The young grizzly was revelling in his newly acquired alpha male status. And as I locked eyes
The young grizzly was revelling in his newly acquired alpha male status. And as I locked eyeswith him from less than 30 feet away, I could gaze through his yellow-brown eyes and into the depths of his mind, and tell that he was considering me a possible meal. He could have got to me in a flash, with a bound and a leap. Which is why I was thankful for the boat I was on.
I was in the Khutzeymateen, a little finger of water among many others on the craggy Pacific coast of Northern British Columbia, where it borders the southern edge of Alaska. The Khutzeymateen is a protected sanctuary for grizzly bears, and Prince Rupert Adventure Tours runs a six-hour boat tour during spring and early summer, which gets visitors really close to grizzly bears from the safety of a boat and the assurance that they won’t end up knowing intimate details of the grizzly’s digestive system.
In the six days that I drove around in what is widely acknowledged as the world’s last preserved wilderness, Northern British Columbia bowled me over with the kind of experiences it had casually dealt out to me.
I had started in Smithers, a little town I had flown into from Vancouver on a stunningly scenic two-hour flight over the Cascade Mountain Ranges. I had booked a small car that would have been cost-effective in terms of rental charges and fuel economy, but the gracious lady at the counter upgraded me to a mammoth Chevy Suburban SUV after I had told her where I was going to drive.
“You take this one with our compliments,” she said. “Should you run into some bad-tempered bears, you’ll be safer in this car.”
True to her word, within four hours of my leaving Smithers on my way to Stewart, on the Alaska border, I came across a big black bear nonchalantly crossing the road like a pedestrian at Delhi’s Panchsheel Park.
This was one of the reasons I had taken Canada Highway 16 or the Yellowhead Highway from Smithers towards Stewart. It affords views of pristine pine forests, comes with the possibility of wildlife sightings, and there’s hardly any traffic. I truly felt like a lone explorer. At Kitwanga, 120km from Smithers, I turned onto Highway No. 37, which heads all the way north to the Yukon. It is here that the heady feeling of driving into the wilderness kicked in. I saw a coyote standing by the road, another bear—a mamma bear, with her kids in tow—crossing the road, and a bald eagle swooping down to grab a hare.
As I headed further north, the landscape changed from plain pine forests to forests dimpled with deep blue lakes that were just sitting pretty. The snow-capped peaks started to loom into view as I came closerto Stewart; many of them had huge glaciers that had crawled down their sides. The most magnificent is the huge Bear Glacier, 30km short of Stewart, its crevices shining blue. Behind it were mountain peaks named after British Prime Ministers Disraeli and Gladstone.
Stewart is a prime example of an old frontier town that had seen its heydays during the Gold Rush, mining and logging days. In fact, the Ripley Creek Inn, where I was staying, was the old centre of the town. Today, guests stay in what used to be the bar, the post office and the brothel.
I was quite thankful for my Suburban, not because of the state of the roads (the tarmac was as smooth as a baby’s bottom), but because I fit right into the socio-auto structure of this part of the world, given my car’s 5.3-litre V8 petrol engine. In this part of Canada, even geriatric grannies drive gargantuan gas-guzzling SUVs, and anything less than 4 litres in cubic capacity is deemed fit for only mowing the lawn.
The Alaskan (and American) border is just 3.4 kilometres from Ripley Creek Inn. While much of Alaska borders the Yukon further north, a small sliver of the state sits next to British Columbia. There is no road access to the main part of Alaska from here, but you can just drive into Hyder, the easternmost town in Alaska. But there is a border check while driving back into Canada, so you need to carry your passports. Some 37 kilometres from Hyder is the huge Salmon Glacier; the entire drive is fantastic. The Visitors Centre in Stewart, right next to the Ripley Creek Inn, has a handy booklet outlining a self-guided auto tour from Stewart to the Salmon Glacier. It is on this drive, on the snow-logged roads close to the magnificent outlook to the glacier, that I had my first sighting of a grizzly bear.
The next day, I headed towards the Pacific Coast taking a slightly different route, through the lava beds near Nass Camp on the Nisga’a Highway. It was a 445-km drive that took me past First Nations villages with resplendent totem poles, until I arrived at Prince Rupert, the western terminus of Trans Canada Highway 16 or the Yellowhead Highway. This town, just north of the mouth of the Skeena River, felt a little crowded: I actually came across other cars every 10 minutes or so, as compared to the previous two days, when I would drive for three hours and see no other cars or human beings (but plenty of animals and birds).
The only reason I drove to Prince Rupert was to take the grizzly bear tour into the Khutzeymateen. The comfortable catamaran, with two monstrous outboard engines together churning out a mammoth 1300 horsepower, took about two hours to get from Prince Rupert to the sanctuary. All the while, the crew kept us entertained with stories about the geology of the region and the history and habits of the First Nations people. For years, the narration went, the First Nations people had lived in harmony with the rich fauna of the region, worshipping nature and its creations and hunting only to sustain themselves. Then about 200 years ago, along came the white man—and tipped the balance of everything into turmoil. Today, thankfully, large swathes of Northern British Columbia are protected again.
I saw six grizzlies that day, four of them so close that I could see individual whiskers on their maws. All of them had just come out of hibernation and were stuffing themselves with grass and whatever tidbits they could find on the beach.
“In two weeks, the salmon will arrive to spawn, and then it will be an all-you-caneat buffet for the bears,” a crew member told us. “But right now, they are scavenging for food, which is why you need to be very careful in areas that bears frequent.”
That, by the way, was very sound counsel, as I found out two days later.
My final stop before I flew back to Vancouver was Smithers, my starting point. Founded in 1913 as the headquarters of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, the town was named after the chairman of the railway’s board of directors. Today, it is a laid-back town with a small population; the surrounding countryside offers fantastic outdoor activities like skiing, fishing, mountain biking, and swimming in the glacier-fed lakes that abound around town. The town boasts of a vibrant food-and drink scene, First Nations art galleries and breweries; it also throws up an occasional surprise, with herds of moose wandering onto the main street.
Smithers and knows the areas around like the back of his hand, was showing me around. We had stocked up on goodies— hot dogs, jerky and sandwiches— from the local deli, and had gone for a brisk hike to the Twin Falls. He told me that the Bulkley Valley, in which Smithers is situated, is studded with lakes, large and small, and the surrounding mountains ensure a good supply of river water. As a boy, he would often fish for steelhead (rainbow trout) in the neighbourhood lakes and rivers, and would bump into a bear on his way there or back.
So, we headed out to Round Lake, one of his favourites, and had a little picnic lunch on the trestle table by the lake. By now the sun was high in the cloudless blue sky, and since the weather was turning warm, the clear blue waters of the lake looked very inviting. I cast off my clothes, got into my swimming togs, and waded into the lake.
The water was refreshingly cold, which was hardly surprising, since it was glacial melt. I swam out a fair distance while Blaine went for a walk around the lake. What I didn’t realise was that I had left a sandwich on the trestle table. When I returned from the swim and got out of the lake and grabbed my towel, I froze in shock. A big black mother bear, with three cubs in tow, was stealthily making her way to the trestle table. I grabbed my camera, but she was quicker: she hustled her kids into the shrubbery, gave the sandwich a hard stare filled with longing, and rushed into the bushes herself. I managed just one blurred shot, since my hands were wet from the swim and fumbling from the surprise of seeing a bear up-close. It was scary because I had nothing to defend myself with, and not a stitch of clothing except that towel.
Whenever I think back to my six exciting days in Northern British Columbia, it is this incident that stands out foremost. It sort of epitomises what you can expect on a driving holiday in a region that is still teeming with abundant fauna and is blessed with awe-inspiring geography. For the traveller who is looking for a road trip, adventure and the great outdoors, this is where it all begins.
Most international airlines offer one-stop services from Indian metros to Vancouver. From Delhi, JAL offers the most convenient connections to Vancouver—and the cheapest fare: about â?¹53,000 round-trip economy. From Vancouver, Air Canada offers services to Smithers for about CAD 300 round-trip.
Apply with vfsglobal.ca/canada/india for a visa; visa fees: â?¹4,950.
1 CAD = about â?¹50
How to do it
To plan a trip in Northern British Columbia, explore hellobc.com/ northern-british-columbia.aspx. If you’re visiting Vancouver, add six days for this trip, which is another holiday in itself. And will offer you sights and experiences that are vastly different from what you’ll get in Vancouver, Whistler or Victoria. You’ll need to hire a car from Smithers airport, and the only operator there is the National Car Rental. I hired a Chevy Suburban SUV for the equivalent of about â?¹4,000 a day. The drive from Smithers to Stewart and then on to Hyder and Prince Rupert is long, but the vista is very pretty and there are many places to stop en route. It is best to have someone who can share the driving. Prince Rupert Adventure Tours (adventuretours.net) organises grizzly bear and whale watching tours. The bear tours are from mid-May to July; the whale watching tours are from mid-July to October.
There are a lot of bears around and moose and deer. Abide by speed limits; even if the roads seem deserted, animal crossings are frequent. Stick to demarcated walking trails, and while you’re on them, make your presence known by talking: this alerts bears of your presence and they usually scurry off. Before leaving on a hike, let someone know of your plans. Never ever hike alone in British Columbia; always take a map, compass, all-weather gear and sufficient food and water. If you come across a bear, don’t try to approach it or offer it food; slowly back away. All visitors’ centres have a detailed guide on bear safety, and it’s worth a read. Don’t leave food out in the open or in sight inside your car.