The Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen

Story and Photography by Mary Peachin

A grizzly sow in the Khutzeymateen sanctuary seems content to chew sedge
A grizzly sow in the Khutzeymateen sanctuary seems content to chew sedge

On shore, only 10 feet from our rigid infl atable Zodiac, Big Mama was just emerging from winter hibernation. When she wasn’t nursing her yearling cub, she was hungrily chewing on long stalks of sedge grass. Occasionally, she stood on her hind legs, on the lookout for the threat of a marauding male grizzly who might kill her cub.

Within an hour of our arrival at British Columbia’s Khutzeymateen— North America’s largest grizzly bear sanctuary—we were witnessing its legendary inhabitants in action. Dan Wakeman has spent 20 years observing the yearly life-cycles of the bears in Khutzeymateen, and he now shares his intimate knowledge of the grizzlies’ habits and personalities with guests of Sunchaser Charters, his tour company. His clients are primarily wildlifeloving photographers.

Dan is dependent on charter flights to delivery his clients and many of his supplies. After a 30-minute flight from the village of Prince Rupert, which is 50 miles to the south, a single-engine de Havilland Beaver fl oat plane had touched down on Khutzeymateen Inlet to deliver us to Dan’s 40-foot sloop, Sunchaser, anchored on the water.

The Khutzeymateen Valley in British Columbia offers spectacular views.
The Khutzeymateen Valley in British Columbia
offers spectacular views.

Before we had even fi nished unpacking our cameras, a blonde-colored bear sauntered along the nearby shore. (Later in the summer, grizzlies’ coats darken in color when they start feeding on spawning salmon.) Jumping into the Zodiac, we noticed that the young male’s back was covered with bite scars. “He is one of Lucy’s, the Khutzeymateen’s great matriarch, off spring,” Dan explained.

It’s early June and grizzly mating season. This male was on the prowl for a female. Not being the dominant male in the area, he’ll have to “get lucky” to fi nd an eligible female: one without a cub, one who is also in estrus. If she already has a cub, he might kill it, but he won’t mate with her until her hormones make her fertile.

“I’ve known these bears since they were cubs,” said Dan, who described his observations of the bears during Khutzeymateen summers as a “labor of love.”

Life on Sunchaser is planned around the tide. When the water is deep enough, Dan can navigate the Zodiac farther up the Khutzeymateen estuary. High tide aff ords the best opportunity to view bears.

The evening of our arrival, Dungeness crabs pulled from Dan’s nearby trap were cleaned and boiled for dinner. Owing to food allergies and taste preferences in the group, only three of us enjoy the seafood delicacy. The others ate chicken breasts, mashed potatoes, and vegetables.

The cameras are raised during a bear-watching outing on the Zodiac.
The cameras are raised during a bear-watching outing on the Zodiac.

When high tide arrived around twilight, Dan shepherded fi ve of us back into the Zodiac to head up Khutzeymateen estuary. We saw a total of nine bears during our hour ride. One large male with a sizable scar on his back stood stomping on a dead log and hissed. “He’s warning us to back off ,” said Dan. The bear repeated this action a second time. Throttling the boat into reverse, Dan commented, “If we’d been on land, we’d be dead. This is his sanctuary.”

There were more: a cub swimming across the estuary, another running through the sedge, and a large grungy male lumbering out of the woods. Seeing us, the grizzly growled angrily and loped back into the trees. We continued to hear him growl as he retreated.

The sun doesn’t set until after 10 p.m. in northern British Columbia, but by 9 p.m. we were ready to crawl into our bunks for the night. Rain pounded on the skylight above our bunks in the bow.

We woke to a day of viewing grizzles in the mist. By noon, we had observed a total of 11 diff erent bears: a mating pair, several shy “runners,” a few yearlings, subadults, cubs, and both male and female adults. After the short June mating season, females will emerge from winter hibernation with up to four recently born cubs.

A mother and her cub stroll the water’s edge.
A mother and her cub stroll the water’s edge.

Weather interfered with the rest of the day’s viewing plans. A torrential afternoon rain continued steadily into and throughout the night. In long underwear and fleece, I was so happy that I’d brought lots of layers. All of us spent the night cozy under blankets and quilts. The temperature was a mild 59, but the dampness was penetrating.

Our third day brought productive viewing. The Khutzeymateen River was flowing swiftly, and high tide allowed us to explore farther up the estuary. Blue lupine was in bloom, and several odiferous chocolate lilies were just opening. Bald and golden eagles ruffled their wet feathers. Our small group was alone— fewer than 200 people each year have the opportunity to witness this spectacular scene—in the rain, and we photographed more than 20 grizzlies.

This season, Barney, the Khutzeymateen’s dominant male, had not yet been sighted so we searched specifically for him. Unsuccessful, we were instead rewarded with the sighting of a female with two cubs feeding on sedge.

After dinner on our final night on the Sunchaser, we boarded the Zodiac for a short evening tour. On our return, we spotted a dark-colored head in the grass near the distant trees. It was Barney! He stayed just out of reach of the camera’s lens but close enough to wish us farewell. DL Mary Levy Peachin is a local freelance writer. Comments for publication should be addressed to letters@ desertleaf.com.