PRINCE RUPERT, B.C.—No human is permitted to set foot in Khutzeymateen Provincial Park, but who’d want to?
It’s home to about 55 grizzly bears.
The 110,000-acre park, 48 kilometres north of Prince Rupert in northern British Columbia, is Canada’s only grizzly bear sanctuary.
Although nobody is allowed in the park, thousands of visitors venture up here in late spring to view the magnificent beasts in their natural environment. They usually encounter Ursus Arctos Horribilis by drifting in small tour boats along a fjord at the edge of the park.
May is one of the best times to go bear hunting with cameras and binoculars. The grizzlies are in hibernation until April deep in the coastal mountains, but in May they wander down to the shore of the fjord to eat the new spring grasses. And that’s when the boy bears try to date the girl bears.
It’s like spring break for the bears on the beach. Grazing on the shoreline goes on all summer, but May is the prime month for making new bears.
The salmon show up in August and September, coming in from the Pacific to spawn in the rivers and streams of northern B.C.
Grizzlies love this time of year. They leave the beach to go fishing in the teeming rivers.
Not only is there a restriction on humans entering the park, but also on the number of tour vessels allowed into the fjord in the Khutzeymateen Valley.
Three tour companies work out of Prince Rupert. Doug and Debbie Davis and their two sons operate the water taxi company West Coast Launch Ltd. For $175 per adult, $165 for teens and seniors and $155 for children, they carry passengers out in small tour boats for a six-hour bear tour in the Khutzeymateen Valley.
Norman Aubin was a principal concierge at two of Vancouver’s finest hotels. But when he visited Prince Rupert and Khutzeymateen nine years ago, he was captured by the natural beauty of the area and its wild inhabitants at the provincial park.
He decided to linger there for a season. Ten years later and he’s still wild about his bears and their exotic neighborhood.
Aubin is a guide on the tour boats operated by the Davis family. He can spot a grizzly from hundreds of meters across the water while it still looks like a tree stump. The boat moves in closer.
When we’re 100 feet from the shore Aubin cautions everyone in the cruising cabin to be quiet if they go out on the open deck. No talking, no fast or elaborate movements.
“The bears aren’t bothered by the rumble of a diesel engine, but human voices, particularly laughter, can spook the bears back into the protection of the forest,” said Aubin.
On our tour it appeared nothing was going to break the concentration of a large muscular, tea-colored male grizzly that was trying to introduce himself to a female posing on a fallen log.
As if on cue with the arrival of our boat, he started chasing her back and forth along the grassy beach. Aubin told us later the bears could easily run 32 mph. And we saw that they’re as quick and agile when running along a fallen timber as strolling on an alpine meadow.
Males can weigh in at 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms). Aubin described their paws as “pitchforks” with claws four inches long and canine teeth of two inches.
A grizzly can break a deer’s back with one swipe of its arm, which looks as thick as a fire hydrant. The bears will eat pretty well anything, but their principal diet in Khutzeymateen involves sedges, the long grass-like plants growing at the water’s edge as well as sea barnacles and mussels. And of course gorging on fresh salmon that fight their way up stream to spawn fattens the bears up for hibernation.
The two grizzlies performing for us were amazingly human-like. During their courting tag game along the beach, she would slow down and wait and throw a fetching glance back over a powerful shoulder if he got too far behind.
Their courting stopped frequently for more grazing and at one point he went for a swim.
Aubin said his tour boat sees grizzlies on about 90 per cent of its outings.
Most of Aubin’s bear hunters are passengers from ocean liners that stop in Prince Rupert on their Inside Passage cruises between Seattle, Vancouver and Alaska ports.
Two other tour operators in Prince Rupert offer three-day bear tours. Dane Wakeman of Sun Chaser Charters has been conducting wilderness tours in the area for 25 years on his sailing yacht Sunchaser. His yacht offers all the comforts of home as it moors off the park for four days and three nights. Wakeman is author, with Wendy Shymanski, of the photo book Fortress of the Grizzlies.
Greg Palmer of Palmerville Adventures takes his clients by seaplane or boat to a floating lodge near the park. They can go kayaking, sailing, fishing or just sit on the dock and read, when not out in small boats looking for grizzlies.
Khutzeymateen was created in 1994 jointly by the B.C. government and the Tsimshian First Peoples Nation. Two Tsimshian park rangers live on a floating cabin beside the park for 14-day stretches and visitors are required to check in with them.
The rangers have a small grizzly information display in their station where they can show you the significant differences between the skulls of a wolf, a black bear and a grizzly.
And they’ll explain that when one ranger is barbecuing fresh fish out of the fjord for dinner, the other ranger has to stand guard in case any furry freeloaders swim over to join in the meal.
GETTIBNG THERE; Air Canada and Hawkair fly to Prince Rupert from Vancouver. VIA Rail operates a scenic train from Jasper National Park on a two-day run with an overnight stay in Prince George. There’s a 450-mile-long paved road through the Rockies from Prince George and B.C. Ferries has an 18-hour-long ferry run through the majestic Inside Passage from Port Hardy at the top of Vancouver Island. B.C. Ferries connects with Alaska Marine Highway (ferries) in Prince Rupert.
If you’re not on a cruise ship, there are a wide variety of accommodations listed at www.princerupert.ca.