inlet. For nearly an hour we saw nothing but thick grey clouds and the outline of a dark coast. As we broke into open skies an emerald green landscape exploded into view. Snowcapped peaks rose from the Pacific shouldering both sides of the narrow inlet. We slowed, banked steeply, and came to a stop next to the Ocean Light II, our mother ship for the next week. Photographers, gear, and supplies were offloaded quickly. I walked to the bow of the 71 foot ketch and watched our planes disappear into the horizon. I looked around and realized I’d forgotten how it felt to be swallowed up by one's surroundings. I love the enormity of this place.
Khutzeymateen is a First Nation’s word meaning "a confined space for salmon and bears". The narrow river valley is rich in natural resources. Abundant old growth red cedar and Sitka spruce forests made the Khutz a priority for commercial logging years ago. In the early 80’s a small group of conservationists began pushing for protection of the inlet. Their goal was to protect the north coast grizzly bear by preserving the eco-system in which they live. In August 1994, the B.C. government set aside 100,000 acres (about half the size of Rocky Mountain National Park) as a provincial park and Canada’s only grizzly bear sanctuary. Today the area is closed to public access, commercial logging and hunting.
I met Tom Ellison, our boat captain and bear guide, last fall while traveling the middle BC coast into the Great Bear Rainforest. He holds permits to some of the most remote and protected areas in BC, the Khutz being the most exclusive. Tom is one of two guides permitted to enter the grizzly bear sanctuary. He first traveled to the area 25 years ago holding the common belief that bears are vicious, dangerous animals ready to attack man given the opportunity. He carried a gun when he explored the area. In time his perceptions changed and the weapons were left behind. He began to believe bears were in fact gentle animals willing to co-exist if not pressured and harassed. His experience with the bears of the Khutzeymateen soon became personal and intimate. Over the years he’s come to know bears individually. He tells a story about "Lucy", the matriarch of the Khutz for over a decade. She would show in the valley every couple years with cubs. She’d often approach Tom with her cubs in tow. She’d then turn tail and walk into the dark timber for a short nap leaving the cubs behind with Tom. An hour or two later she’d return, collect her cubs, and go on her way. "Lucy" is no longer around, but her legacy lives on. Many of the blonde faced bears we photographed are her descendants and show the same gentle, relaxed behavior.
The Khutzeymateen sanctuary is a large sedge flat cut by several small creeks and tidal channels. To explore the upper sections of the estuary we used a small Zodiak and rode a rising 16 foot tide in each day. We found numerous bears feeding on grasses, bedded on stream banks and on the prowl looking for mating partners. When the tide was unfavorable we motored through the main channel glassing the shoreline for traveling and clam digging bears. The photographic opportunities were endless, limited only by our stamina to stay out in 18 hours of sunlight.
In the past year, I’ve visited the middle and north BC coasts to photograph bears. There is no doubt that the remote, rugged landscape contributes to the estimated population of 17,000 grizzly bears. Despite this flourishing population, there is a huge threat facing the region. Oil, more specifically, the Alberta Oil Sands. Sand is mined from the surface of the boreal forests of Alberta. Chemical processes extract oil from the sandy soil. Distribution of oil from Alberta would be via a future pipeline through the Great Bear Rainforest to the middle BC coast. Tankers would have to navigate the challenging inland waterway to reach the open ocean. In my opinion, this is a disaster waiting to happen. I hope the Canadian government is watching what’s happening in the wide open gulf off Louisiana and reconsidering this project.
The Khutzeymateen is a huge success story showing what results are possible when habitat is preserved for wildlife first and humans second. Send me an email if you’d like further information on bear watching in the Great Bear Rainforest or the Khutzeymateen.