The Khutzeymateen Valley, tucked away north of Prince Rupert, British Columbia, is a pristine guarded sanctuary for the North American Grizzly. The valley supports around 50 bears due to its abundant food sources, consisting of sedge grass, skunk cabbage, mussels , salmon, and rugged and inaccessible terrain. The valley is home to a variety of wildlife commingling in 45,000 hectares of protected wilderness. Wolves, migrating geese, ducks, beavers, otters and harbor seals are all part of the landscape. We spent three days on the Oceanlight II navigating the waters on this magnificent 72 foot ketch. However, the majority of time found us in a sturdy zodiac getting up close to these powerful and magical creatures. Our skipper, Tom Ellison provided us with a rare opportunity to observe the grizzly in a safe setting where many myths of a fierce and unpredictable animal were dispelled. Please keep in mind that all bears are wild animals, and should always be observed at safe distances with professional guides if you lack the experience in bear country. Here is the opportunity to overcome those limitations.
We started our journey by flying into Prince Rupert and staying two nights at a quaint B& B, the Eagles Bluff Inn right on the harbor. The next day was spent walking around the town, visiting the Museum of Northern BC, and finishing off with a nice meal overlooking the harbor. We were up early on our departure day for a float plane ride to the fjord where the Oceanlight II was awaiting us. The 15 minutes flight took us over several mountain ranges and the good weather allowed us some wonderful sightseeing. And then it was time to descend into the fjord and our Khutzeymateen adventure. The valley name comes from the local native nation and means 'sheltered place of fish and bears'.
Touchdown was one of the smoothest landings we have ever experienced. What a great start. We taxied to a gentle stop and then proceeded to swap places with the outgoing party. The weather was calm and mild and we made our way to the Oceanlight II to settle in. After meeting the crew and fellow adventurers, we made for the ranger station to fill up on fresh water and take in the glorious sights. The agreement that brought protection to the Khutzeymateen valley was negotiated between the BC provincial government and the local native nation, the Tsimshian. The two rangers, who spend 5 months of the year on an anchored house boat, are from the nation and protect this valley form unauthorized use. It gives you a good feeling to see this land being watched over by the very people who hold it sacred, a example for all of us to follow. Just click below to continue the journey.
The Khutzeymateen valley is uninhabited by humans, with no roads, trails, campsites or signs of intrusion by civilization. An ancient trilogy of grizzly bears, spawning salmon and Sitka trees are all that inhabit this corner of the world. Three main ecosystems converge here that include, mountain hemlock, costal western hemlock and alpine tundra. This kind of biodiversity in overlapping patterns helps maintain and preserve an environment that attracts wildlife and all the other components that makes this a special place. There are a few groups that are active in saving this corner of the world, and if you do visit, please consider a donation to help in their efforts. They include BC Space for Nature, Valhalla Society, and Raincoast Conservation Society. Thank you to BC Space for Nature for granting permission to use the map for your viewing pleasure.
Bears in Action
Well, now on to the Khutzeymateen population of interest, grizzly bears. The image of a grizzly bear conjures up and provokes a wide range of visuals and emotions. The power that these creatures posses is to be both admired and feared. But whether you accept or fear bears, they will always play a part in our lives and are a reminder that a wild world proceeded us and we must ensure it follows us.
The Northwest native cultures hold the bear and its spirit in reverence. It is one the most widespread figures in shamanic art and pervades in many myths. The bear is believed to be a link between the human and non-human worlds as its appearance and habits parallel our own lives. Bears are guardians and protectors who watch over tribal warriors. In the Bear Mother story, a Bear chief hears a woman insulting bears after stepping in dung and whisks her away to give birth to twin cubs with extraordinary powers. The woman is rescued by a male human relative and returned to the human village. Soon the human-bear children become founders of the Bear lineage, and to this day those with rights to display the Bear crest call the bear their relative, and have the power to converse with the mythical beings.
One of the main attractions of Khutzeymateen for the grizzly bear is the abundant supply of sedge grasses within the estuary and along the fjord. Our most productive spot was within the estuary at high tide quietly floating close to a bear, minimizing our movements and paying respect to the bear's perceived space. Tom was an excellent coach and his guidance allowed us some extraordinary photography.
" Brutus" is the dominant male in the valley this year. He was the first bear we came across and we were treated to hours of his exhausting perpetual motion. We spied him first chasing away a wolf from a seal carcass that the female had abandoned revealing his massive frame. Tom estimated him at 1000 lbs and from what we saw it was pure muscle. While we never saw him run, grizzlies have been clocked at 35-40 mph, especially mothers protecting cubs. In the next panel we followed him for about 3 miles as he made his way out the estuary.
After we left him, he was spotted later in the day another 4 miles down the inlet by one of the park rangers, still seeking food and a mate. Then, on the next day around mid-morning on the opposite shore there was Brutus in his perpetual locomotion heading back into the estuary. He had crossed the fjord at some point, about 3/4 of a mile, and now was back with us. We followed him past washed up remains of a rather large spring (king) salmon that had a nasty odor to it, and when he caught a whiff, it must have been pure delight, as he proceeded to sit down in the water and devour the carcass. After his quick snack, he continued on and then with a sniff in the air and a gleam in his eye he waded in and swam to the opposite shore once again. Possibly there was a female somewhere with whom he might conjure up a few cubs.
The claws of a full grown male grizzly are slightly curved and may reach up to 4 inches in length, and can be a deadly blow to any object that is in the path of a swipe. Some final shots of these wonderful bears who gave us the opportunity to glimpse into a window of their lives.
Tracks n Trails
Some of the treats in bear country are close ups of bear tracks and trials. And this area was no exception. When we ventured on shore for a brief moment, the tracks of one of these powerful creatures came into sight. The hind paw of a grizzly almost has a human quality to it, however it is much larger and cannot be mistaken for the two footed human variety. Below are several shots of one of the females we were tracking.
A real treat came a day later when Tom took us into the estuary for a special viewing. As we slowly made our way through a marsh area populated with moss laden Sitka trees, we steered slowly towards a covered bank. After ensuring we were alone, we then were given a short glimpse of an ancient bear trial. There before us were footprints embedded deep into the moss saturated bank. As the bears travel this path they carefully place their paws into the tracks of their ancestors. It was a magical moment that seemed to reveal the spirit power of the grizzly bear. And to top it off in front of us were several scratch trees, as you can see from the pics below.
Well, all good things must come to an end, and after three days it was time to head back. We had a farewell dinner the last night, packed and woke up early for the flight back to Prince Rupert. We met some wonderful people on this trip who shared our awe of nature and the great bear, and we plan to continue our never ending adventure quest.
May our paths & errands meet
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