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Kayaking the Great Bear Rainforest

For years I’ve dreamed about this place, of being here alone in a pristine wilderness like the Great Bear Rainforest.

We’ve been staying at the fabulous Nimmo Bay Resort for 8 days and somehow I feel like a failure. The forests surrounding us are full of grizzly bears and black bears. They fish for salmon in these streams, they forage for clams on these beaches, they rub themselves on these trees. And I haven’t managed to see a single one. We know they are here as there are bear tracks everywhere in Big Nimmo Bay. Half-eaten salmon carcasses litter the forests and bear rubbing trees show new snags of fur every day. Nimmo Bay is located in Little Nimmo Bay just a short paddle trip away.

Kayaking solo in British Columbia
Kayaking solo at Big Nimmo Bay

Black bears are most common down here at the water’s edge, but we also know there are grizzlies around. Our friend wildlife photographer Mark saw one yesterday and came back from the boat trip with photos to prove it. Dang! Where were we? Oh yeah, we were busy checking out the beautiful nudibranchs in a nearby lagoon. You can’t be in two places at the same time.

A swimming red nudibranch in the Great Bear Sea, Nimmo Bay
A nudibranch in the Great Bear Sea

They are here and yet I can’t see them. So I decide to do something about it. Every day, at low tide, I am going to get in a kayak and paddle to Big Nimmo to wait for the bears. After all, British Columbia is one of the best place to go kayaking.

Satellite map of kayaking route to Big Nimmo Bay, British Columbia
Satellite map of the kayaking route to Big Nimmo Bay

This morning I set out on my first day of bear-quest. I jump into one of the bright red kayaks that are neatly lined up on the floating dock.  The world is silent, except for the splash of a kingfisher hitting the water. He emerges victoriously with something like a crayfish in his beak. Morning mist rises in the forest, embracing the trees and reaching up to the sky. I wonder if First Nations people believed the forest mist was the breath of a giant grizzly bear, watching over them. I can feel the eyes upon me from behind the trees that pass slowly on the bank, while bald eagles pick half-heartedly at the salmon remains on the shore.

Victorious with its prize
The kingfisher victorious with its prize
Bald eagles sit on top of trees
Bald eagles fill the trees at the Great Bear Rainforest
Early morning fog
Early morning fog in the Great Bear Rainforest

I paddle by the rocky beach where a wolf made an appearance a few weeks ago. I wonder if he is nearby, watching curiously as my kayak glides by. The forest is so dense that I can’t see further than the first row of trunks.

Happiness is kayaking in the Great Bear Rainforest
Big Nimmo Bay at low tide

I arrive at the shore of Big Nimmo Bay. I could step out of the kayak and go for a walk on the beach, but I am alone and it wouldn’t be a very wise decision. The thought of a mountain lion creeping up behind me keeps me planted in my seat. So I sit patiently until I get a sore butt. The morning chill seems to linger longer than usual today. I grab the wool hat from my pocket and pull it down over my ears. A dying salmon swims under my kayak. It’s a large male with the tell-tale hump on his back, covered with sores from freshwater exposure and hanging tattered skin. He has an empty look in his eyes, like a zombie fish swimming on auto-pilot and waiting to die. I hope he already managed to get up river and do what he came here to do: spawn.

Great blue heron in Big Nimmo Bay
Great blue heron in Big Nimmo Bay

Since there are no bears to be seen, I spend some time with the seagulls and photographing a great blue heron. Half an hour later, still no sign of bears, black or grizzly. I paddle to a little inlet by Big Nimmo and the tide is so low that my paddles touch the bottom. There is a little creek here, too small to support any salmon, that empties into the bay. The sound of trickling water is the only sound in this wild place. I close my eyes to listen. Mesmerized by the sound I don’t notice that the tide is still dropping and I am now officially stuck. When I open my eyes, the kayak is firmly lodged on the stony beach. So I sit.

I am alone in this tiny inlet where nobody can see me and I can’t get out. Well, I could actually get out of my kayak and walk it back to deeper water but my hiking shoes would be soaked through and I’m not in the mood for frozen toes. I look around and check every single inch of the rocky shore for bears. Now it would be exhilarating if a bear decided to come out and search for snails.

Stuck at low tide
Stuck at low tide

I replay in my mind what to do in case of a bear encounter. Talk to the bear in a soft, calm manner. Let him know you mean no harm. I am just passing through here, just like you. I am just one more piece of this puzzle. Ok, will do.

I wait for a bear to appear.

And wait.

I realize I haven’t felt this calm anywhere else in the world but in the Kalahari Desert. A place where predators roam, where the circle of life is not broken, and where an ancient way of life, of coexistence with wildlife, can still be felt.

This is when it hits me. I realize it doesn’t really matter. All that I need to see a grizzly today! anxiety disappears.

It doesn’t matter if I see a bear. I am here, living right next to them sharing this pristine wilderness. What more can I ask?

I don’t have to see a bear. I am just happy to know they are here. To know we are all part of this puzzle called wilderness.

And just as I give up, it appears.

Black bear foraging at low tide along Nimmo Bay in the Great Bear Rainforest
Black bear foraging at low tide along Nimmo Bay in the Great Bear Rainforest

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Kayaking solo in British Columbia

Cristina Garcia

Zoologist and wildlife photographer. She has worked in the field with jackals, wolves, cheetahs, & leopards. She serves on the Board of Directors of SEE Turtles, a non-profit sea turtle conservation organization.

Read her posts at Travel For Wildlife and see more of her work at Truly Wild, & Our Wild Yard.


Monday 5th of May 2014

Bears or no bears, the Great Bear Rainforest is a beautiful part of the world. We were very fortunate to see black and grizzly bears there last September, including the mystical Spirit bear. But we had our fair share of rain and bearless days too! Glad you got to see your black bear in the end.

Traveling Ted

Monday 28th of April 2014

This is so true. I just returned from a wilderness hike in Big Bend National Park, and it was awesome to not see a person in the backcountry for two days. I did not see a bear, mountain lion, rattlesnake, or much of anything while hiking, but it was great to just be in the wilderness among them.

Cristina Garcia

Tuesday 29th of April 2014

It is just so nice to know that they are there, that they are watching you, right?


Saturday 12th of April 2014

A perfect place to be, bears or not.

Cristina Garcia

Sunday 13th of April 2014

It really is Gaelyn. This is one part of the world I have to go back to.


Thursday 10th of April 2014

I have paddled many times in the Johnstone Strait and Broughtons area and have seen bears on average every second trip - always black bears. The best wildlife sighting I've had in the area was about a half mile long pod of dolphins making a racket as they moved through.

Cristina Garcia

Thursday 10th of April 2014

How beautiful! I would love to paddle with dolphins!