My special encounter with grizzly bears in British Columbia

As a cub traveller, backpacking around British Columbia and neighbouring Alberta, I was terrified by the thought of bears. I devoured all the bear-safety literature I could get my paws on before venturing onto hiking trails. 

I never went so far as to hang bells off my backpack or buy a can of bear spray, but I did stomp loudly along the trails, hoping to scare off any bear.

But nowadays, I travel to Canada to actively look for bears. This was the idea when a friend and I rented an RV (recreational vehicle) to drive around the Yukon, the sparsely populated territory between British Columbia and the Arctic Ocean.

We scanned the meadows and hillsides as we cruised around. But no bears. From Whitehorse, off to the peaks of Tombstone Territorial Park, where signs declared a trail closed due to bears being out and about. We didn't see them. Crestfallen, we pushed on to Dawson City, a kooky goldrush-era town where the wildest thing is a human toe in a whiskey glass.

We detoured through Alaska before circling back into the lower Yukon, bound for Kluane National Park. And it was here, after coming almost full circle, that we hit the jackpot. A golden-furred grizzly cub was grazing the pretty wildflowers framing the road, mama bear nearby, keeping an eye on junior. 

We pulled over, soaking up the glorious sight from the safety of our vehicle, and wondered why we'd looked so hard when they were so visible. We learnt that if any vehicle had pulled onto the verge and parked, we should too – there was usually a bear to see.

Back in Australia, just when I think that perhaps I've seen enough bears for one lifetime, I hear about Great Bear Lodge, nestled within the mossdraped Great Bear Rainforest of central British Columbia (the province is home to about half the country's grizzly population). The lodge promises up-close encounters with coastal grizzlies – larger than their inland counterparts because they enjoy access to so much quality food. 

After the bears emerge from hibernation, they graze on sedges, succulents and grasses lining the estuaries. As the days warm and lengthen, they stand on their hind legs to reach huckleberries and stink currants, plucking them from the bushes with their nimble lips. Then, as salmon return to the streams to spawn, the bears go fishing.

The lodge is quite remote. You fly to Port Hardy, at the northern tip of Vancouver Island, and take a seaplane 80 kilometres back to the mainland, but this is part of its charm. After arrival, we don padded camouflage suits – sitting still for hours can be chilly – and head out on our first bear safari.

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Within a minute of settling into our riverside timber hide, donning gloves and tying a scarf over our faces to ward off mosquitoes, someone whispers that a bear is approaching the Nekite River's shallow waters. We watch her fish, unsuccessfully, before she disappears back into the rainforest. The bears keep coming – we count eight grizzly mothers and cubs, fishing and frolicking, by the time we call it a day.

My favourite moment is watching a bear lunge for a salmon – and seeing her lift her head with her target wriggling between her jaws. On the way back to the lodge one guest, whose lifelong dream was to see a grizzly in the wild, confesses that she cried.

It's extraordinary to sit so close to these magnificent beasts and watch how they behave in the wild.

Travellers more pressed for time can find one of the world's most accessible grizzly bear encounters at Grouse Mountain, a 15-minute drive from downtown Vancouver. The Refuge for Endangered Wildlife, a research, education and conservation centre that protects at-risk wildlife, is home to two male grizzlies, Grinder and Coola.

Both were found as cubs in 2001. Grinder was wandering along a road in eastern British Columbia, weighing just 4½ kilograms. Despite the tough beginning, he's now the refuge's dominant bear. 

Coola's mother was killed by a truck – conservation officers found him next to her body. Today, he chills out in a pond and plays with his "bath toys" – a log and a favourite rock.

The refuge's Breakfast with the Bears experience includes access to the bears' habitat and a ranger talk. Visitors can also make like a bear and guzzle down a breakfast of berries and smoked salmon.

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