On September 9th, along with nine people I had never met, I embarked on a journey that I knew would be incredible. Nothing could have fully prepared me for the gifts that were to take place over the next eight days on John E Marriott’s Spirit Bear Photography Tour – Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia.
We boarded the Inland Air seaplane in Prince Rupert headed for Hartley Bay, my first time on a seaplane. How blessed I was to be able to sit up front and take in the spectacular scenes ahead and all around me. As we approached Hartley Bay and the awaiting Ocean Spirit II, I gasped – reality hit that I was about to experience something life changing.
As we waited for the kodiak to arrive we spotted our first sign of wildlife, a curious seal popped up to check out what was going on.
After the second seaplane arrived with the remainder of our group, I watched with awe as it took off and left us to begin. We headed for Hartley Bay, home of the Gitga’at Nation. Once we were safely docked we wandered around the quaint village. I loved seeing children playing in nature and greeting us with warm, welcoming smiles. As we approached a group fishing off the bridge, we were surprised to see huge salmon that they had caught with their simple fishing lines. With brimming smiles they offered to give us the salmon.
Chris, our incredible cook and jane of all trades – whipped up a delectable lamb stew with salad. With satisfied bellies, and the excitement of the day – everyone called it a night early as we planned to be up at 6.00am for our first adventure to find Spirit Bears.
Along with our wonderful guides, Garnet and Jolene – we headed in two groups over to the location we were to explore, in hopes of seeing spirit bears. We arrived into a beautiful cove, orange seaweed covered rocks lined the opening to the creek. We walked into the most beautiful forest I’ve ever seen. We walked quietly through moss covered trees and lush ground cover, I took deep breaths in, taking in this almost untouched paradise.
Jolene held her hand up, we all stopped. Ahead of us was a beautiful spirit bear lying down. My heart began to beat faster with eager anticipation and excitement as we approached slowly. She got up and walked away. Jolene led us down to a breathtaking scene – a creek flowing down staggered rock beds, surrounded by the lush green trees and moss covered logs.
And there she was…
She sat watching us. Our skipper and guide Tom Ellison, is considered one of B.C.’s most knowledgeable bear guides with more than 30 years of experience sailing and guiding on the coast. He began to gently talk to her, “Hello beauty.”
She was so calm, relaxed and went about her day – catching salmon, eating and casually strolling around. My soul was filled up simply by being in her presence. As I zoomed in on her eyes with my camera – I felt a gentle, kind, soul – a beautiful being. I decided to call her Panda – because of the black rings around her eyes, and I kept speaking to her without words.
Everyone respected her space. Other than the continual sounds of our shutters there was only the sounds of beautiful nature – the flowing creek and the jumping salmon.
And then, two adorable black cubs climbed down a tree to be with her.
I marvelled at the sight before my eyes. Being this close to something I was petrified of is a feat in itself. When I first moved to Canada and my husband and I would go camping, I would find the largest rock I could physically hold, and each night I would have the rock and an axe at the head of our mattress. Let’s just say my fear of bears while camping led to many sleepless, fear filled nights.
Yet here I was right in front of them, standing by the creek bed. At one point Panda came within 10 feet of me. Tom was beside me, talking to her gently, “Hi Momma, hi beautiful,” at the same time he had his hand motioning me to stay still. As I look back, I am surprised at how calm, peaceful and reassured I felt. Fear was not present at all, my entire being felt centred, present, grateful and in awe.
She looked at me, I felt her spirit deeply touch mine. For a moment she paused right in front of us, maybe she could feel how deeply we respected her and how grateful we were that she had allowed us into her world. She continued on her way, the cubs following closely behind. Much to everyone’s absolute surprise she began breast feeding the cubs. To be witness to such a sacred moment is one that will stay etched in my heart forever. She rested up against a tree and her two little ones – who by this time I had called Charlie and Bob – nuzzled in suckling away.
After a little nap the cubs climbed back down, and shortly after a black bear headed down the creek, the cubs quickly scurried back up the tree and Panda watched the other bear closely, keeping one eye on her cubs and one eye on him. As he came closer I could feel a different energy in her – not aggression – a fierce protectiveness. She confronted him head on and he ran away.
Once he was out of sight the cubs came back down, they continued to rummage around the numerous salmon carcasses strewn everywhere. One cub – Bob – was quiet adventurous and mischievous, he would always venture far from his Mom, and whenever she would find a big salmon he would come over and start eating it from under her – squeals would come out of him and sometimes her, eventually he would win and Panda would walk off in search of some more food. They ate, slept, and went about their simple life.
Another well deserved rest for Panda.
Later while Panda and her cubs were sleeping away from the creek, a large male black bear came. The size and powerful stance of this bear was incredible. He looked at us in a much different way than the others. In his eyes I saw power, yet there was also a skittishness.
Later in the day we were graced with the presence of another spirit bear. It was remarkable how much this one resembled a polar bear. Much bigger than Panda, this one had a powerful presence, yet still had the same calm, peacefulness as Panda.
For almost 12 hours we were witness to such treasures, to see these powerful creatures so close was such a privilege. How blessed were we to end our day with once again seeing Panda feed her cubs.
Our second day was just as spectacular as the first. Once again we were gifted the presence of Panda and her cubs first thing in the morning.
We were entertained with the spectacle of a large black bear fishing, eating and playing around in the water.
Right after this pose he dipped his head down and scooped up a big salmon right in front of us.
As the saying goes ‘does a bear shit in the woods?’
And then back in the water for some more fishing.
Later another spirit bear, which could have possibly been the same one from the day before graced us with his presence. Shortly after another Spirit Bear appeared with her two black cubs. She didn’t venture close to us, however with my telephoto zoom lens I was able to clearly see her unique and sweet face.
On day three we ventured to another area of the rainforest. On the way, we were treated to a breaching whale in the distance – even from far away this sight was spectacular. We set anchor in another beautiful cove and took the zodiak to the mainland. This terrain was much different than our last spot. Thick dense forest surrounded us, tall trees with their leaves beginning to fall, stood gracefully.
Although we didn’t see any bears on this outing, it was beautiful. We did see a young bald eagle take off from his perch above us, and experienced the look out platforms set up for bear viewing.
As we set sail back to Hartley Bay we approached a sleeping whale and were entertained by a sighting of a lodge being towed to it’s new destination.
On our fifth day I decided to stay behind and have a day to myself, knowing that I had a full schedule when I got home I decided to begin going through the thousands of photos I had taken. I also got to experience some of the village life with Chris, including meeting a gentle, sweet man – Wally – who brought in a 150lb halibut.
The plan for our last two days was to go in search of whales. We said good bye for now to the safe and welcoming hamlet of Hartley Bay.
As we ventured off a flock of birds flew by us, the wings glistening in the morning sun.
The scenery was breathtaking, fog covered trees and coves surrounded us.
We didn’t have to venture far before we started seeing and hearing humpback whales. The only way I can describe this incredible experience is with one word – serenity. It was truly serene watching these graceful creatures swimming through the water.
Learning about these incredible creatures was amazing, watching their patterns and not tire of seeing many flukes (their tale) disappear before a dive.
One of the most fascinating patterns to me was lunge feeding – the whale will lunge through a shoal of food with it’s huge mouth wide open, exploding through the surface with both food and water.
As we sailed into the sunset we ended this awe inspiring day with a spectacular and stunning view of whales lunging with the sunset as a back drop.
Our last day is one that I will never forget for as long as I live. It began with a spectacular halo around the sun – what a way to start a day. We sailed towards fog covered shorelines and more beautiful scenery.
We had the absolute privilege and honour of almost three hours with a very special whale. HB or Buddy as we named him, swam around, under and right beside the boat. His powerful yet graceful slow movements were a sight like nothing I have ever seen.
I can tell you one thing, the smell of the whales breath is horrible, every time he blew we would all turn away with our arms covering our faces. Although we’d turn right back around and say “you stink, but you’re so handsome!”
I spent much of this time at the bow of the boat, hanging over the side and on several occasions being blessed with looking right into his eyes. I felt complete calm, love, and radiating joy flow through me.
At one point he left us for a little while and came back with another whale. I’m guessing he loved the time he spent with us so much he wanted to share it with someone else.
Once he bid farewell to us we continued on. In the distance a whale breached. Even from a distance it was powerful to see. I secretly hoped and prayed this wouldn’t be my last, thankfully it was not.
We were honoured with a whale doing at least ten continuous breaches in a row – awe inspiring!
Our last gift was being witness to a pair of whales lunging. They were perfectly in synch with each other.
The next morning, our last, was spent packing up and waiting for fog to clear so we could take the sea plane back to Prince Rupert. The flight back began with watching whales from above gracing the waters, spectacular scenery and a smooth flight.
As we approached Prince Rupert, for the first time in eight days I got a signal on my phone. I was surprised and alarmed when I saw the amount of missed calls, texts and emails light up my screen.
As I sat in between John and Patrick, I read a text that informed me that a dear and cherished friend Kelly died a week earlier. I was overcome with emotion and leaned forward releasing the tears. Both John and Patrick put their arms around me with gentle loving presence. All I heard John say was “she just read something on her phone.” Once I had gathered myself a little, I told them the news that she had fallen asleep in her bath tub – just saying that out loud opened up a new wave of painful grief.
When we landed, Patrick held me in his arms in a compassionate and kind embrace, I was grateful to have safe arms to release the extreme pain I was experiencing. My first call was to my amazing husband, who had known of her passing but chose not to tell me on our one point of contact during the trip. I am eternally grateful to him for making that choice, this remarkable trip may have been much different. He also cancelled a trip to be at the airport at 1.35am to pick me up so I wouldn’t arrive and be home alone.
The last evening was spent with the people who eight days prior were strangers, and as I sat at the table grateful for their care, compassion and watchful eyes I couldn’t help but look at each of these very special people and feel blessed for this experience we just had together.
As I processed the most extreme range of emotions I have ever experienced yesterday I was comforted by my last memory of this trip – a joyful moment that also connected me to my friend Kelly. On the bow of the boat on our last night with Chris and Patrick, we were laughing so hard that I peed my pants, which led to even more laughter – yes I just said that out loud. The one and only time that I had ever done this before was a fun filled, hilarious night several years ago with Kelly where we both peed our pants. This last paragraph is for you Kel, I know you’re reading this probably peeing your pants – and that brings a smile to my face. RIP sweetie. I will always love you.