Canada wildlife: Bearing witness

The wait can be long, but the result is definitely worth the effort.

'She got it! She got it!" The grizzly bear lunging for salmon finally lifts her head from the water. Dinner squirms helplessly between her jaws.

We are supposed to stay quiet but my fellow bear-watcher cannot contain herself. "Now she can feed her cubs," she says with relief as mum and her two cubs disappear into rainforest heavy with mist and moss.

We - five Kiwis, three Britons, a Canadian and Australian staying at Great Bear Lodge on British Columbia's wild and remote central coast - are in a simple timber hide overlooking the Nekite River. It's late afternoon, when temperatures cool and bugs emerge, so we are wearing camouflage-print "puffy suits" to stay warm. Gloves protect our hands from insect bites.

Before returning to the lodge tonight, we count eight grizzlies fishing or trailing their mothers through the shallows.

Once bears grow up, they become loners, which is why the territorial adult males are elsewhere, hogging their own streams. It's late August. Countless chum and pink salmon heavy with eggs are making their fateful journey upstream to spawn.

Given that berry season is almost over, bears are devouring as many salmon as possible to build up fat stores to get them through the long Canadian winter.

Bear-watching involves extremes of emotion. After flying in from Vancouver Island - the only way to reach the lodge - we take a bone-rattling ride along an abandoned logging road and within seconds of settling into the hide someone stage-whispers, "There's a bear".

Sure enough, a clever fisher known as The Godmother (all the grizzlies around here have names bestowed on them by locals) is out in the shallows. I sneak a sideways glance at my companions. Victoria is a Briton married to a Canadian who has never before taken her to see a grizzly in the wild. Her face radiates pure joy. Later, she confesses she cried.

The Godmother alternates her fishing efforts with wandering the riverbanks, occasionally launching onto her hind legs to take the last of the summer berries: thick-skinned, powdery-blue stink currants and bright-red globes of huckleberries.

"Bears have really nimble lips," says Meghan, our Canadian guide, as she walks us along the berry-lined road that connect the hides. She calls out "Hey bear" every few minutes so we don't startle anything huge, hairy and hungry.

The track detours around a messy landslide. Annual rainfall that is measured in metres makes this patch of temperate rainforest prone to slips.

The walk is a much-needed chance to stretch our legs. We cannot wander from the floating lodge, which sits atop cedar logs so large you could not wrap your arms around them. A narrow gangway is all that separates the lodge and its guests from bear and cougar country.

Settling into a hide at the confluence of the Nekite and Piper rivers another day, we experience the other extreme of bear-watching: to sit and sit, hearing the meditative sound of water cascading over rocks, but no sightings. Some people doze in their chairs. I have brought my laptop and write to pass the time. Others swear they will be better prepared next time.

Between bear viewing from hides, we boat about among the nooks and crannies of Smith Inlet to see waterfalls and bright-orange sea stars lurking beneath the glassy waters. Seals watch our comings and goings. Earlier in the season, before the salmon start to run, guests do most of their bear-viewing from here, on the water.

Hungry grizzlies emerge from hibernation to spend their days gorging on protein-rich sedges lining the riverbanks. They devour berries as the fruit ripens and, finally, the oil-rich salmon.

"Our schedule is dictated by the bears," says Marg Leehane, an Australian who lives here year round with Tom Rivest, her partner and a fellow co-owner of Great Bear Lodge. This season, Tom and Marg will debut newly expanded accommodation, hosting up to 16 guests at a time throughout September, the peak bear-viewing month.

Among the staff is Canadian chef Glen Gamble. When guests arrive, they are greeted by the aroma of cookies still warm from the oven. Standout meals here include candied salmon and quinoa salad and maple-glazed sockeye salmon baked on cedar planks.

Guests can treat the kitchen as their own, helping themselves to wine and beer - perfect after a day of bear spotting.

The writer travelled courtesy of Great Bear Nature Tours and the Canadian Tourism Commission.

TRIP NOTES 

GETTING THERE

Air Canada has a direct fare to Vancouver for about $1775 low season return from Sydney including tax for the 14-hour 15-minute flight. Melbourne passengers pay $200 more and fly Qantas to connect at Sydney. Port Hardy is a one-hour flight or eight-hour drive from Vancouver (including ferry time). See pacific-coastal.com. Great Bear Lodge is on the British Columbia mainland about 80 kilometres by air from Port Hardy.

STAYING THERE

Great Bear Lodge operates from May to October. Three-night tours, including seaplane transfers, start from $C1860 ($1866) a person, twin share, plus tax. See greatbeartours.com.

MORE INFORMATION

canada.travel.

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