Great Bear Rainforest

September 2023  |  Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia

I knew it would be fun, I thought it could be great, but it turned out to be an epic, even spiritual adventure. I went to see and photograph bears, a unique and amazing population of bears, the Spirit Bears of British Columbia. I would have been happy with just a glimpse of them, but I didn’t just get to see them, I was able to experience them in their natural environment. I was gifted with two days of observing Laaya, a Spirit Bear or Kermode Bear as they're otherwise known. We also saw numerous other Blackbears, Eagles, Stellar's Jays, Humpback Whales, and Wolves!

Just seeing a Spirit Bear would of made the trip, but instead I was able to immerse myself in their environment, experience a glimpse into the Gitga'at Nation's culture, and meet some fellow travelers all sharing a common bond, a love for our natural world and the desire to experience something, to feel something, a bit beyond our normal daily lives.

This world touched me in unexpected ways. This environment, the bears, the wolves, and the people I met still have a hold on me that I can't shake. Primarily, because I do not want to.

Laaya, the Spirit Bear, I had able to observe for two days, keeps a wary eye on another bear, a black bear on the other side...

Laaya, the Spirit Bear, I had able to observe for two days, keeps a wary eye on another bear, a black bear on the other side of the stream. She seemed relaxed but always kept a watchful eye on any other bears in the area. Bears take subtle queues from other fellow bears as well as us humans. The more relaxed we were the more they followed suit. Even positive anxiety, our excitement, seemed to cause them anxiety. Relaxation and slow, subtle movements were key. Laaya's name translates to "high bush cranberry". Photo © copyright by Joe Luedtke.

We arrived in Hartley Bay and were told to unpack our cameras and be ready to go in less than hour. I wanted to get unpacked and settle in, but differed to our guides, and, yes, they knew what they were doing. We went from getting off on the dock to seeing our first bear in less than two hours.

Joe nearing Hartley Bay on Our Ferry Boat

After arriving at our designated location, our first encounter was with a Black Bear as it moved upstream hunting for salmon.

Black Bear Hunting for Pink Salmon

I am born from and of the forest…

We saw three black bears in our first day, numerous eagles and a dozen or so Stellar Jays caching salmon eggs in the moss hanging from trees.

Stellar's Jay Caching Salmon Eggs

Was surprised to learn, they store the eggs in moss up in the trees like a squirrel buries acorns.

After probably two hours of waiting, we were gifted with our first glimpe of Laaya, the Spirt Bear.

Laaya Hunting Salmon on a Mid-stream Boulder

Over two days we spent hours with Laaya watching her hunt, eat, and relax. Here, Laaya is scent marking a tree.

Scent marketing a tree while keeping an ever watchful eye on us.

A Pine Martin, which I've only been able to glimpse and never photograph before, almost became an afterthought in our focus on Laaya.

A Pine Martin, ever wary, hunts for salmon scraps

On the third day, our guides suggested we take the boat further and try and see some wolves. They knew were wolves were frequenting an estuary and said we had a decent chance of seeing some. I've seen wolves numerous times in Yellowstone National Park and as much as I love wolves and hearing them howl, my views of wolves in the past were through spotting scopes a kilometer or away. I was hesitant to give up another day of viewing bears for what I thought would be potentially distant views of wolves, but again, our guides had a good plan. We also had luck on our side, but our guides knew how to potentially get close the wolves without spooking them.

We got to the estuary where they had been frequently seen and timed our arrival with the incoming tide. As the tides came in, our guides, in their waders, slowly pushed the boat forward. This whole process took well over an hour, but the wolves didn't seem bothered by the boat slowly drifting their way. Had we stepped on shore, the wolves would of instantly evaporated into the forest, but instead the wolves were first indifferent to us and then later curious.

Lee Pulling the Boat with the Incoming Tide

We saw 3 or 4 wolves this day including that seemed to be a mated pair.

Pair of Wolves Watches Us From Afar

This pair watched us from a afar, but then later, first the male, then the female came down to shoreline to check us out.

Female wolf coming down to the shoreline to give our boat a closer look

This wolf kept coming closer, then disappeared from view only to come over a berm just a Wolf Bird (Raven) swopped in behind her. Ravens are called at times Wolf Birds because they often follow wolves looking for scraps of food. There is a symbiotic relationship between these two species with ravens altering wolves to both potential prey and other predators and the ravens then getting to scavenge the remains of wolves' kills.

Wolf and Wolf Bird

Female Wolf with a Wolf Bird (Raven) swooping in behind her.

After leaving our wolf encounter with the tide now going out we swung buy a colony of Stellar Sea Lions. Most of my observations of the natural world are visual. I’m getting better at identifying birdsong and a wolf’s howl or an owl’s hoot will always give me a thrill, but normally I focus primarily on what I can see. In this case, the sounds and smells of a Stellar’s Sea Lion colony took the forefront, almost overwhelmingly so. You hear them as soon as you see them and then depending on which way the wind blows, you smell them. Oh boy, do you smell them.They’re a raucous bunch. While some seemed to be completely asleep, a large number of them were constantly jostling for position or in some form of argument or contest with one another. No real fighting was going on, but growling, groaning, and gnashing of teeth. And then the smell. I will never accuse another human being of having fish breath as long as I live.

Two Stellar Sea Lions Jostling for Position

Our last experience was an unexpected invite to glimpse the Gitga’at First Peoples’ culture. We were invites to a feast, actually, a funeral feast. This picture was taken at the beginning of the funeral feast. A year after someone had passed away, the family held a feast to thank the community for the support they had received after the death of their family member. There was singing, laughing, crying, and dancing. Stories were told and apologies to the deceased made. This was the most special “funeral” I’ve ever been to. I can think of no better way to celebrate someone’s life and bring a family and community even closer. Feeling blessed and privileged in being invited in to this celebration.

The day of this feast was also Canada's, National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, This day honors the children and Canada's First Peoples who's society and lives were impacted by Canada's residential school program relocating and separating thousands of indigenous children from theirs homes, families, and tribes. It is also called, "Orange Shirt Day" in Canada. Representatives from the Canadian provisional government where invited to attend the feast as well.

The bears and the wolves were the trip's highlights, but really the whole environment and its inhabitants is what makes this place so special. The water binds everything together. It sustains the forest, propels the salmon, and nurtures the land, air, and sea.

Until next year...