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A Google Trek Through Canada's Only Grizzly Bear Sanctuary

Equipped with a Google Street View Trekker backpack, our writer explores grizzly country.

A grizzly, Khutzeymateen National Park

A grizzly roams the shore in the Khutzeymateen National Park.

“Remember, you don’t have to run faster than the bear,” cautions our bush pilot, Ken Cote. “You just have to run faster than one of us.” I look at our group appraisingly, and my eyes linger on one member who happens to be wearing a Google Street View Trekker backpack. I exhale ever so slightly.

Khutzeymateen Inlet

Trekking with the Trekker on the Khutzeymateen Inlet.

When in grizzly country, it’s inevitable that someone will utter that phrase – it’s just a question of when. For me, it was while standing on the dock at the floating Khutzeymateen Wilderness Lodge, five minutes after hopping off Ken’s 1954 de Havilland Beaver float plane. Joking about bears may be good fun in Ontario’s Algonquin Park, but up here, 50 kilometres north of the already remote Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Ken’s advice takes on an air of morbid practicality. We, along with a vacationing Swiss family, are the only human occupants of the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary and surrounding Inlet Conservancy – 58,361 hectares of protected habitat that’s home to roughly 50 grizzlies, so we’re seriously outnumbered. But that’s a good thing, as we’ve lugged the Trekker up here for the sole purpose of seeing these giants in their natural habitat and cataloguing the experience for Google-able posterity. We just can’t seem to find them.

Trekking; Jordie the dog

Left to right: Walking where the wild things are; Jordie the dog on paw patrol.

An afternoon trip with lodge owner Jamie Hahn aboard his workhorse aluminum Zodiac takes us deep into the inlet, right to the mouth of the Khutzeymateen River. We pass towering cliffs and a half-dozen waterfalls, but our lone grizzly sighting consists of a passing glance at a small juvenile bear nicknamed Big Ears who bolts from the shore back into the dense brush as soon as we manoeuvre our craft a little closer. Captain Jamie scratches his head and mutters: “We saw 11 bears around here three days ago.” We chug back to camp for an early dinner, which would seem like defeat save for the fact that Manuela, the lodge’s Red Seal-certified German chef, has whipped up a consolation feast of roast chicken and rösti to welcome us back. After, there’s talk of fishing (on a floating lodge, you can drop a line pretty much anywhere), but given that the sun won’t set until 10 p.m., we decide to trek back out to at least capture the pristine scenery and one of the falls we passed earlier. Getting off the boat within the sanctuary is verboten, but the lodge sits outside it, in the conservancy, where a brief on-land reverie is possible in a few spots. A damp moss carpets everything and requires careful footing; with the awkward (and valuable) Trekker in tow, it means that slow going is the order of the day. After 15 minutes of labour, one of life’s fundamental truths – there’s no such thing as a bad waterfall – is proven again when we’re rewarded with the view of water tumbling down a steep mountainside studded with ancient cedars. The whole scene is feeling very go-with-the-flow, but you can only bliss out so long when you’re following a path blazed not by humans, but by our (evasive) four-legged friends.

Floating treehouse

A float-worthy take on a treehouse.

And now, thanks to the joint effort by Google and Destination British Colombia (the province’s tourism board), virtual visitors can get a similar experience – no bear repellent necessary. Just as you can use Google Street View to explore the neighbourhood you grew up in, you’ll soon be able get a 360-degree sense of the Khutzeymateen (and other remote locales – see sidebar). My initial worry that such clickable access to difficult terrain will further turn us into a nation of couch potatoes is blown away by the cool breeze that comes off the plunge pool. It’s more likely that when these images, captured by 15 whirring cameras, are seen, adventurous travellers are going to be lining up to experience them first-hand.

Guests at a Khutzeymateen Inlet waterfall

Guests having a wild time at one of the many waterfalls that dot the edge of the Khutzeymateen Inlet.

“Can grizzlies swim?” It’s the next morning and we’re deep in the Zen of it-doesn’t-matter-if-we-see-bears-it’s-about-experiencing-wilderness when one of the young Swiss boys pipes up with trepidation, mixed with excitement. All eyes dart starboard to a slow-moving head gliding across the channel, and Jamie cuts the engine. We watch the head as it makes for shore, and it turns out to be attached to a 300-kilogram Ursus arctos horribilis. Unlike Big Ears, this laid-back fella has zero worries about us – or anything else, for that matter. As he lumbers along the beach less than 10 metres from the boat, his seven-centimetre-long claws click-clacking over the rocks, his air of indifference is impressive, if a little galling; for him, we’re indistinguishable from the flies circling nearby. We, on the other hand, are in awe, and snap picture after picture on our cameras, which pale in comparison to the Trekker’s. With a subtle whirl, it captures 450 unique frames per minute of the encounter. At times, we’re so close we can hear the grizzly’s heavy breathing, and the Swiss, who’ve travelled halfway around the globe for this moment, can’t take the smiles off their faces.

Raft ride on the Khutzeymateen Inlet

Nature takes its course on the Khutzeymateen Inlet.

We follow our subject for another half-hour of his perambulation, and he never gives us so much as a backwards glance. He drops into the water for a spot of grizzly cross-training here and there, and at one point pokes around in a stream, angling for a snack. (Despite his very laissez-faire attitude, there’s no doubt about who owns this environment.) Just like that, he’s gone – darting up a steep mountain canyonside, swallowed by the wilderness. Once again, the inlet is deserted and we return to the dock, silent. Two hundred and fifty people a year make it up here to see these giants, but soon, any one of Google Maps’ billion monthly users will be able to log on and see what we saw. Though you should really make the trek to come see it for yourself.

Khutzeymateen Wilderness Lodge

The Khutzeymateen Wilderness Lodge seen from above.

The floating Khutzeymateen Wilderness Lodge, which has seven bedrooms, shared living and dining areas, and a sauna, offers one- and four-day tours to the secluded North Coast inlet – a popular area for the sanctuary’s grizzly population – from May 1 to September 15.

Google Street View Trekker

High-tech Trek

Google’s trailblazing technology

At first glance, the Google Street View Trekker (pictured) looks like one of those backpacks you see outdoorsy parents lugging their kids in, but instead of a squirming child it holds 15 five-megapixel cameras that each snaps a picture every two seconds. Those images are then fed through Google’s proprietary software, which stitches together a 360-degree image. On your back, the Trekker feels lighter than its 18 kilograms, but its height – 1.5 metres – throws off the average wearer’s centre of gravity. So far, it’s travelled through 1,500 kilometres of British Columbia wilderness, from the Kettle Valley Rail Trail in the Okanagan Valley to the shores of Haida Gwaii to the Khutzeymateen. Once the collections go live this summer you’ll be able to do some on-the-ground planning for your next great adventure. And keep your eyes peeled for Big Ears.



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