Today is one of those days that will go down in the memory books as OMG, OMG, OMG! We had one goal today – to see if we could spot local wildlife, and we were treated with the best that nature has to offer!
Our primary reason for choosing to travel to Campbell River was to see grizzly bears in their natural habitat, so months ago, when we started planning this trip, one of the first things we researched was guides who could help us accomplish this. We came across a company called Homalco Wildlife and Cultural tours. On their website, they say “Our connection to the lands and waters runs deep. It is our responsibility to act as stewards and guardians of our lands and waters in the Bute Inlet. Our sites’ cultural and historical significance spans thousands of years, and today our community welcomes tours to view the bears, learn about our connection to the land and wildlife, and become immersed in the beauty of the inlet.” This really resonated with us and our values, and so we chose to take a tour called “The Great Bears of Bute” with them. It was the best decision we could’ve ever made.
We started bright and early at 7 AM at the company’s office on the marina. The plan was to take a boat up to Bute Inlet, an approximately two hour trip, but made longer because of a few wildlife viewing opportunities along the way. The boat ride itself was beautiful and calm, with the early morning sunlight sparkling off the ocean. Our first wildlife experience was with sea lions, taking a comfortable break on a buoy. It wasn’t long before we spotted whales in the distance, so we made our way closer to get a better view. It looked like the pod we spotted had at least three, perhaps four humpbacks. Our professional and friendly staff on board – Cassie our guide, and Flavian our captain – were both from the Homalco Nation, and in addition to making sure that we were well supplied with coffee, tea, water, and snacks, they shared stories about their family’s history that has come down orally from generation to generation.
The Homalco name means “people of fast running waters”, and we discovered exactly why as we made our way into the Bute Inlet. When we got to Orford Bay, our two guides Kalvin and Stewert, and Coda, the camp dog, were waiting for us. We disembarked from the boat and went into a brightly painted bus that took us to the welcome center, a nondescript building a few minutes from the dock. The Orford Bay area has three main industries — logging, a fish hatchery, and wildlife tours. We got a short introduction to all three from our guides in the welcome center. They also explained that Orford Bay is known as Pickinish in the Comox language. And they explained the significance of Whohw, the north wind, in the history and lives of the Homalco people.
Once we received our short orientation, we piled back into the bus and made our way to the first of four viewing platforms that are located in the area. These viewing platforms are about 20 feet off the ground and are a ingenious way to view the wildlife while not interfering in their lives, and still staying safe. At the first platform, we struck gold right away. There was a grizzly feeding at the shoreline and we watched for over 20 minutes while it fished for salmon and ate barnacles off the rocks. While we were watching the grizzly, we also saw eagles in flight, and a gentle little Blacktail deer not more than about 30 feet away. As the bear continued to travel down the shoreline, we lost sight of it, so it was time to climb down from the platform, get back into the bus, and make our way to the next viewing platform.
While the scenery was spectacular at each of the platforms two and three, unfortunately we had no success in spotting grizzlies.
It looked like it was going to be the same at viewing platform four, but just as we were about to give up, a mama bear and her cub came down the estuary of the creek where it joined the Orford River. Watching the two of them together was pure joy! Once mama and baby had wandered out of sight, we climbed down and back into our bus, thoroughly satisfied and ready to head back to the dock and to lunch. But the wildlife gods had one more surprise in store for us!
We couldn’t have gone more than 500m down the road, when over on the right side we saw another grizzly making its way down the shoreline. Our awesome driver Stewert stopped the bus, and Kalvin guided us out in a large but very quiet group. We stood on the bank of the creek and watched as this magnificent animal wandered past us on the other side which was probably not more than about 40 feet away. OMG!
Hearts full, we loaded back into the bus for one last time and made our way back to the dock. The thing that struck us the most about this trip was how passionate the staff are about sharing their culture and their lifestyle. While on the bus, Kalvin told us stories about legends he heard while he was growing up, his personal experiences with the land and the wildlife, and vocabulary from the Comox language. We got to talking with Kalvin and Stewert for a few minutes before we got back on the boat, and here’s something Kalvin said that I stayed with us. ” it was about 2015 when we decided that we wanted to make culture cool. We took 15 youth in our community and taught them more about our culture, singing and dancing. Ten of those 15 youth now work for us here at Homalco Wildlife Tours.”
We waved goodbye to our two guides and to Pickinish (Orford Bay), and pulled out of the dock to a scenic vantage point where we then stopped while the staff on board distributed lunch. Sandwiches and cookies from the Java shack (where we had lunch yesterday) hit the spot, and then we began our boat journey back to Campbell River. The vistas in Bute Inlet were just as spectacular as they were earlier in the day, and we took a slightly different route home than we did when we came up in the morning. We went past Stuart Island to get to Jimmy Judd Island which is where all the sea lions hang out. Our short journey through Aron Rapids was an interesting ride. The water rushing downstream from the Orford River meets up with the tide coming in from the ocean and it creates rapids and whirlpools. What fun!
After a very full day, we headed out to meet friends who live in Campbell River but whom we haven’t seen in years. A great end to an already spectacular day! Tomorrow we plan to snorkel with salmon!!