Photography

Story

Bear Essential

A unique North American sanctuary lets a few lucky observers see the besieged grizzly in its wildest state.

By Christine Schrum

Our inflatable Zodiac boat snakes through a labyrinthine estuary off the coast of British Columbia. Mist hangs in the air. The glassy water mirrors the snowcapped mountains that jut 6,900 feet into the sky. Old-growth hemlock, Sitka spruce and cedar climb the craggy slopes, growing as thick and dense as the fur on a grizzly bear’s back.

“Hey bud, you’re all right,” Tom McPherson, our skipper and guide, says gently as we pull alongside a 300-pound bear with a fresh claw mark on one flank.

The blond bruin turns his back to us. He’s belly-deep in intertidal sedge—a protein-rich plant that coastal grizzlies devour for months after they emerge from their dens in April. He tears at the greens, swiping them with a heavy paw.

I’m with a handful of tourists and photographers near the Alaskan border in the Khutzeymateen Provincial Park, also known as the K’tzim-a-deen Grizzly Sanctuary. The refuge is jointly managed by BC Parks, the Tsimshian First Nations and the Gitsi’is Tribe, whose traditional territory encompasses the park. We flew in yesterday on a floatplane and landed on a glacial fjord. Our base camp: Ocean Light II, a 71-foot ketch-rigged sailboat operated by one of only a few outfitters licensed to enter the estuary in May and June.

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Neil has contributed to a number of publications I've worked on over the last few years and has not only delivered excellent photographic work, but he's also been an inspiration to many of the colleagues I've worked with on creating such content. Neil aims high and hits the target. In some respects, even more impressive than the physical results of his work, are the reactions my colleagues have had to the inspiring messages Neil promotes. He's a keen advocate of the importance of telling conservation stories through images, and his message both figuratively and literally leaves a mark on his audiences.

Aaron Kylie, Editor at Canadian Geographic Magazine