The Ultimate B.C. Staycation Guide: A Close Call with Grizzlies at Khutzeymateen Wilderness Lodge

Getting up close and hopefully not too personal with Ursus horribilis in the Khutzeymateen.

For those of us who grew up in Western Canada, one of the conceits we perpetuate is that we are all very comfortable with bears. But my guess is that the share of the full-blown adult population that has read all the Harry Potter novels more than three times is much larger than the share of those who have actually seen a grizzly in the wild. But there are areas out there where grizzlies are not just present, they are a common enough sight to actually be the star attraction.

Which is how I find myself—a person who spent an entire summer living in a remote ranger station on the border between Banff and Jasper but never once saw a grizzly—on a float plane from Prince Rupert with a wily old bush pilot named Ken Cote, destined for the floating Khutzeymateen Wilderness Lodge—the only accommodation near the neighbouring Khutzeymateen grizzly bear sanctuary. As we disembark, Cote bestows an obvious piece of advice: “Remember, you don’t have to run faster than the bear, you just have to run faster than one of us.” 

Grizzly BearsA family of grizzlies cruise along the tideline in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary. Destination BC/Andrew Strain

The grizzly sanctuary and the surrounding inlet conservancy are 100,000 hectares of protected habitat that are home to upward of 60 grizzlies—and it’s the lure of witnessing these land giants in the wild that has drawn me here, as it has as a Swiss family who’ve travelled across the globe for a chance to spot one of these rare behemoths. We’ll all be bunking in at the floating lodge, which sleeps eight as a bobbing respite from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Shortly after getting settled, we head out with lodge owner Jamie Hahn aboard his workhorse aluminum Zodiacs. The remote inlet is devoid of other humans… and, it seems, of bears too. We pass towering cliffs and a half-dozen waterfalls, but our lone grizzly sighting consists of a passing glance at a small juvenile nicknamed “Big Ears,” who bolts from the shore back into the dense brush as soon as we manoeuvre our craft a little closer. It’s not exactly Wild Kingdom, but I can now safely pass a polygraph test on whether I’ve ever seen a grizzly in the wild. So, check that box off. 

Khutzeymateen Wilderness Lodge

The local version of a Land Rover. Photo: Northern BC Tourism/Shayd Johnson

We chug back to camp for an early dinner so luxe that the mind immediately wonders how it could come from such a small kitchen footprint. But before I can get an answer and/or meet the chef, we’re back out on the water (up here, summer nights stay light very late) searching for giants. Like last time, none exactly announce themselves—but, again, it’s surprisingly easy to forget what the prime objective is when you have a hundred thousand pristine hectares all to yourself. Getting off the boat within the sanctuary is not allowed, but outside in the conservancy where the lodge is located there are a few spots where a brief landfall is doable. That means there are waterfalls to explore, ancient cedars to commune with and a whole lot of trails that seem to have been blazed by our ursine friends… all underscoring that sometimes the process is every bit as important as the result.

Khutzeymateen Wilderness Lodge 2The rustic charm of your floating accommodations smack dab in the middle of nowhere. Photo: Northern BC Tourism/Shayd Johnson

The next morning I find myself adopting an it-doesn’t-matter-if-we-see-bears-it’s-about-experiencing-wilderness outlook when one of the Swiss folk asks: “Can grizzlies swim?” All eyes dart hard left to a slow-moving form paddling across the channel that, from a distance, could be the head of a jacked seal. But as we drift closer it’s unmistakably a 750-pound Ursus horribilis. Unlike Big Ears, this fella has zero worries about us—or about anything else, for that matter. He pulls himself up the beach and we can clearly hear his massive claws click-clacking over the rocks as he goes about his explorations and we excitedly snap away with our cameras. We silently follow him for another 30 minutes or so, and it’s fascinating to watch him in his element—a little foraging, a bit more swimming and an occasional break to scratch himself. 

Finally, the bear decides to head inland and we silently putt back to the lodge. Everyone is wearing smiles befitting the interlude we’ve just had. The Swiss will stay on for a few days—they have a level of appreciation for the rarity of the occasion that I, until a few days ago, did not share. On my part, I’ll return with a bona fide up-close-and-personal grizzly experience of my own.

MORE STAYCATIONS: 21 Hidden Places to Hike, Bike, Paddle and Chill in Your Own Backyard