When travellers and especially keen wildlife photographers think of places to visit some legendary names come to mind: Botswana for African Elephants and the big cats!, Svalbard for Polar Bears and Arctic landscapes, Borneo for its dazzling birdlife, truth is there’s quite a list. There’s one place though that has for many years flown under the radar. A place that for most westerners is fairly accessible, a place that perhaps on the surface is not quite as exotic sounding as the Amazon or Serengeti. But for true raw, wilderness majesty and rich, abundant wildlife the Great Bear Rainforest on Canada’s west coast is second to none.
I feel fortunate to have found myself living in this beautiful part of the world, partly by accident, partly by design. I had grown up on the east coast of Canada in Newfoundland, another wild and rugged part of this vast country. Following the old adage of going west I came as far west as I could and put roots down on Quadra Island. It didn’t take long to become enchanted with the high mountains, surf-swept beaches and towering forests of British Columbia. But it also didn’t take long to realize that like so many places in the world, as remote as it feels here sometimes, the pressures of industry are never far away. Fortunately decades of hard work and lobbying pressure by First Nations, NGO’s, wilderness tourism operators and conservationists worldwide came to fruition in early 2016 with the ratification of the Great Bear Rainforest land management plan that has essentially protected 3.1 million hectares of temperate forest.
The Great Bear Rainforest is the traditional home of Coastal First Nations including the Wuikinuxv Nation, Heiltsuk, Kitasoo/Xaixais, Nuxalk Nation, Gitga’at and Metlakatla. It is also home to some of North America’s most iconic animal species including: Grizzly Bears, Black Bears and the rare variant Kermode or Spirit Bear, Grey Wolf, Cougar, Mountain Goat and Elk roam the deep forested river valleys and mountain ridges. While the Great Bear Sea a maze of Pacific waterways, channels and fjords is inhabited by Stellar Sea Lions, Pacific White-sided Dolphins, Orca, Humpback Whales and Fin Whales. With a backdrop of soaring mountain peaks, ice-blue glaciers, dark-emerald forests and moody swaths of mist the Great Bear Rainforest adds up to be one of the best places to visit in the world for the adventurous traveller and especially for outdoor and wildlife photography.
In 2012 I was invited by Maple Leaf Adventures to work onboard their classic 100+ year old schooner S.V. Maple Leaf as Photography Instructor and Naturalist which was to be the first of a run of annual trips exploring, instructing, sharing and photographing the wonders of the British Columbia Coast. Maple Leaf is a beautiful vessel to travel on and a perfect compliment to the timeless beauty of the Great Bear Rainforest. The company have a back for finding and hiring the best of the best crew and this is reflected in the unrivalled reputation they have built from founder Brian Falconer’s early years to today’s owner Kevin Smith.
In 2014 Maple Leaf Adventures added a second vessel, a similarly historic 100+ year old wooden-hull tug, M.V. Swell. The two ships compliment each other perfectly. Maple Leaf has the rustic charm of a graceful old-style sailboat while Swell boasts a few more creature comforts while still holding her own in the aesthetic’s department. Pretty much where ever either vessel goes they draw attention, compliments and I’m starting to wonder just which is “the most beautiful vessel on the coast”?
The day to day experiences on both vessels is very similar. The captain and crew chart work from the voyage start and end point and weave a course amongst the sheer-walled-fjords, sheltered channels and wind-swept off-shore islands as the tides and weather allows. All the while on the lookout for wildlife and those unexpected opportunities that can turn any moment into a lifetime experience. With cameras in tow we leave the ship by Zodiac to explore tidal river-estuaries watching for bears as they fish for returning salmon; make landfall on a remote white sand beach or make a stop to a local research station to learn about the majestic whales we’ve been spying along the way. All in all an incredible way to have an adventure on a holiday!
For the photographers a trip in the Great Bear Rainforest with Maple Leaf Adventures is a dream come true. There are challenges though. That rain for one!!! And we can never be sure what each day will bring. Wildlife is… well… wild and some days we are lucky and see many animals and then others the highlights are less ‘charismatic’ as we say. But waterfalls, mountains, rainstorms and swirling fog can all have their charm too!
To make the most of the photographic opportunities we see along the way I have short workshops on photography fundamentals usefully sprinkled with techniques that especially apply to the challenges of low light, fleeting wildlife and the weather. Each group is different but it’s always an enthusiastic bunch sharing a passion for travel, wild places and to varying degrees, photography. There’s always a range of skill and levels of interest and the trips become a positive, co-operative experience where everyone shares their knowledge and participates in the more formal sessions as often as they like. We’re there to experience and learn and sometimes that happens in the quietest of times.
There’s more information about Maple Leaf Adventure’s Photography Trips on their web site along with a whole slate of trips the length of the coast including expeditions to Haida Gwaii and Alaska.
Maple Leaf Adventures