Travel: British Columbia - Is the Pope a Catholic?

Matthew Brace paddles into the woods to discover some less-obvious facts about bears, and escapes with his skin intact

Tucked in the shelter of a cove leading off a deep fjord on Canada's west coast is a lodge offering some of the best grizzly bear-watching in the world.

As my tiny boat-plane lurched through updrafts at 2,000ft, and my body clock reminded me how long the trek here had taken, I sincerely hoped they were right.

I had driven north from San Francisco, California, to Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada's westernmost province, winding through the pine forests of northern California, Oregon and Washington. This was all grizzly country once but, due to deforestation and hunting, the bears now inhabit only western Canada, Alaska, and tiny pockets of the Rocky Mountains.

Below me lay a vast wilderness. The plane's water-skis swept over the treetops of evergreen forests and skimmed snow-capped peaks, so close I could see mountain goats clinging to impossibly steep outcrops and nonchalantly chewing bracken.

A bald-eagle soared under me, its wings at full stretch and its detailed markings clear enough to paint.

Coming in to land on Glendale Cove off Knight Inlet, the roar of the plane's engine sent mew gulls and Canada geese racing for the far banks. Finally, I had arrived.

It is up to you how fast or slow to take things at the Knight Inlet Lodge, but come in spring or autumn and the chances are you'll be rushed off your feet.

No sooner had I got my land legs back than I was urged to leap into a small speedboat by the lodge's wildlife guides Kerry and Greg, and was scrambling for the zip of my fleece jacket to protect against the chill wind that grazed the surface of the water. June felt like November. Greg soon spotted a large male grizzly foraging for grasses on the shoreline.

"I'm a bear magnet," he whispered as we slowed the engine to a hum.

We held our position about 60ft off-shore and downwind so the bear would not catch our scent. Their eyesight is poor but their sense of smell keen. I wanted to get closer.

"Do you know how fast these guys can move?" Kerry said under her breath and then explained we would have only a slim chance of survival, even out on the water, if we went any nearer.

Grizzlies can run at 40mph and are powerful swimmers. They can tear a large man limb from limb with little effort. Being a small man, I took Kerry's advice and trained my binoculars from a safe distance.

Suddenly the male froze, stared down the beach, turned on his rear paws and bolted into the thick spruce forest. I panned my binoculars along the shoreline and found a huge mother with three cubs grazing by a fallen cedar log.

Whether these were the departed male's offspring was hard to tell but it would explain his flight. Males are known to kill cubs but a mother bear will fight to the death to protect them. He was probably avoiding a bloody nose.

The cubs cannot have been more than a few weeks old - they were just unsteady balls of fur with oversized ears. They were watching their mother intently and copying every move she made, then trying her patience by jumping on her back from the log. Despite their play, the group stayed close to the back of the beach, near the protection and camouflage of the treeline.

The urge to get among these magnificent creatures is great. They look harmless, which is why the guides take time to emphasise the risks. Each guest is given a talk when they arrive and is left in no doubt of the might of these beasts.

The next morning, Greg and I set out early in a double kayak, paddling hard against the wind across the cove, chasing one of his "bear magnet" hunches. We had some trouble getting up speed thanks to the superb banquet of crab and salmon prepared the evening before by the lodge's chef, Jim Street. His mother taught him to cook as a boy via VHF radio from her workplace to the kitchen in the family home, and every guest at Knight Inlet is eternally grateful to her for her efforts.

On cue, as we paddled quietly into a bay near McDonald Point, a mother ambled out from the pines with cub in tow. A French film crew in speedboats had almost been charged by the same bear the day before but she hardly knew we were there in our silent kayak. We floated in the bay for half an hour watching her teaching the cub what to eat and how to eat it but there were slim pickings on this crescent of sand and she crashed back into the forest in search of richer fare.

During a three-day stay I saw bears on every trip out from the lodge. On my last afternoon, a young male was so enjoying a late lunch with the sunshine warming his back that I got within 30ft on my kayak, so close I could hear him munching with abandon.

Of course, such a profusion of bears is not common all year round. You have to pick your season. May to August for cubs, September and October for the pre-hibernation feed when the salmon come back to spawn and the bears and bald-eagles gorge themselves on gourmet meals. But there are other wildlife checks to make when coming to British Columbia.

Autumn brings the killer whales (orca) to this coast as they make their way south to Baja California for the winter months. A speedboat ride affords great views of them leaping from the waves.

The lodge's owner, Dean Wyatt, has insisted on a low-impact strategy (everything is built over water, the lodge generates its own power, and numbers are limited and the disturbance to wildlife minimised) which means the viewing is excellent because the animals and birds are still unused to humans. The lodge does not land guests on the shores for fear of attack and in case they disturb the bears' human-free pattern of life.

The only human contact many grizzlies have is, regrettably, with hunters. Mr Wyatt and other conservationists in British Columbia are increasingly concerned about the numbers of bears being shot, legally and illegally, and are calling for a moratorium on hunting.

It makes perfect economic sense as Knight Inlet Lodge pulls in a few million dollars a year from visitors from all over the world, the UK making up the largest overseas contingent, whereas one shot from a hunter's gun eliminates the bear from the financial equation.

With luck and determination, the cubs I saw taking their first few steps on the shore will be able to pass their knowledge on in time and in peace without the threat of their heads being stuffed and stuck on a living- room wall beneath a gun rack.

And future generations of tourists will be able to come and marvel at them too - from a safe distance.

GETTING THERE

Matthew Brace flew with Virgin Atlantic (tel: 01293 747747) to San Francisco, drove north to Vancouver in British Columbia, took a car-ferry to Vancouver Island and boat-plane to Knight Inlet Lodge.

Virgin Atlantic's current return fare to San Francisco is from pounds 409 plus pounds 50 tax. Canadian Airlines (tel: 0345 616767) flies daily to Vancouver from Heathrow from pounds 732 return including tax. Packages, including boat- planes, can be organised by the lodge. Contact Dean Wyatt (tel: 001 250 337 1953; fax: 001 250 337 1914; website: grizzly@island.net).

Also, contact the Visit Canada Centre (tel: 0891 715000).

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