John predicted that I would nevertheless enjoy the experience of being here. “You don’t get to see wilderness like this any more. This is the crown jewel of the Great Bear Rainforest. It is protected and will stay that way. The deep connection to land that the people have here is very special; it has lasted thousands of years. They have stories connected to each place in the territory, which go back to a time when magic still existed. It’s a really authentic culture. They live and feel it.”
Later, news came in that a local person had spotted a white bear that very day at a certain inlet, and so John suggested that I should join some guests who would be going there the next day. We clambered into the boat after breakfast, all willing that this would be a lucky day. Brady introduced our captain as Charlie Mason, hereditary chief of the Kitasoo. It was Charlie who, along with Douglas Neasloss, chief councillor for the Nation, instigated tourism and the lodge.
A heavy mist hung over the water and curtained the forested hillsides as we chugged past a pod of porpoises and through a channel, before eventually emerging on the coast. Around 90 minutes after leaving the lodge, we pulled into an inlet. Charlie anchored the boat and we transferred into a couple of Zodiacs, one following the shore on one side of the bay, ours taking the other side.
Having spotted nothing, we turned back to an area where a creek fed into the bay, turned off the engine and bobbed about. It was a pretty spot, and the creek had a small set of falls. Brady explained that above the falls was a lagoon that provided ideal conditions for sockeye salmon. When there has been rain, and when the tide is high, the water rises to submerge the falls and the salmon swim up the creek.
The water was crystal clear, and a school of 20 salmon passed under our Zodiac. David explained that the community had already completed its fishing for the season as they had caught enough salmon for the winter. “We practice conservation. We got taught by our elders not to mistreat the land and the water. Otherwise, one day we will run out of food.”
For several hours – interrupted only by a break back on the main boat – we floated in the bright sunshine, the temperature in the early 20s, a gentle breeze blowing. The sole sound was the running water of the falls, punctuated by the occasional keening of a bald eagle and the splash of jumping salmon. But we eventually had to admit defeat on the white bear front, and rejoined the boat. But it was as we left the bay that nature decided to present us with a magical blackfish encounter.
The next day we rejoined Charlie and Brady but took a different direction. We spent time in an enchanted forest, revelling in the profound silence, the ancient trees, the rich smells. We walked a trail in single file, our steps muffled, and emerged at a spot where two creeks converged. Eight bald eagles took off from the surrounding trees but then returned to their perches where they watched for salmon. We sat on logs in a state of reverie, next to old hemlock trees covered in lichen. Then, returning to the boat, we found a tuft of spirit bear fur on a bush next to the trail.
At our next stop it was tufts of grizzly fur that were in evidence. In a beautiful river valley we took to the Zodiacs and pulled up at a ‘stomp’ trail used by grizzlies to visit a ‘rubbing tree’. We walked to the side of the well-worn path, covered in bear tracks, as Brady explained that in breeding season the bears would come here to rub against the spruce tree, leaving their scent. “It’s like the Tinder of the bear world.”
We still hadn’t seen an actual bear, whether white, black or brown. But one of my fellow guests, who like me was leaving in the morning, mused that she had still enjoyed her stay. “Sitting in that boat yesterday in perfect silence – it was the closest to a meditative experience I have ever had. I don’t know how I explain that to family and friends but it was very special.”