Think of a rainforest and you imagine tropical heat, howling monkeys, scuttling insects and colourful birds. But a rainforest doesn’t have to be hot – there’s also another, lesser-known version, the temperate rainforest. They’re both packed with natural riches and share the same high rainfall of 250–450cm a year, but where the tropical version is hot and steamy, the temperate version is cool and damp. There are only a few left in the world, and the largest stretch of coastal temperate forest still remaining is on Canada’s west coast – the Great Bear Rainforest. A unique ecosystem where land, sea and rivers come together, it might not be as famous as the Amazon but that makes it all the more interesting to discover.
The Great Bear Rainforest covers 12,000 square miles from the border with Alaska in the north down to Campbell River in the south. Its forests are packed with ancient cedar, fir and spruce trees, and home to thousands of plant species and 350 different birds and mammals. There’s everything from cougars to wolverines, but the heart of this forest is the bears which give it its name. Grizzly bears are most common, but if you’re really lucky you might see a rare white Kermode or spirit bear. Grizzlies originally roamed all along the coast of North America – from Alaska to Mexico. But now their territory is ever-shrinking, leaving just patches in Alaska, Canada and the North-Western USA. The forest’s drowned trees make great homes for salmon and where you have salmon you have bears. But would we see any ourselves?
You’re truly out in the wilderness in the Great Bear Rainforest – no tour buses of sightseers out here. Visitor numbers are limited to minimise the impact on the bears which helps you get a better feel for this magical landscape. The area is so remote that there are no roads, so everything is brought in by boat or seaplane, including us. A 35-minute float plane journey took us from Port Hardy out into the rainforest to our floating base for the next few days – the Great Bear Lodge. On the flight over you could see down onto dense woodland, rivers, fjords and islands dotted in the water, with the landscape a whole palette of shades of green. Other than a few old logging huts, there was no sign of human life at all, just unspolit nature.
During the autumn bear-watching takes places from hides on the riverbank, so you can see them catching salmon making their way upstream. But in spring it’s from small boats so you can see the bears on the water’s edge where they’re feeding on sedge. A type of grass, sedge is 26% protein, but a bear’s a big creature so they spend hours each day eating to fill themselves up. Keeping our fingers firmly crossed for a bear-sighting, we kitted up with plenty of warm and waterproof layers and set sail into the rainforest.
The one thing that you’re guaranteed to get in a rainforest is water, and even when the rains held off you could feel and see the moisture all around you. Air flows in from the sea and hits the mountains, forcing it upwards so it condenses and creates a constant stream of clouds and rain. It’s a watery world, with low clouds draped between the mountain tops and streams trickling down from the hills. The whole area is tidal so the water levels are constantly changing, sometimes the currents swirled around us and sometimes it was as still as a pond. The landscape changes too, with mud flats and beaches disappearing with the rising tides and submerged trees draped in moss emerging from underwater as the tide went out.
We sailed silently through a watery maze, from wide open stretches to narrow channels just big enough for the boat. All you could hear was the splash of water from the oars or an occasional bird call to break the peace. After a while I found myself drifting into almost a meditative state, lulled into semi-consciousness by the rhythm of the boat. But not quite – there was always one eye fixed on the shoreline, scanning the grass and overhanging trees for bears. And we didn’t have to wait too long until our first grizzly sighting.
As we floated along a pair of ears popped up from a clump of sedge and with a whisper of ’Bear!’ the boat was suddenly on high alert, cameras at the ready. A head followed the ears and all at once we were eye to eye with a grizzly bear. She gave us a quick once over, decided we weren’t at all interesting and went back to the more important business of eating. We were so close we could see her claws gripping the sedge and hear the leaves tearing and the sound of her munching. With her pale fluffy fur and protruding nose she looked so much like a teddy bear – just a lot bigger and with some scary-looking claws.
Full of sedge for now, she moved closer towards us and the whole boat held it’s breath as she walked down to the water’s edge and took a long drink. We sat and watched her until the light started to fade and when she finally ambled back into the undergrowth there were grins all around – we’d seen our first bear, but it wasn’t to be our last. The next day we came across an long-legged adult male sauntering across the beach with that distinctive bear’s pigeon-toed walk. And a handsome deep brown male buried a field of sedge, eating away oblivious to the falling rain. Over the years the lodge has been here the staff have got to know many of the bears, seeing their personalities develop. For us it was such a privilege to get close to these amazing creatures even briefly and to get a glimpse into their worlds.
But the Great Bear Rainforest isn’t just about bears, there’s a whole interconnected ecosystem of plants and animals. Back on land, Great Bear Lodge’s naturalist Tom took us out for a walk into the rainforest to discover some of the different species that make it their home. The bears might look like giant teddies but they are a real danger, and Tom told us terrifying tales of a near miss with a male nicknamed Predator. But generally they stay out of the way of people, but the guides called our ‘Hey Bear’ and kept a peppery bear spray close to hand, just in case. Though we didn’t see any bears, there were signs of them all around, when you knew where to look. That hollow at the base of a tree is a bear’s day bed, where it snatches some sleep. That battered looking tree is a rub tree, which bears use to leave messages to each other.
We were introduced to some of the forest’s smaller creatures too, like the orange and black Varied Thrush with its sing-song call. We also uncovered a mass of spawn from the Northwestern Salamander, laid in one of the forest streams. Although it looked like a blob of jelly there were actually thousands of salamander eggs inside, each less than 2mm in size. Then there was the bizarre Banana Slug, with secretes anaesthetic mucus, which one of our guides bravely volunteered to demonstrate – on her top lip! There are so many interesting species in the forest, and more being discovered all the time. It might be the land of the grizzly, but there’s so much more to the Great Bear Rainforest than just bears.
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I visited British Columbia as a guest of Destination Canada as part of a Travelator Media campaign.