SONORA ISLAND, BRITISH COLUMBIA -- September 21 began dim and grey, with dampness and fog, the usual elements of a British Columbia fall. A group of travellers huddled into a 28-foot fishing boat hauling cameras and hopes. A grizzly bear. Just one, on the shoreline, close enough and moving slowly enough to fill the frame of a lens: That was the sight we dreamed of as we left the docks of Sonora Resort, a Relais & Chateaux property that is worth every accolade it receives -- not to mention a few days of your time.
What followed was 12 hours of adventure that beat every expectation any of us carried aboard.
I've been on photographic hunts for extraordinary wildlife before, as had many of the passengers in the boat. On an African safari, I was in a vehicle that tracked a leopard for an hour hoping to see it pounce on an unsuspecting antelope for that coveted "kill shot" so many photographers seek. The moment ended when the antelope picked up on scent or noise or subconscious warning to flee. In the Galapagos Islands, I travelled for eight days on a mind-blowing tour of Darwin's isles that was as much about the topography as the sea lions, lizards, and turtles. In La Paz, Mexico, one of the most underrated destinations on the planet, I caught sight of a humpback whale emerging right in front of the nose of a fishing boat I rode on.
This day in Canada approached that level of exoticness.
About 100 metres from Sonora Resort is a rock populated by harbour seals, a few hundred metres farther, on the opposite shoreline, resident stellar sea lions bask and play in the waters of the Strait of Georgia. Amid the captivating and exciting wildlife is the mountains and rainforests of the Pacific Rim, which on a normal day would be something to write about on their own. Then there is the current, a wicked wonder that pushes and pulls, churns and spills. It creates shockingly large whirlpools and white-water rapids, a couple of which turn into sizeable enough chutes that you might think this part of the world inspired those log-plunge rides at amusement parks.
On the Grizzly Bear Tour, wilderness guide Aaron Nagler drove the boat through those rapids, passing fjords and eagles' nests, and into the Bute Inlet, docking at the Homalco First Nations territory. Our group was then shuttled to the Orford River Valley, where the salmon run is fierce and the grizzlies' appetites are ferocious. When we disembarked the Homalco bus, we were 10 feet from a clearing on a riverbank that is opposite a mother grizzly and two of her cubs, who gnawed on a fresh-caught, silvery fish.
"This is the best grizzly experience I've ever had," said Ethan Meleg, an outstanding wilderness photographer who has been shooting for nearly two decades. Meleg was stupefied with the photographic opportunities -- and we were less than 20 minutes into the grizzly bear viewing. The outing continued down the road to the confluence of the two rivers, where a female grizzly ambled up the rocky inlet to snatch and devour a salmon within 15 feet of our wide eyes.
A Grizzly Bear Tour With Real Bite
On an African safari, lions will come within a three feet of your tour vehicle. But the guide has his foot poised on the accelerator and no one ever leaves the jeep. On the Galapagos, the animals are tame and there's rarely danger. Here, on the grizzly tour, you're on foot. The guides don't carry guns and you're free to walk while the animals go about their day. Although there are wooden viewing platforms that tour goers are herded up to if there is a threat, the bears are so unconcerned with the human activity around them that we stood and watched for more than an hour without ever feeling unnerved.
"Grizzlies are more likely to want to avoid us than come closer," said Nagler, who communicates clear instructions to visitors before and during the tour. "The only time I've ever been nervous on these tours is when a human does something that they really should know better than to do."
For photographers, the chance to capture such majestic animals so close and with so relatively little effort is rare. Digital cards that normally would take a week or more to fill were completely loaded with images within two hours. And the day was only going to get better.
Click here to read the rest of the article and see Vacay.ca's photos of this incredible day.
Note: Sonora Resort is one of the Canadian Tourism Commission's Signature Experiences of the nation. Find out more at KeepExploring.ca.