ON LAND & SEA
As big and scary and seemingly indestructible as they are, most grizzly bear populations across North America are considered either threatened or endangered.
Dwindling habitat for the bears—who require large territories—is the main cause of their decreasing population. Enter the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary, a short boat ride north of Prince Rupert. In the summer of 1994, the Khutzeymateen was officially designated as a provincial park, jointly managed by BC Parks and the Tsimshian First Nation. It was Canada’s first protected grizzly habitat. Visitor use of the park is strictly regulated and in many ways discouraged, to give the bears the freedom they need to survive.
But in the summer months, when the sedge grass grows tall along the Khutzeymateen Inlet, the resident grizzly population comes down to the water’s edge to eat. There, a number of tour operators bring their boats, loaded with hopeful wildlife viewers. Captain Doug Davis has been guiding in the park since it became a park. He knows the bears by name. “We talk about bear culture,” he says. Spending enough time with the bears, from a safe distance on his boat, means he’s learned their habits, their personalities, and the way they interact with each other. Now that’s intimate. Davis runs day trips to the Khutzeymateen out of Prince Rupert but other guides offer overnight trips, including a couple of sailboat operators, who set up their boats as a “home base” from which they stage further adventures for their guests. There’s even a floating lodge at the mouth of the inlet or companies that offer multi night live aboard excursions on their vessels - a great way for visitors to take wildlife encounters to the next level if time permits.
Bears aren’t the only animals to see in Prince Rupert.
You don’t need to book a tour to spot an eagle—just look up. Bald eagles are practically as common as crows on the north coast. Nearly every tree has at least one of the majestic birds perched in its branches. Their distinctive call is part of the natural soundtrack to the city. The eagles’ counterparts are ravens, intelligent tricksters who have nearly as many different calls as we have words, ranging from peculiar popping sounds to frog-like croaking. Both birds play a prominent role in local folklore and Tsimshian mythology. Add to these two flighty friends a whole host of shorebirds and waterfowl, and the even the most discerning bird watcher will be truly satisfied.
In the water, right off the docks at Rushbrook, you can often see a couple of curious harbour seals. They hang around waiting to snap up any offerings from sport and commercial fishers cleaning the day’s catch on the docks. Further from shore, are much bigger marine mammals: whales. Something about whales captures our collective imagination. They’re big, mysterious, peaceful. Getting close to a whale is an unforgettable experience. Humpbacks, in particular, spend a lot of time around the north coast. On the way to the Khutzeymateen is a place called Work Channel, where humpbacks gather to feed. If you’re lucky, you might even get a chance to check out “bubble netting”, a cooperative form of fishing the whales do by blowing bubbles in a circle, forcing their prey—small fish—to the surface. The sensation of spray drifting into your face, as a huge humpback surfaces to breathe right beside you, is a feeling that will linger for a long time.
Every encounter with wild animals like whales, grizzly bears, eagles, and seals is a special one. There’s something inherently captivating about getting close to a wild animal and Prince Rupert has limitless opportunities to form a memory that will last a lifetime.