An Encounter

Grizzly Bears of the Khutzeymateen

Early this past June I was finally able to realize a dream I’d had for several years:  to visit the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary. My trip had been delayed by COVID restrictions, but at last it happened and it did not disappoint.

Located 45 km northeast of Prince Rupert, the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary is a 450 sq km Class A park, established by the province in August 1994 principally for the protection of grizzly bears and their habitat. It is the first area in Canada to be protected for that purpose. Its diverse geography includes rugged peaks surrounding old growth temperate rainforests, wetlands, and a large river estuary (source, The grizzly bears had recently emerged from their winter hibernation and were in the estuary feeding on the protein-rich sedge grass, clams, and whatever else they could find to replenish the bulk on which they had survived over the winter.

Interestingly, grizzlies (a subspecies of brown bears who are so named because of their grizzled hair, not their presumed temperament), do not actually hibernate. Instead, they enter a much milder state of torpor during which their body temperature dips to 30-35°C, and their heart rate slows to 10-15 beats per minute. They can still wake and move around. Cubs are born while the females are in this state. At birth, the cubs are blind and quite small and must figure out how to nurse on their own until mum wakes up!

Late spring is mating season, and a variety of male-female interactions were on display. The size difference between males and females was very apparent. Spring weights average around 480 lbs. for males and 290 lbs. for females. In the fall, weights are typically 30%-40% higher.

With all that is going on, the Khutzeymateen in the late spring is an ideal place and time to experience and photograph these magnificent animals. I flew to Prince Rupert on Sunday, June 4 and early the next morning met the six others who were also on the trip. We then flew by Beaver through the rugged mountains from Prince Rupert to the estuary. On landing, we were met by Jenn and Chris of Ocean Light Adventures, our hosts for the four days.

Shortly after arrival, we settled in on the Afterglow, the 65 ft motor cruiser which was to be our home for the trip, and then went out on the Zodiac for our first shoot. We went out three times every day for 3-4 hours each time. This enabled us to experience different tides and different times of day as well as different locations. Much of the time we were in the estuary but occasionally we ventured down the inlet to see what other wildlife was around. Our guide, Chris, was very knowledgeable, both in terms of bear behaviour and photographers’ needs. While the weather started off drizzly and a bit overcast (which I preferred for shooting), things brightened up beautifully. I continually felt the grandeur of the wilderness; only two small boats are allowed at a time in the estuary, to ensure minimal disturbance to the bears.

I took two camera bodies, a Nikon D810 and a D500. I primarily used my 200-500 f5.6 with the D810 and, for more distant imaging, put it on my D500. I used my 70-200 f2.8 and 24-70 f2.8 for my D810 for wider shots. The iPhone 13 came in handy for quick pics and videos. Things seemed to work out well. I took about 4500 images, which was low compared to another on the trip who took over 40,000 in two days!

Visiting the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary is an experience I will never forget. It is one that has been experienced by several VCC members over the years, some of whom have made multiple trips. This was my first, but certainly will not be my last.

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