Great Bear Rainforest
Credit: Canadian Tourism Commission

For years, the Great Bear Rainforestwas a mythical and somewhat amorphous blob of topography on BC’s coast.

I was aware of it through news reports of the decades long conservation battle surrounding it, but didn’t really know it. A few years ago I decided it was time to rectify that oversight, having bypassed this landscape literally on my doorstep for far too long. So I joined Ian McAllister in Bella Bella for a weeklong spring journey up BC’s central coast and for the first time in my life I truly learned how a landscape can be transformative.

In less than half-a-day of motor sailing we had left behind what on BC’s coast qualifies as traffic — an infrequent ferryboat or occasional sport fishing vessel, pleasure yacht and crew boat. We headed deep into the low elevation, misty front ranges of the Coast Range, following an inlet that I promised McAllister then that I’d leave nameless in my writing — a promise that I’ve decided to keep over the years. 

At the time the request struck me as unnecessarily parochial and protective. Now I get it. 

There were no other boats, no sign of the slowly healing scars of industrial logging and no floating fish farms as we aimed for where the inlet pinched to a narrow opening; sheer granite walls soaring from tide line to the low lying clouds. At one point, McAllister nudged his boat close to the shore and a greyish white granite bluff that artists from long ago had used as a natural canvass, their creativity now visible in the faint ochre traces of ancient rock paintings. For several hours, we travelled this serpentine fiord until finally it ended where a wide river poured through an almost fluorescent-green estuary into the sea. The primary forests that rose up the valley on both sides were deep and thick. McAllister dropped the anchor, and then set it in the soft alluvium of the seafloor. A raven perched on a crooked cedar overhanging the bay nearby let out a throaty squawk, presumably some sort of broadcast warning that humans were afoot. We scanned the estuary from the intertidal zone to where it meets the forest fringe of cedar and hemlock trees, all festooned with lichen. We quickly spotted the telltale hump of a grizzly boar protruding above the sedges, preoccupied by his morning’s foraging. Donning rubber boots, we grabbed cameras and binoculars, loaded the tender and motored ashore. 

A well-trodden animal trail paralleled a side channel of the river. We followed it. Here and there, the groundcover was disturbed where a bear had recently torn up the earth in search of the starchy bulbs of lilies and lyngby sedge; a favourite springtime staple for these coastal omnivores. In the mud, we saw perfectly preserved grizzly tracks the size of a basketball, and in one spot, an equally exquisite wolf-print inlaid into a grizzly print. Who was following whom? 

Where the side channel widened into a muddy flat, we came upon a profusion of wolf tracks, where two or three must have gathered to assess the estuary. Animal tracks are like signatures upon the landscape; it is one of the ways nature tells her story. Bears, always opportunistic, move in what can seem like haphazard patterns, stopping to paw the ground or scratch the trunk of a tree, circling back and then continuing. Their tracks reflect this. Wolves, on the other hand, seem to move with purpose and economy, cutting direct lines across the land and following scents on the wind. 

We stopped again to watch the same grizzly ambling along the forest fringe, still unaware of our presence downwind. Wolf sign was everywhere — but there was no sign of the wolves themselves. The ecosystem hummed with vernal life and abundance; nature unfolding as it has for millennia unfettered by human interference. We walked and listened; words seemed superfluous, redundant. Slowly it occurred to me how profoundly I was being impacted by this anonymous valley on our coast and how important it is to bear witness to vanishing places. McAllister has made it a cornerstone of his conservation career, sharing the wild with people like me, the curious writer, or the Dot Com billionaire who’s both curious and able to deploy significant resources toward conservation campaigns. Whatever it takes. Nature-based tourism operators also play a critical role in this conservation and bearing witness. 

Greg Shea, who captains the for-hire Maple Leaf schooner, told me of a time he hosted a Calgary oil executive and his family for a tour of the Great Bear Rainforest. Shea recalled lively discussions around the cozy galley dining table between father and children, the latter taking Dad to task on the potentially broad-reaching environmental impacts of pipelines linking northern Alberta crude with the northwest coast of BC. Wilderness can seem like an abstraction to people who spend most of their time in manufactured settings like boardrooms or corner offices, defending their company’s record from the relentless attack of environmentalists. I doubt if the Maple Leaf experience was a philosophical game-changer for the exec, yet anyone with a pulse would at least have been compelled to take a moment or two for reflection.

Eco-tourism — especially in a place as remote and difficult to access as the Great Bear Rainforest — is expensive. You need some deep disposable income to secure a berth on the Maple Leaf, or with any of the other operators that offer boutique tours in the region. And to embark on a self-supported adventure requires a level of commitment and time that many of us don’t have. In other words, not everyone has the luxury of seeing such places with their own eyes. 

American photographer Cristina Mittermeier founded the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP) with this in mind, bringing together the world’s best nature photographers to collectively turn their lenses on conservation hot spots around the world. In 2010, they descended on the Great Bear Rainforest for 10 days of intensive shooting from the air, ground and on and beneath the water; in essence serving as the eyes for a populace without either the means or interest to personally forgo the urban for the wild of BC’s central coast. The results of ILCP photo campaigns are typically stunning; another way of bearing witness.

That spring, years ago, McAllister and I spent hours exploring this unnamed estuary, following animal trails worn deep into the moss alongside the river. A primordial silence prompted me to try awkwardly to move as lightly and inconspicuously on the land as possible. However, not even the pine marten that scampered up the trunk of a stout hemlock in front of us seemed to care. 

I have spent much time in wild valleys, mountains and coastlines but I always return in my mind to this same inlet and estuary. Few other natural places have struck me so profoundly as this place has; it is emblematic of nature’s multilayered, interconnected seamless choreography that makes much of human enterprise seem clumsy and ridiculous by comparison. Chances are, I’ll never visit there again. But it remains a wellspring of inspiration knowing that every year bears will scour estuarine grasses and sedges, wolves will track along the muddy intertidal flats and salmon smolts will swim out to the inlet. And hopefully this place will retain its anonymity long after I’m gone.

This article originally appeared in our Spring 2014 issue.

Plan your next great adventure with explore!
Off the beaten path locations, tips and tricks, interviews with intrepid explorers and more.