Words: Lucy Connors
150 miles north of Vancouver lies the Great Bear Rainforest – the largest intact temperate rainforest left in the world. This land belongs to five of the First Nation Canadian indigenous peoples: Da’naxda’xw Awaetlala, Mamalilikulla, Tlowitsis, Wei Wai Kum, and K’ómoks. In the southern reaches of this rainforest lies Knight Inlet, British Colombia's longest fjord, and also the home of a distinct floating lodge that will help you reconnect with nature, in the most candid way possible.
"The bear paid us no heed and walked straight on past, simply because they have had no reason to fear or expect anything from humans."
To experience the dramatic landscape of Knight Inlet, there is only one place to stay, the destinations namesake: Knight Inlet Lodge. The lodge is Canada’s premier Grizzly Bear viewing lodge, offering a unique opportunity to see these amazing creatures in the wild, unaffected by human presence as they have so often been. The First Nations have shared ownership of the lodge and use their ancient knowledge to bring together environmental stewardship and conservation capabilities little seen elsewhere. The lodge has undertaken projects investigating the relationships between Grizzlies and humans and how to prevent the violent interactions that are not the natural instinct of a bear. Furthermore, the pioneering work of the lodge helped the campaign to ban Grizzly Bear trophy hunting in British Columbia in 2017. The lodge has also played a huge part in the British Columbia Wild Salmon Restoration Project, regenerating the population of salmon and at the same time providing greater sustenance for the bears.
To arrive, you will need to cram into a vintage 1956 de Havilland Otter floatplane from Campbell River. It is the only accessible route to Knight’s Inlet from Vancouver Island, other than a five-hour boat trip, and it is quite an intense twenty minutes of turbulent, below-cloud flight. If you’re lucky (or respond fast enough) you may get the opportunity to sit in the cockpit and help ‘navigate’ over the immense trees and hills that make up each island dotted around the coastlines, eventually coming to land on the water outside of the lodge. I make no exaggeration when I tell you, you will be in awe at the beauty and sublimity of your surroundings. Surrounded by cedars more than 1000 years old, with not even a whisper of phone service or Wi-Fi or any other connection to the outside world, you are truly able to feel the loneliness and vastness of the natural world as it was supposed to be.
Our timing could not have been more perfect for this trip; arriving on the first day of the season in which the viewing hides above the river were open. The stands can only be used during salmon season and are situated on the spot in which the bears are able to get their most efficient and nutritious food source, right where the fish spawn. To get to the stands you must take an old bus through the forest on a beaten track and hope the bears are there waiting. In fact, we almost got too lucky, as when Dean - one of our guides – stepped off the bus towards the gated stands, a bear stepped out from under the structure right in front of us. The bear paid us no heed and walked straight on past, simply because they have had no reason to fear or expect anything from humans, and thus are not threatened by our presence.
"Any visit to the fjord will be unforgettable and reinforce the breath-taking majesty of the natural world."
We spent two hours on this viewing platform and saw seven bears, most of whom were females and stayed around us, fishing and circling back between river bends for the entire time. One young male exhibited a display of dominance and hierarchy, pushing a female bear from her prime position at the top end of the river. Additionally one female gave us a demonstration of how to use a rubbing tree; dancing and writhing against it to leave her scent in the sap and tell bears both, that she had been there, and that it was a spot of significance. The guides were all incredibly knowledgeable, but also as enthusiastic and grateful to be there as everyone else, despite most of them having done multiple seasons at the lodge.
‘Busy at all times’ is Knight Inlet’s favourite phrase, and they were not short on activities to keep you occupied and enthralled with the majesty of the place. One such unmissable opportunity is the use of a motorboat that takes you up the Glendale River in search of bears emerging from the tall brush to eat the sedge grass which lines the bank. There is no shortage of evidence that the bears are often there, and the grass is so tall that you do not see one until their ears pop up right in front of you. This is a different kind of experience compared to the close proximity and numerous encounters of the stands. The waiting and anticipation of spotting a grizzly get slowly closer through binoculars is a truly mesmerising and surreal experience. There is, however, a 50m rule both for safety and for the comfort of the bears.
"Where rainbows erupted out of turquoise water, and waterfalls fell through the trees, and, if you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of orcas or a humpback whale."
While you might be there for the bears, the isolation of this sanctuary means there is no shortage of other wildlife; harbour porpoises, seals, sea lions, bald eagles are all part of the habitat there. You can take a boat trip around the harbour, where rainbows erupted out of turquoise water, and waterfalls fell through the trees, and, if you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of orcas or a humpback whale.
Everything about Knight Inlet is spectacular, from, the wildlife and guides, to the rooms and the food. Finally, it would be remiss to not give the food a special mention! Fresh ingredients are flown in daily and locally, sustainably caught seafood is their specialty and you can expect wild pacific salmon and crab legs served at dinner alongside local wine and mouth-watering side dishes. The chefs are extremely talented, and the guides ensure that with all the fresh air you’ll have worked up an appetite and be ready to indulge.
Knight Inlet is an extraordinary place in the world, and a very special part of the ecosystem it inhabits. The values of respecting the sacred land championed by the First Nations, to the undertaking of incredible environmental stewardship by the guides as well as visitors, has resulted in Knight Inlet safeguarding its spectacular beauty, ensuring that any visit to the fjord will be unforgettable and reinforce the breath-taking majesty of the natural world.
Photos: Knight Inlet Lodge