“Ask the Grandfathers to help you,” said Old Hands with a crooked smile.
I struggle with his suggestion.
“Won’t it seem kind of selfish?”
The elder Shoshone Medicine Man thinks a moment. “Tell them you want to take pictures of our animals so others will be inspired to protect them,” he offers with a wink.
I’ve spent the last two hours with Old Hands on the roof deck of Vancouver’s Skwachays Lodge, the country’s first Aboriginal art hotel, immersed in a sweat ceremony that is a centuries-old First Nations tradition.
The ritual purifies the mind, body, and soul and is a conduit for the living to speak to the Creator and their ancestors, or as Old Hands’ calls them, the Grandfathers.
I’d mentioned I was off to Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest to explore some of the 6 million hectares ( about the size of Ireland) of protected land on the Pacific Coast of British Columbia, and the native territory of twenty-six Canadian First Nations going back thousands of years.
It’s North America’s largest coastal temperate rainforest and the stuff of legends for its beauty, biodiversity, and countless species of wildlife, Still surprisingly, few outside Canada seem to know it exists.
I told Old Hands I was eager to see the whales, eagles, grizzlies, and especially the rare Spirit Bear who live there. But with all wildlife viewing, it’s a crapshoot, nothing is guaranteed.
“Ask the Grandfathers.”
Heeding Old Hands’ Words
Two days later, it’s almost dawn and I’m standing alone at the bow of Cascadia, a 138-foot, 12 cabin catamaran owned and operated by Maple Leaf Adventures, my home for the next seven days as the company’s invited guest.
Cascadia is the largest and most recent addition to Maple Leaf’s fleet of three distinctive vessels, including the signature Maple Leaf, a majestic 92-foot schooner, and the Swell, a charming 88-foot converted tugboat.
Across the water is a boulder-strewn shore bordering a forest of Sitka pine, cedar, and hemlock so thick it’s hard to imagine how anything manages to squeeze between the trunks. The trees, in turn, carpet a mountain range that surrounds McKinley Inlet, where we are anchored.
Feeling a little hokey but inspired by my visit with Old Hands, I close my eyes, take a deep, meditative breath, and whisper to the Grandfathers, asking them to help me photograph the extraordinary wildlife I’ve heard so much about.
It wasn’t long before they answered.
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“We have a whale situation,” Captain Dave’s voice sputters over the radio. My ears perk up at the mention of whales.
After two hours exploring a few narrow estuaries better suited to the ship’s two tenders, we are making our way back to Cascadia adrift at the north end of Squally Channel, waiting for our arrival.
As we get closer, we see three humpback whales logging on the surface close to the ship, examining Cascadia as if she’s an exhibit at a human museum for cetaceans.
A pectoral fin taps the vessel like a chef thumps a melon, while further ahead, a Kia-sized fluke gracefully rises out of the waves then silently slips beneath the hull.
My heart races and I’m anxious for Philip, our expedition leader, to move the tender closer, but instead, he tells us we have to maintain our distance.
Boaters by law must stay 100 meters (~300ft) away from whales, but there isn’t any marine life legislation requiring the humpbacks to do the same.
Technically, the Cascadia should move, and if her engines had been on she would have, but to engage the props now risks injuring the humpbacks.
We watch as an excited crew runs from the port side to starboard and back again to gawk at the humpbacks. I’m green-eyed with envy that they’re able to capture photos of the visitors up close.
“Oh man, oh man, I wish I were on the ship!” I whine. (I whine quite a bit over the next few minutes––it’s not one of my finer moments.) We all stand, straining to get a better look.
Then….nothing. We wait, holding our breath, but the whales have disappeared. I drop to my seat like a bag of potatoes, miserable.
An Unexpected Visit
I’m in the middle of putting away my cameras when I hear a loud exhalation, followed by the cool spray of a fine fishy mist. I look up just in time to see large grey nostrils next to the boat seal shut then sink under the waves. Looks like we’re the next exhibit!
A surfboard-sized fin juts out of the water then smacks the waves, shooting the salty sea into the air. Another whoosh and a different whale blows to our starboard. It’s so close that I could run my hand over its dark grey skin, but I resist.
Another whale swims lengthwise under our boat starting at the stern. I lay my chest over the tender’s bow to photograph it from above as the humpback emerges.
Slowly, a long ridged head dotted with tubercles––those knobby things––is replaced by a smooth broad back, tapering as it reaches the fluke, then fades from view.
The whales stay for 10 minutes or so then move off, blowing 50 feet from the tender heading toward the horizon, bringing our magical encounter to a close.
Thank you, Grandfathers.
Gathered in Cascadia’s homey wood-paneled salon, the whales are all we can talk about. And on our first day no less! Freshly showered with cocktails in hand, we are still wired from the experience.
At dinner, the conversation is much the same. We talk over each other as Chef Jo Carmel serves a roasted beet appetizer with crostini, whipped goat cheese, and candied pecans.
By the time we start our entree of Halibut with cauliflower purée and brussels sprouts coulis, our conversation turns biographical.
I learn we are an eclectic mix of twos (a few couples, a mother-daughter duo), and those of us, who Philip describes as, “unencumbered by a partner.” We hail from around the globe ranging in age from 18 to 91.
Fascinating Bubble-Net Feeding
The next night as the light fades, the Grandfathers divine an encore at the mouth of Barnard Cove. Six humpbacks are engaged in a fascinating coordinated hunt called bubble-net feeding.
A lead whale locates a school of fish and disorients them by blowing a spiral cylinder of bubbles above them.
A second whale synchronizes the group with a pulsating siren call and when the time is right, the sound transforms into a blood-curdling screech paralyzing their prey with fear.
(Check out this audio file of our encounter.)
Next, the whales charge from all sides driving the fish into the spiral where they can’t escape. The humpbacks follow mouths open, filling their pleated gullets until, together, they break the surface driven by their momentum.
Over and over again, this miraculous show plays on.
A hydrophone hanging off the tender enables us to hear the whales and we anxiously wait for the shriek that signals the whales are soon to emerge. The question is where?
Philip points to a large flock of seagulls flying overhead. “They’ll circle above the spot where the whales will pop up, hoping to scavenge a meal.”
Watching the action, I’m as giddy as a child going to Disney World for the first time.
Exploring the Rainforest
For most of our journey, the Canadian rainforest lives up to its name with cloudy skies and heavy showers. Ribbons of fog lay on the treetops like Christmas lights and fill the landscape’s nooks and crannies with diaphanous puffs of white. I’m awestruck by the deep, rich reflections spread out before us. With no other boats to disturb the water, the view is magnificent.
In a moment of fleeting sun, we come upon a colony of fat, barking sea lions hauled out on Ashtown island. We circle, watching as they wobble about, nip at each other, and seemingly argue about everything. When we navigate downwind, their stench singes my nasal passages and my eyes tear.
We observe bald eagles nearly every day along with many other impressive birds whose names I can’t begin to remember.
We watch fin whales (the second largest whale in the world) blow mist high into the air in forceful spurts.
One afternoon, Dall porpoises swim between Cascadia’s two hulls––tailfins flapping madly––to play in her bow waves. Their compact black and white bodies breaking the surface ahead of the ship for two seconds at the most, then they peel off to one side or the other and disappear.
We walk the shell-strewn Wolf Beach on Campania Island, looking for hints of the namesake beast. A friend on a previous cruise saw the pack, but we’re not as lucky.
We spend a tranquil few hours cruising the milky blue-green meltwater leading to Chief Matthew’s Bay where we see a sliver of a glacier peeking from behind a mountaintop.
The clouds are stuck on drizzle and tiny rivulets stream off my rain gear, miniatures of the more than a dozen show-stopping waterfalls we pass. Gushing millions of gallons down 4,000 feet of granite cliffs the force carves meandering paths through the trees rising up from the rock.
From a considerable distance, a bewildered young grizzly stares at us from the mossy shore. Seconds gliding down the river, a hulking, older black bear scratches its back against a tree. Wiser and more experienced, he ignores us completely.
Another time, a large black dot trailed by two tiny black dots stroll out of the woods, sniff the air, then return to the trees.
On our last day and we hunker down on Gribbell Island, a former logging base closed decades ago, and returned to the Gitga’at First Nation. It is best known for being one of the few places in the B.C. rainforest you can find the white Kermode bear a.k.a the “Spirit Bear.”
Contrary to what most people think, the Kermode Bear is not albino; it’s a white (ivory really) black bear born with a recessive gene affecting melanin production. The indigenous peoples consider the Spirit Bear sacred.
Only 10% of the black bear population is Kermode, and the Great Bear Rainforest is the only place in the world you’ll find them.
We plan to spend the next eight hours on two raised viewing platforms next to a thriving salmon run and wait for bears. Any sightings would make me happy, but a Kermode bear would be the biggest, fattest, cherry on top of this expedition.
I’ve left the Grandfathers alone since the bubble net feeding, but since our trip is almost over, I risk being thought too greedy and in a low whisper and ask for one more thing: a Spirit Bear.
We walk single file along a narrow path through a quarter-mile of forest with two Gitga’at guides bookending our group.
A few yards from our destination our lead guide stops and turns toward us holding a finger to his lips. “It’s the Spirit Bear.”
“Right,” I thought incredulously, but through the trees, to my amazement, is a sopping wet Kermode bear ankle-deep in the river, fishing.
“His name is Boss.”
Ignoring our presence, Boss hunts while we make for the covered platform up ahead where I nab a seat at the front, my legs dangling over the edge.
Boss ambles in front of us, head down, scanning the water.
I’m over the moon.
He is plump with deep-set brown eyes rimmed by light pink skin that also covers his nose. A wide collar of orange-tinted fur tapers into a stripe down his back that extends to his stubby tail. (According to Philip the discoloration is caused by something in his diet.)
He doesn’t stay long before strolling out of sight around a bend. I have no time to be disappointed because seconds later we spot a large black bear heading our way from the opposite direction.
As he nears, we watch him zero in on a glistening pink salmon and dives after it, paws, and claws outstretched, parting the water like the Red Sea. The bear emerges with the salmon clamped in its mouth, its body flapping madly, but the bear sinks its teeth deeper into its flesh and its body goes limp.
The bear drops the carcass on the moss-covered bank, then disembowels it, blood staining his snout.
And so it goes for the next seven hours. Miraculously, for the length of our stay, we only have 20 minutes bear-free.
Even Philip who has visited Gribbell Island countless times before is amazed. It’s a splendid location for bears but the consistency and number are unusual, and we’re eating it up.
Our record is five bears at one time, including a mother and two cubs, staggered along the river.
Our week-long adventure crescendos when Boss returns, splashing after his prey in front of us for nearly an hour.
In wishing us a fond farewell, the Grandfathers have pulled out all the stops.
I was a guest of Maple Leaf Adventures but this post was neither viewed nor reviewed prior to publishing. Words and sentiment are my own.
The Facts You Need to Know For Your Own Adventure
Maple Leaf Adventure specializes in small boat expeditions where the natural environment, wildlife, and activities are the focus, not ports.
The tourism board at the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast of which the Great Bear Rainforest is a part, has put together this great Know Before You Go information page for travelers thinking about visiting in 2021/22.
How To Get To The Great Bear Rainforest
FLY Overview: Vancouver National Airport (YVR) to Terrace Airport (YXT) (about an hour and a half flight) to Kitimat Village (35-minute drive by shuttle arranged by Maple Leaf adventures. There is a $30.00 fee.)
Travelers should fly into Vancouver and expect to stay overnight in order to catch the turboprop plane the next morning for Terrace B.C. where you’ll catch the shuttle to Kitimat Village. (For the greatest convenience, stay at the Fairmont Vancouver Airport located within the terminal. It’s lovely. )
Check out this great post on the perfect one, two, and three – day Vancouver itineraries.
Kitimat – MK Bay Marina
Kitimat is the birthplace of the Haisla Nation and where you’ll board Cascadia sometime after 3 pm., which may mean hanging out at the local everything store slash café for a couple of hours after you arrive.
138 feet Catamaran – Large enough to be plenty spacious for guests but small enough to be nimble in the narrow channels within the Great Bear Rainforest.
Cascadia is big enough for 24 guests to feel there is plenty of space, yet small enough to navigate channels and fjords that larger boats cannot.
Salon / Dining
The Salon is an expansive indoor wood-paneled room with a dining area, a bar and large wrap-around windows. When the weather was questionable, which was a lot, the salon is where everyone hung out. The leather couches and chairs were cozy and comfortable.
The dining area consisted of two elegant long wood tables with comfy leather padded chairs.
In the center of the room was a giant plasma TV that displayed a map of the rainforest and GPS of our position in real-time. It was also used for lectures.
Three sets of stairs lead to a few of the cabins and the galley below.
Outdoor Terrace Lounge
There’s a large deck at the stern with a BBQ grill and tables for al fresco dining. The deck also has walkways leading to the bow and viewing positions there.
Top Deck and Hot Tub
A small deck in comparison to the main deck, the top deck sports lounge chairs and a hot tub.
I stayed in the Salt Spring cabin (Category 1) below the main deck closest to the stern and accessed by about 15 steps.
The room is very basic but light, airy and spacious with two comfy twin beds and a small modern bathroom with shower.
There are two large round portholes at the water line.
Cabins on the main deck level are more coveted but I’m less of a fan on boats where rooms open to traffic areas. I want as much light as possible, and if I’m constantly closing my drapes for privacy it defeats the purpose.
When I boarded, I noticed a musty smell in my room so the captain had a dehumidifier brought in, which worked on the smell but was on the loud side.
The tenders accommodate 10 passengers each but it’s a snug fit. The bow has a very cool drawbridge for landings making it really easy to board and disembark when out in the field.
The only covering is for the captain, so if it rains, you’re getting wet. You must have waterproof gear from top to bottom. For those sitting near the roof of the captain’s enclosure, it’s important to note that the rain will stream off the roof making it more intense. Wearing a waterproof hat will keep you dryer than relying on the hood of your jacket. I learned this the hard way.
The MV Cascadia was run by 10 staff and crew including Captain Dave Hollis, Expedition Leader, Phil Stone; Naturalist Michelle Harnett, Chef Jonathan Carmel, and Sous Chef, Antoine Sauve. As a team, they were very helpful, attentive, and friendly.
Expedition Leader and Naturalist: Phil and Michelle are with guests the most, captaining the tenders, leading excursions, and eating meals with us. Both were very nice and knowledgeable.
In a perfect world, Phil would have been more intuitive about guest needs. For example, on very chilly, rainy days, he seemed not to consider that guests were effectively sitting in pools of cold water on the tenders and we were freezing. In certain circumstances, what we were looking at was the same as what we would have seen from Cascadia in a more comfortable situation. A simple check-in with guests would have been helpful.
(Staff and crew are potentially different depending on departure date and ship.)
Average Day Aboard the Cascadia
Locations visited within the Great Bear Rainforest are variable depending on season and weather. Every evening, we would refer to the whiteboard (example above) for the next days’ schedule. Times are approximate.
7: 30 am
Light Breakfast (cereals, muffins, granola, yogurt) served in the salon.
Sit-Down Hot Breakfast
First activity of the day (Could be a tender cruise, kayak, exploration of a beach, wildlife viewing)
Lunch on Cascadia
Downtime on The Ship (Cascadia is usually navigating to afternoon excursion location so it’s great time for views)
Second Excursion (Could be a tender cruise, kayak, exploration of a beach, wildlife viewing)
Cocktails (Light bites and your favorite alcohol)
Sit Down Dinner (Update on plans for the next day)
Free Time (Reading in the salon, Hot tub, brief swim)
Food: You’re In For A Treat
The food was prepared fresh from locally-sourced ingredients and absolutely delicious! It’s as simple as that. Below are some examples of what Chef Carmel treated us to. Red and white wines are served with dinner.
Maple Leaf Adventures is a Leader in Sustainability
Kevin and Maureen Smith, owners of Maple Leaf Adventures since 2001, have lived in B.C. for over 25 – years and are avid conservationists who support the local economy by employing people who live in the region and working with community vendors
As a twenty-something guide for the original owners of Maple Leaf Adventures, Kevin was one of the first to introduce the beauty of the Great Bear Rainforest to travelers in hopes of inspiring proactive conservation efforts.
Kevin also took part in the five-year negotiations with the B.C. Government––led by the indigenous First Nations––to bring about the historic Great Bear Rainforest Agreement in 2016. A landmark settlement putting aside more than 6.4 million hectares (around 25,000 square miles)–– which is approximately 85% of the forest, and includes “70% of first-growth over time.”
“The agreement also addresses First Nations’ cultural heritage resources, freshwater ecosystems, and wildlife habitat.”B.C. Website
Kevin is on the Board of Directors of the Commercial Bear Viewing Association, which develops best practices and manages a guide certification program that ensures sustainable, safe, and incident-free bear viewing.
Maple Leaf Adventures joins BC’s Amazing Coastal Cleanup
Though Covid has shut down tourism around the world, the team at Maple Leaf Adventures has not sat idle. They jumped at the opportunity to join forces with other BC small ship tour companies for a six-week Marine Debris Removal Initiative (MDRI) to clean up the remote outer coast of the Great Bear Rainforest. With the blessing of the indigenous leaders in the region and funded by the provincial Ministry of Environment & Climate Change Strategy, the group is putting their skills and vessels to good use and expect to remove between 75 and 100 tons of marine waste, including plastics.
What to Pack (The Must-Haves)
Layers are your best bet. When the sun is shining, it’s hot. When clouds appear, it can be windy and chilly, especially on the water.
Medium to heavyweight long underwear is a must.
DEFINITELY bring a raincoat, rain pants, rain hat, and waterproof gloves. You’ll regret it if you don’t. When you’re on the tenders there’s no cover, and unless there’s a safety issue, excursions go out rain or shine. Are you required to go? No. But why go if you’re not prepared to embrace the elements? (See above notes on “Tenders” for more detailed information.)
Maple Leaf Adventures provides rubber boots for activities that you’ll keep in your cabin throughout the week. If you want extra support, bring your own insoles. For walking about the ship, bring a soft leisure shoe––no hard soles on deck.
At least one cozy fleece or sweater to wrap yourself in when you’re hanging out in the salon.
Warm Headband or Cap
I brought a wool headband that I wore under my hat to keep my ears warm. If you have sensitive ears as I do, you may want to do the same, or bring a warm cap that will fit under your rain hat.
Waterproof Daypack For Excursions
You’ll want to carry a water bottle, camera, sunscreen, etc. for excursions as they may last 3-4 hours. Make it waterproof because, as I mentioned above, the tenders are not covered, and if it rains, there’s no way it won’t get wet.
The crew and some guests would jump in the cold cold water at night and then hightail it to the hot tub. Good fun was had by all.
TIP: Once your trip is confirmed, Maple Leaf will send you a pdf packing list with everything in detail. They also have a cute video you can reference.
Photographing Great Bear Rainforest Animals
You’ll never be at a loss for what to photograph but it requires some finessing.
On the tenders where most of the closer (relatively) wildlife viewing takes place, space is tight so you have to think strategically and be comfortable juggling your gear is you’re a gear head like me.
If you’re a traveler who likes to take photos when on vacation but it’s not really your “thing,” a point-and-shoot with the longest optical focal length is your best bet. (Don’t be fooled by cameras boasting long “digital” focal lengths, the quality is crap.) They’re easy to use (make sure you know what you’re doing. Don’t wait for your vacation to learn in the field), and compact enough to pull in and out of your bag if it’s raining.
For great landscapes, a smartphone is very handy.
My Camera Gear: I brought two bodies ( Canon 5D Mark III & IV), two lenses (Canon 24-105 mm f/4 and the 100 – 400mm f/4.5 – 5.6L), and a 1.4x extender. (If I thought I had the room to use a 200-400 mm, I would have brought it.)
I used the 24 – 105 mm for landscapes, environmental portraits and interiors kept my camera with the wider lens in my dry bag inside a padded case since I used it far less frequently. The bag I kept between my feet.
I used the 100 – 400mm with the extender for wildlife and distance landscape shots and 90% of the images I made of the bears on Gribbell Island. When it rained, I used a rainsleeve Captain Dave loaned me––I was ill-prepared––and it was great.
Species We Encountered
Humpback whale, fin whale, bald eagle harbor seal, Dall’s porpoise, steller’s sea lion, grizzly bear, black bear, Kermode “Spirit” bear, red-throated loon, pacific loon, kingfisher, great blue heron, sharp-skinned hawk, common murre, merganser, rhinoceros auklet, tide pod sculpin.
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