Last June I went on pretty incredible trip in search of Grizzly Bears of the Khutzeymateen. It all started the December before when my friend Mack mentioned he was going way up north in British Columbia to photograph Grizzlies. It would be him and his friend along with an experienced wildlife photographer and there was one spot left. At first I didn’t pay it too much attention. You had to take a 2 hour commercial flight from Vancouver to Prince Rupert and then a float plane into the Khutzeymateen Provincial Park. It seemed like too much of a trek from New York City. I was also in my first year of being a mom and the practical side of me dismissed it. But the adventurous explorer in me kept on thinking about it so I asked a few more details. As luck would have it, the bear trip happened to fall just a few days before a wedding I was shooting on Pender Island (near Vancouver). I took this as a sign and I jumped on it.
For a bit of context, the Khutzeymateen Provincial Park was established in 1986 and since then only about 200 people per year can enter the sanctuary. In this 450 square km park there are no roads or power lines and all aircraft must stay above 1500 feet. There are also no shore activities in the park and all of these images were shot from a boat or a plane. Only registered float planes can land a considerable distance downstream of the sanctuary. It is one of the most restricted and protected parks in Canada. At the entrance to the sanctuary there is a floating ranger’s station that is managed by BC Parks and the local Tshimshian First Nation. Beyond the station a little ways there are two sailboats that act as floating hotels. No one is allowed to go beyond the ranger’s station except guests of the these two sailboats. These two sailboats, have been granted special permission to be there because they were instrumental in acting as home base for the research scientists back in the 80’s when the research into first making this area a park was happening. Private boats and tour boats can come up the inlet but can’t go past the ranger’s station into the sanctuary. Most of these images were shot in the sanctuary beyond the ranger’s station.
Our home base was the Sunchaser and our hosts were Steve Williamson, a wildlife photographer who has been coming to the Khutzeymateen for 7 years, and Dan Wakeman the owner of the Sunchaser who has spent his summers here on this 40 foot wooden boat for the past 30 years. These two men know pretty much everything there is to know about the region and its bears. You could spend hours just listening to their stories and experiences, and in fact, I did.
Our adventure began when the three of us would-be wildlife photographers met up at the Vancouver airport and boarded our flight, one of two commercial flights a day, to Prince Rupert. Prince Rupert, which is actually on an island, is about as far north along British Columbia’s coast that you can get before you hit Alaska. After landing you board a barge because the airport is on another island. I spent the first night at the Pillsbury House, Prince Rupert’s first residence completed in 1908. It now operates as a B&B. The lady who runs the place is very warm and is an incredible cook. The 3 course breakfast was outstanding. The next morning we boarded our private float plane (the closest I’ve come to a private jet 😉 ) and flew into the Khutzeymateen. It was my first time on a float plane so I was lucky enough to win the front seat beside the pilot.
As we were approaching the meeting spot in the Khutzeymateen Inlet the pilot suddenly turned the plane sideways so I could have a clear view of the water and said “do you see them?”. All I saw was water. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure what I was looking for. Fortunately he does this all the time and a moment later he somehow spotted them. See the white arrow below that shows the tiny speck that is the Zodiac (small hard-bottomed inflatable boat). He then set a course to land, which seemed to be more like playing chicken with a rubber dingy. After a quick swap of people from boat to plane and plane to boat the plane was off and we were alone with Steve and the bears.The ranger’s station.
It didn’t take long to see our first bear. Almost exactly an hour after we landed we came upon JJ, a 4 year old sub-adult male. Over the years Steve and Dan have given the bears names so that they can keep them straight and keep track of their activities. JJ is extremely comfortable with Steve and the boat and didn’t seem to mind us at all. For all of the bears’ lives they have been used to seeing people quietly seated in little Zodiacs slowly cruising up and down the inlet causing them no harm. To them, we were just like any other animal they would come upon, we were part of their habitat.In addition to the bears, another highlight of the trip was the breathtaking scenery. We were way off the grid. We were miles from the nearest road or power line and long out of range cell service. It was actually quite refreshing to be without internet for a few days. At first it made me twitch but then I got used to it.
Boxy and her 1.5 year old cub.
Junior, a 5 year old sub-adult male.
Not a Grizzly Bear 🙂
This is a bear they call Little Blondie. She is 2.5 years old and was just weaned about 3 weeks before be got there. She hung out near the Sunchaser and we could watch her from the deck. Her older brother is Junior the bear shown two images above.
My trip mates at work.
On day two we caught up with Boxy and her cub again.
Grizzlies are omnivorous and at this time of year most are feasting on sedge grass. Sedge grass contains up to 25% protein and helps them replenish their bodies after hibernation. Before this trip if I were asked to think of what Grizzlies eat an image of a bear with a giant salmon in its mouth would spring to mind. Not one of a Forest Cow! They do of course eat salmon but that is in the late Summer or early Fall and we were there in June.
Me wearing every piece of clothing I brought at once to keep warm. It cycled between moist air, drizzle, and full on rain the whole time we were there. It is a rainforest after all. Sitting for hours in this little boat could be rather chilly but oh so worth it to spend so much time with these majestic creatures. Thanks for snapping this one of me Mack.
The illustrious Sunchaser.
Sub-adult male twins. They, like Little Blondie are also 2.5 years old, but for some reason were weaned really early at a year and a half. These two loved digging for clams. Apparently some bears are clam diggers and some are not. It depends on whether their mother teaches them the art. The whole time we were there the twins hung out on this beach munching on clams, with a few play breaks in between. Nothing like a healthy wrestle with your bro.After two days and two nights in the wilderness, our float plane returned to take us back to Prince Rupert.We arrived in the morning and didn’t leave until the next day so we suited up in our rain gear again and went on a walking tour of the town.
And of course, a store devoted to rain gear. Definitely required here 🙂
A humungous thank you to Steve & Dan for sharing your knowledge and for taking such good care of us. It was truly an incredible experience.
For the photo dorks out there I was using a Canon 5D Mark IV with a 70-200mm F2.8 for the majority of the shots. I also had a Sigma 2x teleconverter that I used with it about half of the time. Most of the wide scenery shots are from my Sony Alpha 7II with a 28mm lens but I also had my 35mm with me for my Canon.