Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
British Columbia’s remote Cariboo mountains are jam-packed with grizzly bears. Lizzie Pook checks into a new ‘glampsite’ which brings guests nose-to-nose with the creatures.
As Gary points the bow of the boat downstream, the storm-streaked valley opens up around us, mist clinging to its every ripple and crag. “There are a lot of animals stuffed into this valley, here,” he says, the words spiriting away on the wind that whips around us. “Some of them are easy to get along with, some of them not. We’ll come across aggressive animals, so just do what I say.”
A huge golden eagle swoops by, its wings silhouetted against the towering Douglas firs that peer down onto the river. Beavers slap their tails as we pass and the haunting screech of stellar jays fills the air.Suddenly, to our right, a crash, and I turn to see a huge grizzly launching itself into the river.
“That’s Homer,” Gary whispers, as the beast tears through the water in front of us, his almost-black body like a small ship motoring past. He emerges the other side, bedraggled, his size still mighty as he crashes off into the reeds.
I’m deep in British Columbia’s remote Cariboo mountains, a true wilderness dominated by high serrated peaks, limestone bluffs, lush wetlands and dramatic ice fjords, which whip up biting temperatures and a driving rain that ploughs through these mist-bloated valleys.
Here, Gary and Peggy Zorn of Ecotours BC operate almost exclusively in an area the size of Switzerland, taking guests chest-deep in waders along grizzly-fringed river systems, through forests in search of lynx, wolf and moose and up into the mountains where cougars prey on scattered herds of mule deer.
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I’m one of the very first people to stay at their brand new venture, a floating glampsite (the first of its kind in Canada) that’s moored about 20 meters off-shore in Quesnel lake, considered the deepest fjord lake in the world.
It’s not fancy. Instead, the camp is small and comfortable with two smart safari style tents containing double beds and compost toilets. Soon, there’ll be an al fresco shower, a permanent cook’s station, two more tents and a place to shelter from the cold (and gaze at the northern lights that ripple across this vast sky).
Gary hops into the water, waders almost up to his chin, and pulls the boat slowly and silently through the shoals. As we drift, I ask him why he decided to stop hunting.
“I began to hate the concept,” he says, picking his way around fish carcasses. “I hated the idea of trophy hunting lodges in America, that people would come to kill things rather than experience nature and be in the wild.
“When we set up Ecotours BC, people laughed at me,” he recalls. “They said it would never last. But I said, ‘This is the future,’ and look at where we are now.”
I ask him if he’s ever felt vulnerable out here. “Most angry bears are just bluffing,” Gary says. “They’ll hiss and jaw-pop and slobber, but they’re not going to attack you. However, if a bear stops what it’s doing, spreads his front legs, drops his head and looks at you through the tops of his eyes—he means business!”
“You can’t run away,” he adds. “He will catch you. Stand your ground. Holler at them and talk to them. We pack bear spray on all our excursions but I’ve never had to use it. I’ve always been able to diffuse the situation.”
Later, as I curl up in bed, a haunting sound fills the air around the tent, rising and falling like a chorus of ghosts. “Lizzie!” Gary whispers from next door. “It’s wolves, they’ve made a kill.” As I hear the whoop of sandhill cranes in the distance, I think about the privilege of spending the night at here, in a place few humans will ever get to visit.