I count them on my fingers. Since moving to B.C. seven years ago, I’ve seen three black bears in this province—almost always from a car—and never worried about running into grizzlies. And yet, after just a single day a few hours north, I’ve already spotted four bears on empty beaches, including a mama grizzly cracking open mussels to feed two almost cartoonishly fuzzy cubs. This is Canadiana at its extreme.

BearsMake some new friends (from a safe distance).

Covering 6.4 million hectares, the sprawling Great Bear Rainforest is one of the world’s last intact temperate coastal rainforests. The BC Ferries 10-hour route from Port Hardy to Bella Coola (running June to October) is opening up access to this wilderness and offers plenty of opportunities for wildlife sightings.

Cultural adventures

Start in the historic village of Telegraph Cove, in the eastern corner of northern Vancouver Island, for your gateway to adventure. Mike Willie is a local hereditary chief and owner of Sea Wolf Adventures. Depending on the season, Willie knows where to find pods of orcas, spot breaching whales and, yes, view grizzlies in the maze of inlets of Broughton Archipelago Marine Provincial Park.

sea wolf adventuresExperience totem poles, traditional dancing and boating with Sea Wolf Adventures.

first nations

orcasSpot orca families in the Broughton Archipelago.

Willie is also passionate about sharing the stories and culture of his Kwakwaka’wakw ancestors as he navigates his powerboat through the misty green fjords. “Our culture is based on wildlife, so it made sense to link it together, the bear viewing and cultural tours,” he explains.

Island-hopping paddles

If you prefer to move at a slower pace, a multi-day paddle with Andrew Jones of Kingfisher Wilderness Adventures includes overnight stays on your own private island (well, basically private—a few other camps, a whale research station and an old fishing resort may attract the odd additional occupant). As we gently bob on the ocean, the peaceful scene is constantly broken by the cacophony of ocean life: the unmistakable sign of whale spouts explode in the distance while nearby sea lions bask on an exposed rock. As we cruise past, the enormous sea dogs piles on top of each other into one big mass and bark in disconcertingly loud displays of territorial dominance. It’s enough to get us moving quickly back to base camp, where a delicious barbecued salmon feast and cozy bed await.

kingfisherPaddle past sea lions and eagles with Kingfisher’s excursions.

Easy river cruising

Resting in the foothills of staggering mountains, the tiny town of Bella Coola is home to a cast of characters, charming cabins and a handful of surprisingly good restaurants—but the real draw is the great outdoors.

Leonard Ellis runs Bella Coola Grizzly Tours, where he delights guests with incredible tales as he shows off Central Coast wildlife. While Ellis’s tour to hidden hot springs shouldn’t be missed, for a gentle journey into bear country, we opt to raft down Bella Coola River from Tweedsmuir Park Lodge.

cabinThe quaintest accommodations at Tweedsmuir Park Lodge.

This mode of travel is an exercise in patience. We take in magnificent scenery as we anticipate a ferocious grizzly around every bend, only to come up empty-handed. We start to think we’re cursed—each time we arrive at a viewing platform, fellow bear enthusiasts excitedly tell us we just missed the show.

Finally, a vision appears—a mama and cub wade through the stream, fishing salmon, while an eagle soars overhead. Slam dunk: Canada at its finest.