Knight Inlet and elsewhere in British Columbia

September 3-15, 2004
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In the film Jeremiah Johnson, Robert Redford asked the old mountain man what he was hunting. "Griz!" Will Geer snapped back, as if there were no other possible answer. That's how I felt on this trip to BC. I did see some other stuff, but griz was the quarry.

Research indicated Knight Inlet is one of the better places in BC to see grizzly bears, so a couple of sessions in the viewing stands there on September 10th and 12th were the centerpiece of this trip. A mother bear and two yearling cubs were the stars of the show, but a dozen or so other bears, a few eagles and a heron also wandered past my camera lens during the proceedings. (The two photos on this page are one or both of the cubs.) Besides bear viewing, I also took a couple of whale watching trips and did some exploring around various locations near Port McNeill and Campbell River.

Young Grizzly
Young Grizzly


Sept. 3 - I flew from Boston direct to Vancouver, then after a layover hopped on an 18-seat turboprop headed to Campbell River. I picked up a rental car at the small airport and drove 200 kilometers to the Haida Way Inn in Port McNeill.

Sept. 4 - Today I took a tour with Mackay Whale Watching in Port McNeill. The orcas were spread out so we saw only one or two at a time. At one point an orca was behind the boat and was sort of following us, so we slowed down and eventually he caught up and passed very close to the boat. I got a few closeups of that of course. We also found two humpback whales, seals and sea lions as we cruised around the area.

Sept. 5 - I got up early to catch the ferry to Malcolm Island, but it was Sunday and there was no early ferry. To kill a few hours I drove up the coast to Port Hardy and a wildlife viewing site. It turned out to be a short walk to an estuary with some distant views of herons, eagles and the town. It was good binocular viewing but too far for photos. I chased around a kingfisher for a while and got a few distant shots. Then I headed back to Port McNeill and drove onto the ferry to Malcolm Island. I found the campground near Bere Point and looked out on Johnston Straight where our whale watching boat had been the day before. No orcas. However one of the campers pointed out a couple of otters swimming through the kelp bed just off shore. After splashing around out there for a while, eventually they came out of the water far down the beach and headed toward their den. Again, good binocular viewing but too far for pictures. I took the ferry back to Port McNeill, and since it was still early so I drove down a logging road leading out of town. At the edge of town I spotted a blacktailed deer and two fawns so I stopped and snapped their portraits for a while. The logging road wasn't too interesting so I went back to try to find the deer again, but they were gone.

Sept. 6 - On the drive back to Campbell River, I stopped off at the Salmon River estuary near Sayward to see another suggested nature trail. I hiked one spur in a light rain, then drove down to another loop that was marked on the information board. As I hiked around there I saw four otters swimming down the river. It seemed too far away for the SLR, so I tried to zoom in with my video camera. I got about 30 seconds of bad video before they went around a bend. I went further down the trail to try to follow them, but I didn't see them again. When I got to Campbell River I checked out Elk Falls Provincial Park. The lower parking lot was full so I parked in the upper lot and hiked down. There are many huge trees in the park. It's a nice high falls but the viewing area gave just a side view. I figured out later that there probably was a better view further down, but the trail was not marked. I checked into the Campbell River Lodge and turned in my rental car downtown.

Sept. 7 - Woke up at 2 a.m. so decided to look at the stars. No horrendous sky glow that is inevitable in the Northeast US, but there were some local lights and the half moon was rather bright. Despite this I was able to pick out a smudge that the binoculars confirmed was the Pleiades Cluster. Orion was not up yet so I went back to bed until 7. Since I no longer had a car, I hiked from the lodge to the ferry terminal and rode over to Quadra Island. My plan was to hike across the narrow part of the island to Rebecca Spit. I spotted a couple of pileated woodpeckers and got a good shot of one of them at the top of a utility pole. I saw a bench in front of a volunteer fire station so stopped there to rest. My feet hurt and the maps indicated that I was barely 1/3 of the way to my destination, so even hiking the rest of the way and taking a taxi back seemed unrealistic. While sitting there I notice a sign for the Community Center hiking trail, so decided to go on that rather than continuing on. There's not a lot of vehicle traffic on the island, but still it was nice to get away from the road and into the woods. The trees were very tall, although probably not as big around as some of the trees around Elk Falls. On the way back I found an internet cafe and sent a few emails before going down to the ferry.

Sept. 8 - I booked a day trip to Bute Inlet to view bears, but the weather was so bad that they didn't go. I spent most of the day trying to dry out my boots from a morning walk.

View from the lodge

Sept. 9 - My first sea plane flight was from Campbell River to the Knight Inlet Lodge. I was glad it was a fairly large two-engine plane as nine of us were heading to the lodge. Takeoff and landing were smoother than I expected. The other guests were four couples, two from the US and two from Britain. After arriving at the lodge and stowing our things, we took off in three boats to try to find black bears along the shore. We came across a mother and a cub, then later a single bear. I got a few distant photos. No TV in the lodge, shared bathroom facilities, electricity provided by generator. The Colts played the Patriots today, but I wouldn't find out the score for six days.

Sept. 10 - It's confusing, but there are two places known as Knight Inlet Lodge. One is just a short boat ride to the bear viewing stands. That's not where I was staying. The boat trip from where I was staying takes more than an hour under good conditions, and conditions on this day were not good. The water was very choppy and the ride was brutal. My thoughts were the same as they were on the Space Mountain ride at Disneyland 20 years ago: Eventually this ride will be over and I will be able to get off. After an eternity the ride did end and I found myself on land along with two couples from the lodge, eight people from a tour boat, and two guides. While some people visited the "outhouse" and the guides got the bus ready, a grizzly bear wandered across the road perhaps 50 yards away. Nothing threatening, but it was decided that "outhouse" visits should be suspended and we should get into the van. ("Outhouse" isn't really a correct decription, but I don't know a word for something that is less than an outhouse.) It was perhaps a mile to the viewing stands, and along the way we had to stop on a bridge for several minutes waiting for three bears to clear the road. Eight of us got out at the first viewing stand and the others continued a short distance to the second. At first it seemed as though the other stand had a better view, but eventually the mother and the two yearling cubs favored us with their presence. There were times when nothing was happening, but every once in a while another bear or two would make their way past our location. I got a lot of photos but it was over too soon. I actually rode back to the lodge on the bigger tour boat, and the ride was quite a bit better except for a few very interesting minutes just before we made the final turn toward the lodge. The four lodge guests who had gone on the whale watch said they saw plenty of orcas, but the water was so rough that they didn't stay long.

Sept. 11 - After the rough ride of the day before, the weather did not look too promising. But despite the cloudiness and frequent rain, the water was relatively calm. Because of the rain I decided not to take my big camera, so went shooting orcas, humpbacks and eagles with just my little digital. The day started with three humpbacks, then we found dozens of orcas heading east to west. To cap it our guide caught a fish and induced an eagle to swoop down and pluck it out of the water. It would have been a hassle to be dealing with the SLR in the rain, but I missed that big lens. One of the British couples flew back to Campbell River, and the others elected to go fishing or whale watching the following day. They asked me what I wanted to do and my answer was predictable: Griz!

Young Grizzly

Sept. 12 - For my second day of bear viewing, the weather was much better than the first. It was sunny and the water was calm as my driver Clint and I made the trek back to the viewing area. Along the way Clint stopped because he thought he saw a black bear. After looking through the binoculars, he proclaimed that it was a rock, at which point a black bear cub popped up and headed into the woods. I never saw the adult, but apparently Clint had gotten a fleeting glimpse. As we hooked up with the tour boat, two grizzlies could be seen working their way down the shore in the direction of the landing area. With a little extra caution (no "outhouse" stops) we landed, boarded the van, and headed to the viewing area. This time I chose the second observation stand further down. The familiar mother and two yearling cubs were already there, so starting with them and continuing with several other bears and eagles, it was nonstop action. My final memory was a juvenile bald eagle feeding on a salmon while a raven tried to distract him by yanking on his tail. I filled up all available space on my camera's memory cards, shot some video, and also took some time just to watch. Those two hours were the best wildlife viewing I've ever experienced outside of a penguin colony. Happy birthday to me! Then I rode the boat back to the lodge, caught the float plane to Campbell River, and jumped the puddle jumper to Vancouver to spend the night in a hotel. By the way, those who had gone whale watching instead of bear watching reported seeing two humpbacks but no orcas. Apparently when the orcas were going east to west the previous day, they didn't stop.

Sept. 13 - I drove through Vancouver's Monday morning traffic to reach Route 99 northbound. I got as far as Whistler, which is a bustling ski resort town that some may find interesting. I did not. I worked my way back to Brackendale and Squamish to start scouting for winter eagle viewing locations. I checked in to my hotel in Squamish fairly early because I was in urgent need of finding a laundry.

Sept. 14 - Before heading back to Vancouver, I finished scouting eagle viewing locations. Not being winter there were no eagles, but assuming that they show up for the annual salmon runs it seemed like there are a number of good vantage points. Perhaps someday I will return.

Sept. 15 - Finally saw the score of the NFL game (27-24 in favor of the good guys). Air Canada whisked me from Vancouver to Toronto and on to Boston.

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