It was all hands on deck as a midsummer afternoon faded into early evening: Freebie, a female grizzly, was foraging for food along the shore line no more than 30 feet from the moorings of our floating wilderness camp, the Great Bear Lodge, and the lodge's resident naturalists and guests, cameras at the ready, were capturing her every move.
Affectionately nicknamed Freebie because her failure to conceive over the years had in no way diminished her appetite for serial assignations with willing male bears, the 6-year-old grizzly was no stranger to Great Bear Lodge, located in British Columbia's Great Bear Rain Forest.
For days, the 10 of us staying as guests -- a capacity crowd in the five-bedroom lodge -- had tracked her, with the guidance of the naturalists, from flat-bottom boats as she ambled along the edges of the estuarine grasslands feeding on sedge, berries and skunk grass until the salmon runs of late summer would offer a tastier menu.
Moreover, she had nosed around the camp environs before, looking for protection from some of her more aggressive paramours.
"The females sometimes seek out humans because they know the adult males are afraid of us and won't follow them here," said John Humphries, a Great Bear naturalist and guide who's a former project coordinator with the U.S. Geological Survey.
"For that reason, some pregnant females find their way here to deliver their cubs because they know they will be safe from the males, who have been known to kill and eat their young."
Lodge operator Great Bear Nature Tours, which is located 50 miles north of the tip of Vancouver Island at the aptly named Port Hardy, is owned (with partners) and operated by Tom Rivest, bearded and looking every bit the part of grizzled wilderness guide and naturalist.
Rivest's redheaded partner, Marg Leehane, is a chatty, expat Australian who, to the casual observer, seems to be the lodge's untitled general manager and liaison to the outside world.
Responsible nature tourism
Offering day trips from Port Hardy since 1999 and operating as a lodge since 2003, Great Bear is a mix of no-nonsense accommodations (each bedroom has a washroom, with hot showers nearby); three-meal-a-day, gourmet dining; and photography/viewing tours of grizzlies in their natural, pristine habitat.
"Our philosophy is consistent with our goal of safely viewing bears in a natural setting while eliminating or minimizing the impact on them," said Leehane. "Guest safety is of the utmost importance, and our viewing program is organized using the protocols developed at the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula."
When guests are in a viewing blind, for example, the bears are normally not aware of a human presence, she said. "Our aim is to see the bears but not have them see us," said Leehane. "And we make all of our movements in the valley predictable so that the bears can choose to avoid us."
One way of doing this while on the trail is to walk in groups and to "walk loud," calling out "Hey bear!" every few minutes so there are no surprises for the easily spooked grizzlies.
Four wooden viewing blinds, shed-like enclosures that tend to contain human scent and hide movement, overlook the river where the bears come for the salmon in late summer and fall, and each guest in the blind has room to set up a tripod for photography.
The small, motor-equipped boats, which are used to track the grizzlies in spring and summer, are more often than not rowed by the naturalists/guides, who sometimes hop overboard to drag the boats through shallow waters when powering them up or even rowing them would disturb the bears and other wildlife.
Luxury in the wild
A typical day at Great Bear starts early, around dawn, when guests assemble in the lodge's dining alcove for breakfast. The meal typically consists of fresh-squeezed juice, home-baked scones or muffins, hot and cold cereal, hard-boiled eggs and coffee and tea.
Next, the guests head out in the flat-bottom boats for three hours of viewing and photographing grizzlies or, depending on the season and bear activity, are driven in a converted school bus to the blinds. These activities are repeated after dinner.
Lunch, which is served at the lodge in late morning, is followed by activities such as an interpretive rain forest walk, a guided sea-kayaking tour of the estuary or a boat cruise to explore the glacier-carved inlet.
Of course, guests can opt to stay put at the lodge and enjoy a glass of wine on the deck while keeping an eye out for gray wolves, black bears, river otters, minks, bald eagles, pine martens and a dizzying array of other birds in what amounts to a natural aviary. Orca whales, on the prowl for harbor seals, have been known to breach just off the lodge's deck.
Dinner at Great Bear is a memorable occasion. "We strive to provide 'wilderness gourmet' food: that is, food that is healthy, delicious and served with a touch of style," said Leehane. "We purchase organic ingredients whenever possible and highlight the specialties of the valley: fresh-caught salmon served on a cedar plank, Dungeness crab, ocean halibut and wild berries."
While luxury is not all high-end amenities, well-connected concierges and flat-screen TVs, none of which you will find -- or find the need of -- at Great Bear, the totality of a guest's experience, from the gourmet dining to the rare opportunity to be at one with nature while under the guidance of experts, does not come cheap.
Prices for a three-night stay at the lodge, which operates May through mid-October, can range from $1,935 per person, double, May 7 to June 30, to $2,690 from Aug. 20 to Oct. 31, when the grizzlies head for the river to feast on the salmon run. The rates, which are commissionable to agents at 10%, include seaplane flights to and from Port Hardy, interactive programs, meals and evening educational programs.
"Our aim is simple," said Leehane. "We want to exceed our guests' expectations. They arrive with notions about the bears they will see and the beauty of the location, but they are often surprised by the quality of the lodging and the cuisine. They rave about the staff, about their friendly and professional approach to ensuring the best possible tour for each guest."
For more on Great Bear Lodge, go to www.greatbeartours.com or call (888) 221-8212.