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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There are certain photographers I enjoy talking to because they inspire me with their passion; Neil is one of those folks. He’s passionate about his work, about conservation and making the idea of the environment relatable to everyone. And then he backs it up with gorgeous photography.

Jeff Campagna, Photo Editor at Smithsonian Magazine