After a breakfast that included fresh, local blueberries, Rob and I joined our guide to boat across Knight Inlet to Thompson Sound. Our destination is Trapper Rick’s cabin on the Kakweikan River where we hope to watch grizzly bears fishing. Knight Inlet is the longest fjord in Canada. The winds and tides tend to make it a decidedly rough stretch of water. This morning the water was eerily calm, almost glass-like. A marine cloud hung over the mountains that line the fjord.
Seabirds glided over the surface of the water as an occasional harbor seal, with their puppy dog face, would pop up to watch us pass.
Along the way, we saw a large colony of harbor seals with pups hauled out on a large rock.
We also stopped to watch two black bears feeding on the barnacles and mussels exposed by the low tide. One bear was on the beach, alternatively rubbing on a newly exposed log and eating from it.
The other bear was on the rocks at the water line. As we drifted in the water, alone in the Sound, the scraping of bear teeth against the rocks and shells pierced the silence. The grinding of his teeth chewing on those sharp shells made us cringe. What a harsh way to get a meal. Literally.
The bears were focused on their food and paid little attention to us. We watched these bears for a little bit before continuing on to our destination.
As we arrived at Rick’s dock, we were greeted by 60-something Rick and his apprentice, Felix (read about Felix here).
We walked from the dock down a trail, over a rock slide, and through a dry creek bed to the truck. The four of us, Felix, Kevin (our guide), Rob and I, packed ourselves into the tiny pickup and slowly rocked and rolled over an old, long-since-used, logging road. We stopped for a bear in the “road” who didn’t seem to know what to make of us and didn’t care either, which meant he stayed on the road. When he started walking towards us, Felix easily shooed him with the horn. It’s never good to let bears get too comfortable around people. On we went to where to road ended at the river. Then we got out and walked a short trail to two boats tied up at the shore.
These boats are old, metal and “sort of leak”. Felix bailed the boat enough that we could get in without the water overtopping our boots.
Kevin stood on the bow of the closer boat and Felix stood at the back of the second boat. Rob stepped onto the tree root that anchored the shore and then into the first boat. The wave from his weight as the boat pushed lower into the water caused the boat to pull away from the line that Kevin was holding. The result was that Kevin’s feet on the boat were going out from underneath him as he did a backbend to maintain his grasp on the rope. I thought for sure that he was going to fall into the cold river. Rob reflexively grabbed Kevin by his vest, allowing him to stabilize as the boat stopped moving. Rob then stepped into the second boat and sat down. “OK, Sheila, get in”, Felix said. “I am not excited about this”, I replied. With Kevin in one boat and Rob in the other providing counterweights to my movement, I was able to step off the root down onto the bow of the first boat and then onto the seat of the second boat without any tottering. Whew! Once we were all in the boat, Felix pulled us across the river using the overhead lines strung across it. The far side landing was on a nice sandy beach. Easy!
From there we walked a narrow, rustic trail through a beautiful, lichen-covered alder forest to Trapper Rick’s cabin.
There used to be a car bridge that crossed the river here and Rick used to rent the cabin. The bridge has long been impassible. It’s too hard to keep up the cabin without that kind of access. It has a great porch, but the inside belongs to the mice now. The cabin sits atop a bend in the river at a waterfall. The view downriver is extraordinary.
There is an old cement fish ladder along this side of the falls. When the salmon run later in the month, the bears will pick them out of the pools in the fish ladder like shopping at a grocery store. We hung out here taking in the peace and beauty of this place.
A couple of helicopters broke the silence, flying low overhead. They bring people out here to fish, which causes a lot of friction with Rick, who no longer traps but instead hosts these bear viewing tours. (I’m helping to save pine martens by bear watching. Win-win!).
Since there wasn’t any bear activity here, we hiked a little further down the river. We started in the alder forest which quickly gave way to mixed woods with thorny devil’s club and berries lining the meager trail. Because the trail is so narrow through dense woods, and we are, after all, looking for bears, Felix cautioned us to stay together in a tight group. Our hike took us into an old cedar and fir forest, with an open, moss-carpeted floor that feels spongy under foot. It looks like something from a fairy tale. We emerged at the river’s edge and climbed up to sit on top of a large boulder. There are quiet, babbling riffles right here. The sound of the falls we just left can be heard faintly in the distance, like the wind rustling through trees. The sun is warm in the cloudless sky. Spring salmon are launching themselves fully out of the water as they make their way upstream. These are Chinook or King salmon, also known as spring salmon for the way they spring into the air like this. This is such a beautiful spot.
Suddenly, a tall, lanky, skinny bear appeared out of the bushes across the river and immediately turned up along the riverbank.
He is walking the river’s edge with purpose, crossing fallen trees and ambling over boulders. He is only in view for a minute or two before he disappears around a bend. He is so lean that he looks more like a black bear than a grizzly. We lingered here a while longer, hoping for some more activity and then hiked back to the cabin for a picnic lunch.
When we arrived back at the cabin, Felix went down the side trail for a safety check of the fish ladder and lower falls. If there were a bear down there, we wouldn’t be able to see it from the cabin. Felix reappeared, gesturing wildly and silently. We hurried behind him. There was a bear walking along the edge of the cement fish ladder, checking the pools for fish. He was coming up river towards us.
Felix calmly said, “Hey, bear” just to let him know we were here and that we are just people. The bear turned and went to the bottom of the falls.
He seemed like he wanted to cross the river but was hesitant. He looked across and then back several times. Then he sat on the shore and scratched his neck. He sat here, facing the opposite shore, for a little bit looking longingly to the other side. Then he stood up and started across the river. He stepped from rock to rock until he was near the middle.
He stopped and scratched again, then yawned. These are classic signs of conflict in dogs – conflict between what they want and the situation they are in. It is amazing to be able to read these same behaviors in a wild grizzly. Anyone watching could see that this bear wanted to be on the other side without swimming across. Then he lowered himself into the river and swam confidently across.
He lingered in a small pool in the middle of the falls on the other side. It’s a good spot to find resting fish who are fighting their way up the falls. No luck today. He moved slowly down the far shore of the river, wading in the shallows, looking for an easy fish. Having no success fishing that side, he decided to cross back to our side. Again, he reluctantly moved from rock to rock until he got to mid-river. Then he paused, scratched and placed his four feet together underneath his body.
He was gathering up his courage. I thought he was going to leap over this stretch of water! He hopped forward onto a submerged rock and swam the rest of the way. Once back to our side of the river, he continued moseying downstream until a river bend took him out of sight.
We headed back up to the cabin to enjoy our lunch on the porch and while away the rest of the afternoon. We talked about living in the wilds here, about wildlife conservation, about people who live peacefully among predators (bears, cougars, African lions, etc), travel, photography, dogs and more. There wasn’t a lot of bear activity here, which is to be expected this time of year. When the salmon run at the end of August, the river will be busy with bears. But it is a beautiful, serene place that will make you see more clearly than ever before.
The river crossing on the way back was uneventful. The leak was slow enough that Felix didn’t even need to bail again. When we arrived back at the dock, we surprised a momma merganser and her 6 ducklings. She startled and immediately dove. When she surfaced, she began calling frantically for her ducklings to follow. They are too young to dive and paddled madly to keep up with her as they all swam away. She should talk to the bears to know that we don’t mean them any harm.
We were an hour late returning to the lodge, an hour spent gloriously along the Kakweikan River.