The days are getting shorter, the weather is cooler at night, and the kids are all back in school now. There’s no denying this transition between seasons, summer is slipping into autumn whether we are ready or not. During my son’s first week back, both his French and English teachers gave everyone an assignment to write about their favourite summer experience. I thought I would do the same.
My favourite summer adventure happened right at the beginning of June so I guess that would be considered late spring but I digress… A couple of years ago I found out about Ocean Light II Adventures after seeing some incredible pictures from photographer friends who had gone on some of their trips. I started communicating with the owner, Jenn Broom, and she put me on her wait list for her Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen trip. Last Fall, I found out I got a spot and chose the first week of June. I flew using my Aeroplan points with Air Canada all the way to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. The airport is on an island but there are buses that will take you across a ferry to a terminal right downtown. My accommodation, the quaint Eagle Bluff Bed & Breakfast, was not too far but I chose to take a cab nonetheless because I brought a lot of camera gear. That said, we were under strict guidelines to bring no more than 60lbs total luggage so it was an exercise in restraint to bring only the essential gear and clothing. I was really happy I invested in a new rolling camera backpack by Lowepro (the Pro Runner RL X450 AW II). I’d been using one of their older backpacks for years but travelling through airports when it’s weighed down with big lenses was killing my back. I just wish I’d gotten it sooner!
While Prince Rupert is known as Canada’s rainiest city, I lucked out and got beautiful sunny weather. Being so far north (right near the tip of the Alaska panhandle), that sunshine lasted well past 10pm since we were getting close to the summer solstice. Arriving a day early meant I had time to explore the city and was really impressed with the gardens behind the courthouse. Spring blooms were at their peak! They also have a great museum and shops.
The next morning, I met the rest of the people who would be sharing this experience with me, including a couple from Arizona whose friend had done this trip in the past, a photographer from Ontario, Bill Bickle, who was going on his 6th trip with Ocean Light II and third time on this very same trip and another serious amateur, Rob, (who had better gear than me) from Vancouver who was also a repeat customer. There was also Dave, a photography buff from Montana (who also had newer gear than me) and Kevin and Sheryl, a couple of professional photographers from Toronto who were all first-timers like me.
We took three float planes to get to the sailboat, hence the strict weight restrictions. In my plane I had Rick from Montana and Bill from Ontario. They let me take the jump seat next to our pilot, Olivier from Levis, Québec who managed to score one very cool job! Because we had another clear day, we could fly through the coastal mountains instead of the long way around the coast to the Khutzeymateen Inlet. The flight alone was worth the price of admission. Rick and I literally said when we landed that if we went home now, we’d be happy. It was truly a breathtaking flight. Meanwhile Bill got a little choked up being back in the inlet. I knew right away, this was going to be a really special experience. I was told before I left by my photographer friend Michelle Valberg – an amazing wildlife photographer and Nikon Ambassador – who goes every year to the Khutz, that it would change my life but it’s hard to imagine until you are there and start to see what pristine wilderness means and how wildlife can thrive without human interference. She would prove to be right!
After making our way to the sailboat by zodiac and meeting our captain, Jenn and her partner and our guide Chris, we were assigned our berths and had just enough time to get a little organized and grab our gear before heading out on our first zodiac trip to find some bears. I don’t know what I expected but I certainly didn’t expect to see 14 different bears during our first trip out. I think it was a record. This included some mothers with older cubs, as well as some solitary ones. Chris told us that they rarely see new cubs since being along the shoreline makes them more vulnerable. The biggest threat are other bears. The cubs we saw we at least 2 or 3 years old. Cubs typically will stay with the mothers for the first 3 years.
In the spring, grizzlies fill their bellies with sedge grass (salmon fishing comes later in the fall). They were munching non-stop! I took many, many pictures of bears eating grass. The only other food we saw them eat were clams that they would dig up at low tide with their long claws. During one of these clam digging sessions, a very bold crow kept creeping closer hoping to get some scraps. It’s not hard to see why both these animals play important roles in local indigenous culture and legends.
While I was at times tempted to see just how tasty sedge grass was, Jenn made us the best food to fill our own bellies. Even though this wasn’t a very ‘active’ trip – you don’t exactly want to get off on shore and go for a hike when you know how many bears are around – being outdoors and in nature does have a way of building up an appetite. One of the best meals was freshly caught crab from their own traps. Jenn has been doing trips here since before it was a provincial park and grizzly sanctuary – over 25 years ago – and has really figured out what works well, including the length of the trips, boat rules, what meals and snacks to make based on supplies and most people’s taste. We even had colour coded cups and cloth napkins so it was easier to reuse. We all brought our own sheet, sleeping bag and pillow case to minimize laundry. It’s a well oiled machine!
One thing I learned the hard way was that the Costco rain suit was not quite tough enough for a coastal rainforest. Even though we had some nice weather at times, we also were out in the zodiac during some real downpours. A cheap plastic rain cover worked well on my camera but I might invest in something a little heavier duty if I do more of these trips. I definitely need better rain pants and a jacket with cuffs I can really seal. Holding my camera up meant rain was dripping right down and I was wet up to my elbows. Even though it was June, we were pretty far north so the temperatures were on the cool side. Warm layers like fleece, merino and a puffy down jacket were not overkill.
One the wettest day, I was really starting to get chilled and kept hoping we’d make our way back soon. Finally, when we started to leave the estuary and got to the bend where you can see further into the inlet, we spotted orcas! I forgot about the cold and braced myself as we sped up to try and get a bit closer. There were two other boats in the inlet at the time and the pod was quite spread out. Chris, our driver said it was the first time in about 14 years since he’d seen orcas in the inlet. What a thrill! The next day, we would see a lone humpback whale. At one point, a grizzly stopped to watch it as it swam passed. Some managed to see coastal wolves but I missed them so let’s not talk about that, it’s a bit of a sore spot… We did see a beautiful rainbow and started joking that all that was missing was a unicorn. This adventure was truly magical from start to finish.
The whole trip was only 3 nights on the sailboat, yet it felt like we packed so much in. Everyone got along amazingly well considering we were sharing such a small space together. We were all nature and wildlife (and photography) lovers so already having those things in common and then sharing such a unique experience it really felt like a summer camp for grown ups.
When the morning came where we had to pack up our things and wait for the float planes to pick us up, the sun came out and I looked around in awe at how beautiful this place was and how lucky I was to have seen so many grizzlies living freely and letting us witness their beauty and gentleness when they are often portrayed as terrifying beasts. And so, there I was like Bill on the day we landed, getting completely choked up. I don’t cry often, but I sure was fighting back tears. I am so grateful to have found out about this trip and to Jenn and Chris who really helped make it so special with their knowledge and love for the area (and mad cooking skills) and also to my fellow adventurers who were truly wonderful humans that I’m glad I got to share this with. It reminded me of when I was a teen and left a summer camp in tears after making amazing new friends and memories. I can now understand why they have so many repeat guests and I really hope to be one of them!
As my tears finally started to dry up on the flight back, I noticed that every time we flew over a cloud, a rainbow circle would appear around the shadow of the plane. I had never seen such a thing and managed to get a few photos. I later looked it up and it’s called a ‘glory’ or ‘pilot’s bow’. I really couldn’t have asked for a more magical way to end this trip.
I hope that everyone gets to experience something like this at some point in their lives. I may even organize a group if there’s enough interest! Let me know!
Feel free to reach out if you want help planning a trip this part of the world or have questions!
Below are just a few of my favourites images from this trip. Enjoy!