Saturday, June 21, 2008
Face-to-Face With the Grizzly
Tours to view bears up close in the wilderness of British Columbia are on the rise
By CANDACE JACKSON
Nekite Valley, British Columbia
No matter how scary it may look, our guide tells us, if a grizzly bear gets close, don't run.
WSJ's Candice Jackson heads to British Columbia on a bear viewing expedition with Great Bear Nature Tours. (June 20)
As we spot our first bear tracks in the mud later that evening, it's clear that we're in bear country now -- and there isn't much to run to. We'll spend the next few nights in one of the most remote corners of the vast wilderness of British Columbia, a 40-minute seaplane ride from the nearest fishing village at a bear-viewing lodge built on a barge. In the mornings, we'll rise early to look for the bears, trekking through grassy marshes and boating along shallow inlets in one of the few places where grizzlies still outnumber humans. Our guide is an unarmed biologist.
Trips such as this one, offering tourists an up-close view of one of nature's largest predators in its natural habitat, are a fast-growing niche in British Columbia's eco-tourism industry. Operators say the tours are safer than they sound: The bears, despite their reputation, aren't prone to attack -- as long as they are approached correctly. And though bear hunting still draws tourists to Canada, bear viewing -- where guests shoot cameras, not rifles -- is angling to become the next big thing.
"We get a lot of people who have done the whole safari circuit," says Tom Rivest, co-owner of the Great Bear Nature Tours and my guide on a visit earlier this month. Four years ago, Mr. Rivest opened his five-bedroom bear-viewing lodge along British Columbia's Smith Inlet. During the past two or three years, he says, business has increased by about 25% a year. "There's a huge market out there who have come of age watching nature documentaries, and they're retiring and ready to travel," he says.
Great Bear Nature Tours
Most bear tour guides walk through the wilderness unarmed. Guides say they can respond without force in situations where bears are agitated, because they know how to read bears' body language and subtle behavioral signs. The guides say they don't back down when challenged, and they talk to the bears in a firm, but relaxed, voice. Though our remote location -- 50 miles from the closest town, Port Hardy -- meant that if something did go wrong, help would probably be a long time coming.
Bear attacks are uncommon. Bears in British Columbia have caused on average fewer than seven injuries a year, and fewer than one death a year, from 1985 to 2007, says Lance Sundquist, a conservation officer with the provincial government. Attacks on guided viewing tours are extremely rare, says Stephen Herrero, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary and author of "Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance." Tours usually take place where food, such as wild salmon, is plentiful, so the bears are not apt to feel threatened. As a safety precaution, most guides carry pepper spray, which Prof. Herrero says is effective in avoiding 80% to 90% of bear attacks.
Mr. Rivest says he's never used the bear spray he carries. Still, it gives me some comfort when he tells me about Beatrice, a grizzly who charged at a New Zealand film crew taking a tour last summer. Another guide talked the bear into backing off.
Bear viewers wait for a sighting.
Then we spotted Beatrice for ourselves. Mr. Rivest paddled our boat slowly toward her. At first, the only thing I could make out in the distance was what looked like a moving rock. But as we got closer, I could hear her chewing on sedge grass and no longer needed the zoom on my camera lens to get a close shot. She turned her blond head to look in our direction a couple of times, but mostly we just watched, whispering occasionally but mostly remaining silent, as she grazed and the sun went down. The inlet was still, with the entire landscape reflected in reverse on the water's surface.
"It was pretty awesome to see the bear in its natural form," says Isabella Ponder, a 25-year-old social worker from Sydney who heard about the grizzly bear viewing lodge on an Australian travel show. "The grizzlies looked a little more cuddly than I'd expected." She and her husband honeymooned in Egypt a couple years ago, and ever since, she says, they look for vacation adventures.
The bear tour, spectacular though it was, might not be for everyone. We spent up to four hours at a time floating around in small boats. It rained a lot. The lodge provided waterproof gear and wool socks -- which was good, because daytime highs in June were only in the 50s. And there was no guarantee we'd actually see a bear. We spent about eight hours in pursuit before a bear finally stuck around long enough for us to get a close look. In the meantime, though, we'd spotted minks, seals and bald eagles.
Some people worry that bear watching's growing popularity might be harmful to bears. "If [viewing] becomes too prevalent in an area, the bears can become habituated to the human presence and lose their respect of humans," says Mel Arnold, the president of British Columbia Wildlife Federation, a pro-hunting group that says it doesn't oppose bear viewing as long as the tours co-exist with hunters.
That isn't possible, according to some conservationists and tour operators. Dean Wyatt, who converted an old fishing lodge into a bear-viewing operation, the Knight Inlet Lodge, in 1998, favors a ban on hunting in areas where viewing tours operate. "It's not ethical to hunt the same population that you view," says Chris Genovali, executive director of the Raincoast Conservation Society.
Julius Strauss bought a bed-and-breakfast in British Columbia's Selkirk Mountains in 2006. After moving in and noticing bears all over the area, he and his wife converted the B&B into a bear- and wilderness-viewing lodge called Grizzly Bear Ranch. Guests stay in one of three wooden cabins and take rafting trips and walking tours that can include watching grizzly bears scoop salmon out of a nearby river in the fall. "More and more tourists want to see grizzly bears," he says. "And more want to take eco-holidays, where they're not just traipsing around where everyone's been."
For years, tourists have been thronging to Brooks Falls, in Katmai National Park in Alaska, to watch bears swipe at salmon as they swim to upstream-spawning grounds. British Columbia's bear-viewing operators say they offer a more intimate, immersive experience. Most take just a handful of guests, who spend the night in lodges and learn more about bears at evening lectures. Many lodges cater to travelers who want a semi-luxurious rustic experience, with fine wine and king-size beds.
British Columbia is home to an estimated 17,000 to 20,000 grizzly bears, or roughly 30% of North America's total brown-bear population, says Prof. Herrero. Biologists and bear guides say in some regions their numbers have dwindled recently, mostly because of habitat loss. Mr. Rivest says as many as 60 bears lived nearby when his lodge opened four years ago; the population last summer was down to about 40, he says.
People from outside British Columbia can hunt there only with a guide; British Columbian hunters, if they are licensed and win a lottery, may stalk grizzly bears without a guide. Five years ago, several bear-watching tour operators formed a trade group -- the Commercial Bear Viewing Association -- to set safety guidelines and to lobby against hunting. They say bear watching makes more economic sense: A bear can be observed many times over, but it can be killed only once. Mr. Arnold, of the British Columbia Wildlife Federation, says hunting contributes more than 1,700 jobs and more than $164 million of indirect spending in the region, citing 2003 numbers. Hunting's economic value, especially to local, rural economies, he says, "is huge."
Most bear-viewing tour operators want to stay off hunters' radar, for fear of losing their bear population and dodging bullets while out scouting for bears. Guides at Great Bear Nature Tours speak in code over their walkie-talkies when talking about a bear in the vicinity (a "bald eagle" is a grizzly bear), in case hunters are listening on their citizens' band radios. The owners of Grizzly Bear Ranch refuse to reveal their exact location until guests book.
At least one bear-hunting outfitter has crossed over. Leonard Ellis worked as a hunting guide for nearly 30 years around the coastal fishing village of Bella Coola but, after being pressured from conservation groups and bear-viewing tour operators, he says he agreed to sell the groups his hunting rights, effectively ending hunting tourism on his land.
Since then, Mr. Ellis has been leading bear-viewing tours. Next weekend, he'll open an overnight lodge, Bella Coola Grizzly Tours, with four wilderness cabins and its own salmon smokehouse. He still carries a rifle for safety reasons, he says. (Last month, Bella Coola made national news when a forest surveyor walking through the woods alone was mauled by a bear and badly injured.) Still, he says, bear viewing "just makes good business sense. ... It's the same thing as hunting, really. You're just shooting them with a camera."
TRIP PLANNER: GRIZZLY TRAIL
Where to Stay
[Grizzly Bear Ranch]
Inside a cabin at the Grizzly Bear Ranch
Knight Inlet Lodge, the region's largest bear-viewing operation, has 15 rooms and viewing stands where small groups of guests can watch grizzlies; double rooms start at US$1,870 for a two-night package including tours (grizzlytours.com). Great Bear Nature Tours takes up to 10 guests with rustic but upscale accommodations in a lodge on a floating barge; double rooms start at $1,418 per night including tours (greatbeartours.com). Farther in British Columbia's interior is Grizzly Bear Ranch, with wildlife tours in summer and grizzly-bear viewing from mid-September through October; double rooms start at $1,969 for four-night packages (grizzlybearranch.ca). Guests stay in three private guest cabins with sundecks, and food is mostly locally sourced.
How to Get There
For Knight Inlet Lodge, fly into Vancouver (there are nonstop flights from the Midwest and the West Coast). Book a flight on Pacific Coastal Airlines to Campbell River, a town on the Vancouver Island's east coast. Stays include a night in town: A seaplane from the lodge picks up guests the next morning. To get to Great Bear Lodge, where I stayed, fly or drive from Vancouver to Port Hardy, a small town on Vancouver Island's northern tip; a seaplane picks up guests in the afternoon. Grizzly Bear Ranch, in the Selkirk Mountains, is a full day's drive from Calgary or Vancouver, or a half-day's drive from Spokane, Wash.
When to Go
Most British Columbia tours operate from late spring until fall. During spring -- which lasts through June in some locations -- grizzly bears feed in low-lying grass areas and are usually viewed from small boats. In fall, bear-viewing takes place alongside rivers and streams where the bears scoop salmon.