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There are several kinds of bears that a traveler will see in British Columbia and it helps to have a knowledge of the names as they are sometimes used interchangeably, though they differ in size and shape:


Black Bears
The black bear is the smallest of the British Columbian bears, though small is relative in the bear family as this animal on average weighs 350 lbs, and though their name has the world “black” in it, they can also be brown, gray and cream. A black bear can be distinguished from others as they lack a large shoulder hump and their profile is that of a straight head and snout. Their rump is higher than their shoulders and the ears are longer and come to more of a point. The claws are black and short, giving them a great ability to climb trees. All bears are omnivores and opportunistic, meaning they will eat anything that is available to them such as insects, berries, fish, deer, moose and caribou. The yearly cycle of all bears is the same. They emerge in the spring from their dens hungry and ready to eat the first green plants that are springing up from the winter months. In summer they are feasting on fresh berries and the salmon runs, putting on as much weight as possible. By fall there is a mad dash to eat the dwindling food supply. Those that don’t gain enough weight by this point risk starvation or being killed by other bears. As soon as the snow begins to fall most bears are hibernating and mothers give birth to cubs inside the den.


For hundreds of years the First Nations of Kitasoo and Gitga’at told tales of a snow-white spirit bear that wandered the Great Bear Rainforest. In the damp misty fog of the forest an image of a ghostly bear would appear, stark against the contrast of the forest greenery and then it would quickly recede, shrouded by the mist. They said the spirit bear was created by Raven, the creator of the rainforest. From black bears this bear came to remind the people of the time when ice covered the land and food was scarce. By remembering the past one would have gratitude and thankfulness for the lush and bountiful land of today. Raven set aside the rainforest as a particular piece of land where these spirit bears would dwell in peace forever. The tribes revered the bear and viewed it as having supernatural powers. The rest of the nation thought it was a lovely tale until the early 1990s when two filmmakers stunned the world with images of the spirit bear called Kermode.


The Kermode is a sub-species of a black bear and is found mainly in British Columbia and in particular in the Great Bear Rainforest, one of the largest coastal, temperate rainforests in the world. The bear is not a polar bear nor is it an albino, but rather, this bear is born to black bear parents and inherits a recessive gene from each one, rendering it a milky, vanilla white. First Nations never hunted this bear and attached such reverence some would barely speak of the bear out loud. Today in the Great Bear Rainforest, if the spirit bear decides to reveal himself to you, you will be blessed with dazzling photographs and memories.


Brown Bears
Adult brown bears are massive, powerful, the top of the food chain and they rule the forests of British Columbia. There is a good chance that you will see them on your trip as more than half of Canada’s brown bear population is found in British Columbia. They are solitary animals except for a mother with cubs and when they are fishing in the same area. Browns are distinguishable from blacks by their large shoulder hump which gives them the strength to dig for roots and turn over fallen trees and logs. They also have a concave face and long claws used for digging. Despite their bulk they are very agile and can run up to speeds of 30 miles per hour. Like blacks, they can be found with coats that range from cinnamon to blonde.


All grizzly bears are brown bears but not all brown bears are grizzlies. They are smaller than the Kodiaks and coastal bears of Alaska and grizzlies can be found roaming the interior of Alaska and Canada, and down into Montana and Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. In Canada, brown bears are referred to as grizzlies.


Up Close and Personal
While popular conception has bears around every tree trunk in British Columbia, they can still remain elusive. However, there are some favorite sites to view these creatures in order to take that framable quality photograph or just to spin a few bear-raising tales for the friends back home.


Good sites in British Columbia to view bears include the following:


The Great Bear Rainforest - Grizzly, Kermode Bears
Encompassing more than 250 miles along the coast of British Columbia, this 21 million acre temperate forested area is the largest rainforest in North America and is sometimes referred to as the Amazon of the North. The rainforest was officially recognized by the government of British Columbia in 2016 when an agreement was entered into to protect 85% of the old-growth forested area from logging. Later that year the rainforest was inducted into the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy.


This is a wild and magical place that is teeming with cougars, wolves, grizzlies, an abundance of fish and birds and of course the Kermode or spirit bear. Some say that even Sasquatch or Big Foot makes his home on the floor of the rainforest, but it is the site of the elusive spirit bear that keeps drawing photographers and tourists from all over the world to this rare and exceptional ecosystem.


Bella Coola - Grizzly, Black, Kermode Bears
Gateway to the Great Bear Rainforest, Bella Coola lies 62 miles (100 km) inland from the coast. This area is also known for their museum quality handiwork from the First Nations Nuxalk people. In September, the bear viewing station in Tweedsmuir Park provides a safe way to get close to bears and has been rated a hidden jewel on Trip Advisor. Some of the grizzly bear safaris in the area provide floating down the Atnarko River, petroglyph viewing and even bear photography workshops.


Whistler - Black Bear
Home to the 2010 winter Olympics, Whistler has something for everyone in every single season. In summer experience the chance to view Whistler’s famous black bears and cubs in their stunning habitat. Travel the area in a 4x4 vehicle through ski area habitats while seeing the largest concentration of mother bear ranges in the region. Besides bear viewing, Whistler’s summer schedule includes an eclectic mix of events, family friendly activities and a vibrant arts and culture scene. With so many activities to choose from, every member of your family or tour group is bound to have a memorable experience.


Torino - Black Bear
Torino is a small district on Vancouver Island off of Canada’s west coast. Most whale watching outfitters have ocean-going tours that specialize in viewing bears in their own environment. On these bear watching expeditions, you will see resident black bears moseying along the beaches as they forage for food, while you remain at a safe distance in the boat.


Knight Inlet / Telegraph Cove-Grizzly, Black Bear
Knight Inlet is one of the main inlets on the British Columbia coast and one of the best places to see grizzlies. Bear-viewing operators start their amazing grizzly excursion on the northern part of Vancouver Island in Telegraph Cove. In a comfortable vessel, you will spend two hours journeying into Knight Inlet, the longest and most beautiful inlet on the west coast. As you are served breakfast, your travel companion will be the most breath-taking scenery imagined. In spring when hibernation ends, the hungry bears make their way from their dens to the dense grasses along the shores. As the tide recedes they will be seen turning over rocks in search of crabs and mussels. Sometime in early or mid-August the salmon will begin their run and when the conditions are right, bear-viewing operators can position their vessels for a front row seat to one of nature’s amazing feeding rituals.


Stewart B.C./Hyder, Alaska - Grizzly, Black Bear
Situated right across from Hyder, Alaska, Stewart’s wilderness is alive with activity from grizzlies and black bears. This unspoiled, remote area is sure to please hikers, fisherman and any outdoor enthusiast.

Viewing Information at Fish Creek-Hyder, Alaska
Bears use the site from mid-July through early September, following the arrival of salmon that return to the fresh waters of the creeks to spawn. The site is open from 6:00 am to 10:00 pm daily. Forest Service employees are at the site during these hours to provide information about the bears and salmon, enforce site rules, and answer questions from visitors.


Elkford - Black Bear
Elkford’s theme is “get intimate with nature” and one can surely do that in this picturesque town founded in 1971 as a home for miners. Today it boasts a population of almost 3,000 residents and “wilderness remains core to what the community is and wants to be.” Take a look at the town’s website at www.elkford.ca


Kitimat - Black & Kermode Bears
The city of Kitimat is a north coast community and in the First Nation language of the Haisla means “people of the snow.” The Kitimat River is nearby, as well as lakes and streams with stunning scenery. This town is unique in that it embraces an eco-friendly concept in its city planning as the entire community is connected with a series of paths through green spaces, situated to eliminate excessive crossing of major streets. There is a balance between work and leisure. Biking is a very effective mode of transportation as the planning extends to intricate bike paths with short commute times and close proximity to schools, downtown and neighborhoods.


Terrace - Black & Kermode Bears
Located within the Skeena River Valley and 37 miles from the ocean, Terrace is in a moderate-weather zone that allows the growing of fruit trees along with lots of opportunity for bear viewing. The bears thrive in this mild climate that has half the rainfall as that on the coast, as well as lush forest growth.


Haida Gwaii - Black Bear
Haida Gwaii (Islands of the People), formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, is a remote archipelago on the north coast of British Columbia. The area is rich in history and outdoor adventure with very unique and distinct flora and fauna which gives the islands the nickname “the Galapagos of the North.” From wind-swept beaches to ancient Haida village sites to mountain trails, there is always something worth exploring.


Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary - Grizzly, Black Bears
This sanctuary was designated a protected park in 1994 as the first area in Canada to be protected specifically for grizzly bears and their habitat, and is the first undisturbed sanctuary of its size along British Columbia’s north coast. Towering peaks look out over a valley of wetlands and old-growth rainforests. Within this First Nation territory of the Tsimshian lies a very healthy and established grizzly bear population.


There are many ways to view bears in British Columbia, from just driving down the highway to hikes and treks into moss covered trails and otherworldly forests. However, the safest way would be to book a tour with a guided bear-viewing company. In the excitement of seeing these massive animals many tourists can forget that bears are wild, unpredictable and can be dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing. From first hand experience I count my blessings for my guide who knew exactly what to do in every situation. These guides are from the area and make the tour enjoyable with their rich knowledge of the area. The trip becomes memorable and most importantly, these guides make your trip safe so you can come back to British Columbia, again and again. 


* Note: bears know no boundaries and may travel to other regions. The above information is general directions in finding these species of bears.

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