“If you’re going to stay here, you’d better start making some noise,” the guide said as the irate young male grizzly stalked toward us.
The bear, estimated at around 500-600 pounds, had just been slapped around by a smaller female as they jousted over a prime fishing spot on the estuary. It was not in a good mood as it lumbered toward the flat-bottomed steel barge where 20 tourists clustered at low tide.
As my wife and I looked back, we saw the second guide with the remaining 18 people on the stern on the boat, ready to bolt on to shore. At that point, I began to bang on the boat with one hand while trying to snap photos with the other to divert the bear, which had come as close as 25-30 feet from us before turning back.
The close encounter was the highlight of a trip with Tide Rip Tours out of Telegraph Cove on the northern end of Vancouver Island.
We had cut across 50 miles of Knight’s Inlet from the island back to the mainland in search of the bears in a covered boat before transferring to the barge to probe our way into the estuary. The inlet is prime grizzly habitat, attracting extravagant salmon runs in season that congregates bears from miles around.
The largest bears, males weighing up to 1,000 pounds or so, generally only venture out at night, the guides explained. This population of bears doesn’t grow as massive as their Alaskan counterparts to the north, but are deeply impressive nonetheless.
Smaller bears, mainly females and juveniles, are more readily seen during the daytime, which is prime time for viewing for Tide Rip’s clients.
It took an hour or so to make the crossing from Telegraph Cove, and we had delighted in the stunning vistas of fog-enshrouded mountains and ocean coastline. Our guides included Lindsey Pattinson, the son of Tide Rip’s founder Howard.
Telegraph Cove is also the heart of northern Vancouver Island’s whale-watching trade. From the picturesque village, a variety of tours were available. Particularly noteworthy is the tour offered by the sailing vessel Seasmoke.
We had left about 7 a.m. to make the crossing to the mainland. It was a cool, blustery morning, but I spent the trip glued either to the windows or peeking outside. The occasional bald eagle snagged my attention, as did crossing porpoises, although I was unable to get a good look at them.
We soon made the transfer from the Tide Rip docks to the flat-bottomed barge and it was off to hunt for the bears, and it didn’t take long to find the first one.
The female that would face off with the belligerent young male was fishing in a pool perhaps 200 feet from where Lindsey quietly moored the boat after guiding it through the shoaling waters of the inlet.
It was fascinating to watch her cavort in the water, munching on salmon that she caught every few minutes. Pink salmon were running by the hundreds, a ceaseless shadow under the water.
Bald eagles were plentiful as well, feasting on the bounty with other wildlife, including herons.
The female remained in sight for almost the entire tour, while other bears wandered by occasionally.
One fairly large male sauntered past the barge along a well-beaten path on the shoreline, heading off in the direction of the larger Tide Rip boat.
The real action didn’t start until the young male showed up. He appeared to be deliberately annoying the female, almost as if he were seeking to provoke a confrontation.
If he was, I would guess he regretted it not too much later. The roars were nearly deafening as the female soundly thrashed him and boxed his ears. It was like being part of those nature documentaries you see on The Discovery Channel or Animal Planet, but far, far better.
“That’s something you don’t see very often,” Lindsey said later, clearly awed recalling the scene.
The altercation didn’t last more than a minute or two, and the young male headed straight toward us with what appeared to be menace on his mind.
It was also clear that most of the group was ready to leap to shore and take their chances in a footrace with the bear. I didn’t like their chances, but I figured they would at least distract him from the three of us huddled at the bow of the boat, too enthralled to worry much about personal safety.
As the joke goes, if you’re fleeing from a bear, you only need to out-run the slowest person in your party.
I also had a quick mental flash of another old joke about how to tell black bear scat from that of grizzlies. Grizzlies, the witticism goes, have a lot of those little bells that hikers tie to their boots in their feces.
Luckily, the moody bear turned away at a reasonable distance, but not before we took some top-notch photos and elevated our heart-beats considerably.
I marvelled at the lethal claws on the bear, clearly visible both to the naked eye and captured in detail in the photos.
The tide began to bottom out, and we reluctantly began to pick out way back into the deeper waters of the estuary and the main boat.
At one point the barge grounded out, prompting some of us to hop out to a nearby shoal until it could be floated free into adjacent deeper water. One visitor, an Italian woman, took a plunge into the cool waters and emerged sputtering but laughing. We somewhat nervously looked around for more bears until all were back aboard again.
At the docks, we feasted on a lunch prepared by the guides and marvelled at the morning’s viewing while comparing photos.
Afterwards, we continued a tour of the inlet for a short while, encountering a couple of black bears somewhat removed from the spot the grizzlies had set up shop. While exciting, the poor blacks were eclipsed by their larger brethren.
Not long after, we embarked on the trip back to Telegraph Cove in bright sun and warm, almost hot temperatures.
Needless to say, it was a day well spent.
The prime time for grizzly bear watching in this location is mid-August through September.