Story by Adrian Brijbassi
SONORA ISLAND, BRITISH COLUMBIA — September 21 began dim and grey, with dampness and fog, the usual elements of a British Columbia fall. A group of travellers huddled into a 28-foot fishing boat hauling cameras and hopes. A grizzly bear. Just one, on the shoreline, close enough and moving slowly enough to fill the frame of a lens: That was the sight we dreamed of as we left the docks of Sonora Resort, a Relais & Chateaux property that is worth every accolade it receives — not to mention a few days of your time.
What followed was 12 hours of adventure that beat every expectation any of us carried aboard.
I’ve been on photographic hunts for extraordinary wildlife before, as had many of the passengers in the boat. On an African safari, I was in a vehicle that tracked a leopard for an hour hoping to see it pounce on an unsuspecting antelope for that coveted “kill shot” so many photographers seek. The moment ended when the antelope picked up on scent or noise or subconscious warning to flee. In the Galapagos Islands, I travelled for eight days on a mind-blowing tour of Darwin’s isles that was as much about the topography as the sea lions, lizards, and turtles. In La Paz, Mexico, one of the most underrated destinations on the planet, I caught sight of a humpback whale emerging right in front of the nose of a fishing boat I rode on.
This day in Canada approached that level of exoticness.
About 100 metres from Sonora Resort is a rock populated by harbour seals, a few hundred metres farther, on the opposite shoreline, resident stellar sea lions bask and play in the waters of the Strait of Georgia. Amid the captivating and exciting wildlife is the mountains and rainforests of the Pacific Rim, which on a normal day would be something to write about on their own. Then there is the current, a wicked wonder that pushes and pulls, churns and spills. It creates shockingly large whirlpools and white-water rapids, a couple of which turn into sizeable enough chutes that you might think this part of the world inspired those log-plunge rides at amusement parks.
On the Grizzly Bear Tour, wilderness guide Aaron Nagler drove the boat through those rapids, passing fjords and eagles’ nests, and into the Bute Inlet, docking at the Homalco First Nations territory. Our group was then shuttled to the Orford River Valley, where the salmon run is fierce and the grizzlies’ appetites are ferocious. When we disembarked the Homalco bus, we were 10 feet from a clearing on a riverbank that is opposite a mother grizzly and two of her cubs, who gnawed on a fresh-caught, silvery fish.
“This is the best grizzly experience I’ve ever had,” said Ethan Meleg, an outstanding wilderness photographer who has been shooting for nearly two decades. Meleg was stupefied with the photographic opportunities — and we were less than 20 minutes into the grizzly bear viewing. The outing continued down the road to the confluence of the two rivers, where a female grizzly ambled up the rocky inlet to snatch and devour a salmon within 15 feet of our wide eyes.
A Grizzly Bear Tour With Real Bite
On an African safari, lions — sometimes lured by the smell of meat kept in the boot of a tracker — will come within a three feet of your tour vehicle. But the guide has his foot poised on the accelerator and no one ever leaves the jeep. On the Galapagos, the animals are tame and there’s rarely danger. Here, on the grizzly tour, you’re on foot. The guides don’t carry guns and you’re free to walk while the animals go about their day. Although there are wooden viewing platforms that tour goers are herded up to if there is a threat, the bears are so unconcerned with the human activity around them that we stood and watched for more than an hour without ever feeling unnerved.
“Grizzlies are more likely to want to avoid us than come closer,” said Nagler, who communicates clear instructions to visitors before and during the tour. “The only time I’ve ever been nervous on these tours is when a human does something that they really should know better than to do.”
For photographers, the chance to capture such majestic animals so close and with so relatively little effort is rare. Digital cards that normally would take a week or more to fill were completely loaded with images within two hours. And the day was only going to get better.
After the grizzly tour, the boat drove back to Sonora Resort for a satisfying lunch prepared by chef Terry Pichor‘s team. Next, we returned to the waters for a tour through the Johnstone Strait that separates British Columbia’s gorgeous Discovery Islands from the province’s mainland. The population of Pacific white-sided dolphins has grown in recent years and these beautiful mammals will swim in large schools, trailing boats to take advantage of the fast-moving current they create. On this day, Nagler took the boat into a school of what he estimated to be 150 dolphins that hurdled out of the water with aerodynamic grace. Beyond them, spanning the horizon, was a massive rainbow that left mouths gaping.
“What an amazing day,” said Rosemarie Keough, who along with her husband, Pat, has won more than two-dozen prestigious awards and is among Canada’s greatest photographers. “You would never imagine you would see so much when we left this morning.”
What followed? A tour through an ancient rainforest occupied with trees as old as 2,200 years. Then back in the boat to return to the resort and just before we arrived, we came upon more dolphins who this time appeared to be playing with the sea lions, who’d plunged off the rocks to perform a water dance with their fellow residents of the sea.
“I’ll never forget this day,” Meleg said, eyes stretched and head shaking, his face holding onto a look of awe. Just like we all were.
More About Sonora Resort
Location: Sonora Resort is the only property on Sonora Island, one of the Discovery Islands and a short distance from Campbell River on Vancouver Island.
Getting There: From Campbell River, Sonora is accessed by ferry. From Vancouver, guests are picked up by helicopter for a scenic one-hour flight that crosses Howe Sound and the Strait of Georgia, landing on a heli-pad at the resort. Seaplanes are also used to shuttle guests from Vancouver. You will be notified of the mode of transportation in your itinerary.
Dates of Operation: The resort operates until October 15 this year and then resumes on May 1, 2014.
Reservations: Telephone 1-888-576-6672 (toll free) or 1-604-233-0460 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Room Rates: All-inclusive accommodations are divided into Diamond and Gold rates, with the lowest price for a couple being $575 per night during low season (May 1-25). Accommodations include all meals and drinks, plus use of the resort’s amazing amenities that include a golf simulator, movie theatre, fly-fishing pond, and well-outfitted games room.
Bonus: All items in the mini-bar are complimentary, including alcoholic beverages, and there is also a Snack Shop with complimentary treats like granola bars, chips, chocolate bars, soft drinks, and beer.
Eco Tour: The Grizzly Bear Tour and photography workshop featuring Pat and Rosemarie Keough is one of the experiences you can inquire about when you make your reservations. The rate, including transportation from Vancouver, is $6,045 per couple for an all-inclusive two-night stay.
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