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Friday, February 17, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Great Bear Rainforest: Where the wild things are

Seattle Times travel staff

A swath of British Columbia's coast, a wildlife-rich tapestry of forests, fjords and wave-pounded islands, is being protected as parkland.

Just don't expect to roll up in your RV to see what's called the Great Bear Rainforest.

Almost 3 million acres — more than three times the size of Washington's Olympic National Park — of the Great Bear Rainforest's total 16 million acres were designated earlier this month as "protected areas" that are equivalent to parks, with logging and other development forbidden. About 1.4 million acres already were protected.

The new protected areas — part of the largest coastal temperate rain forest left in the world — are isolated wilderness, reached only by boat, seaplane or tough hiking. And they're scattered in more than 100 parcels, from islands to inland river valleys, over 250 miles of rugged coast that stretches from near northern Vancouver Island to the border with Alaska.

"It's such a large landscape that you really can't describe it as a park," said B.C. government spokesman Mike Morton, although the level of protection is similar to that of parks. And those who have the time, and money, to explore this remote land will find natural beauty that rivals any park.

If you go


Great Bear Rainforest

When to go:

Late spring to early fall is the best time to go, with long hours of daylight and sometimes sunny warm days, although the weather is unpredictable. Good bear-viewing time is in the early spring and late summer/early fall when bears feed at river estuaries.

Ferries

The Great Bear Rainforest includes British Columbia's Inside Passage, the protected waterway along the coast. It's regularly traveled by Alaska and B.C. ferries, which give a good overview.

• Alaska Marine Highway System: Ferries sail along B.C.'s Inside Passage when traveling between Bellingham and Southeast Alaska ports. Summer rates start at $232 one-way for an adult; taking a vehicle or getting a stateroom boosts the price significantly. Information: www.ferryalaska.com or 800-642-0066.

• B.C. Ferries: Its Inside Passage service, between Port Hardy on northern Vancouver Island and Prince Rupert on the northern B.C. mainland, is a summertime day cruise. The ferry departs at 7:30 a.m. and arrives at 10:30 p.m., and costs about $100 one way. The rest of the year, the Inside Passage sailings have more stops.

The Discovery Coast Passage, a summer-only route, is good for getting to the small communities of the central B.C. coast within the Great Bear Rainforest. The ferry sails between Port Hardy and Bella Coola, with stops at Klemtu, Shearwater, Bella Bella and Ocean Falls. www.bcferries.com or 888-223-3779.

Small-ship trips

There's an increasing number of small-ship tours along the Great Bear Rainforest coast. A sampling:

• Victoria, B.C.-based Maple Leaf Adventures has wilderness sailings in a restored schooner, including two Great Bear Rainforest itineraries. Rates start at $3,100 per person. www.mapleleafadventures.comor 888-599-5323.

• Bluewater Adventures, based in North Vancouver, B.C., offers ecotours along the B.C. coast on two 68-foot ketches and a 65-foot motor vessel. Its Great Bear Rainforest sailings cost $2,895 per person. www.bluewateradventures.ca/ or 888-877-1770.

• For a different way to go, several B.C. companies offer trips along the Great Bear Rainforest coast in restored, vintage tugboats, including Westwind Tugboat Adventures, www.tugboatcruise.com or 888-599-8847, and Northcoast Tugboat Adventures, 866-828-3474 or www.findbigfish.com•Some companies specialize in grizzly-watching trips, including Silvertip Ecotours, based in Terrace in northern B.C., www.grizzlyviewing.com or 250-635-9326. It also offers multiday trips to the Kitlope, one of the protected, and most prized, areas of the Great Bear Rainforest with abundant wildlife. (For Kitlope details, see the B.C. Parks Web site: www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks
/explore/parkpgs/kitlope/brochure.pdf
)

• Some U.S. small-ship companies that offer B.C. coastal travel, during sailings between Seattle and Alaska, include the Seattle-based Cruise West (www.cruisewest.com or 888-851-8133), whose biggest ship holds about 100 people, and the upscale Lindblad Expeditions, www.expeditions.comor 800-397-3348.

• To find a big-ship cruise from Seattle to Alaska, contact a travel agent or go to the Port of Seattle site for a calendar listing, www.portseattle.org/seaport/cruise

Native tourism, kayaking

• Klemtu Tourism is a community-run tour company based in the remote First Nation village of Klemtu in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. It offers eco- and cultural-heritage tours based from a small lodge, plus kayaking tours with wilderness camping or staying in huts. www.klemtutourism.com or 250-839-2346.

• An increasing number of kayak tours are being offered in the Great Bear Rainforest by B.C. ecotour companies. Because of the great distances and wilderness conditions, some use a "mothership," a small vessel that carries kayakers to remote areas and which they sleep aboard. Among them are Mothership Adventures, www.mothershipadventures.com or 888-833-8887, which uses a 68-foot classic motor vessel for kayaking tours in the southerly part of the Great Bear Rainforest coast. Vancouver Island Kayak offers camping tours, www.vancouverislandkayak.com or 800-255-5057. To find more kayak companies, do a Web search for "Great Bear Rainforest and kayak."

Wilderness lodges

Some floating fishing lodges dot the coast, including the deluxe King Pacific Lodge, which also offers kayaking and wildlife viewing. www.kingpacificlodge.com or 888-592-5464.

More information

• Tourism B.C., www.hellobc.com or 800-435-5622.

• The B.C. government Web site has background on its coast land-management plan at www.gov.bc.ca

• For conservationists' view, www.savethegreatbear.org

In untouched forests of cedar, hemlock and spruce, some towering trees are more than 800 years old. Amid the coast's maze of islands, the waters teem with orca and humpback whales, dolphins and salmon. Hundreds of bird species shelter in the forest and along the shores, from marbled murrelets, a small rare seabird, to majestic bald eagles. Moose, wolves and bears prowl the land, including grizzlies, black bears and the Kermode or spirit bear, a rare white-furred genetic variation of the black bear.

There's rich cultural history, too. The coast is the ancestral homeland of First Nations groups, and a handful of Native villages that dot the coast, such as Klemtu and the Kitlope area, are turning to ecotourism as part of their economic future.

The Great Bear Rainforest land-management plan followed a decade of tough negotiations between the B.C. government (which owns virtually all the land and licenses logging and mining), environmentalists, native groups and forest companies. While the focus is to protect the ecosystem, not to develop public access or any facilities in this rugged land, ecotourism and other conservation-based First Nations businesses will be encouraged, including through some funding. And more ecotourists — who already come on small-boat and kayak tours — are expected to be lured to the wildly scenic area, which includes the Inside Passage waterway, as it becomes better known.

"I see a big boost for ecotourism. There's great potential," said Amanda Carr, a Vancouver, B.C.-based forest specialist with Greenpeace. It and other environmental groups campaigned for years for protection of the Great Bear Rainforest, a name bestowed in recent years during the battles to protect its old-growth forests and wildlife.

In a striking change from past B.C. forestry practices, the logging that continues in other parts of the vast rain forest will become more ecologically sustainable, not wholesale clear-cutting. Parts of the Great Bear Rainforest have been heavily logged in the past, but logging dwindled in the last decade because of strong opposition, including boycotts and blockades organized by conservation and First Nation groups.

Exploring the rain forest

For travelers, these newly protected lands aren't easy to visit. There are no roads along the mountainous and fjord-pierced central-north B.C. coast where the Great Bear Rainforest lies; just a few roads even reach the coast and they dead-end in small port towns such as Prince Rupert and Bella Coola. Beyond those communities, most of the coast is uninhabited, except for a handful of widely scattered First Nation villages, including Klemtu and Bella Bella.

One of the easiest, and most economical, ways to get a taste of the area is aboard the B.C. and Alaska ferries that sail the Inside Passage, the island-sheltered waterway along the coast. One of B.C. Ferries' routes, the summer-only Discovery Passage, takes passengers to small native communities, including Klemtu, where Klemtu Tourism, a pioneering First Nations ecotour company, offers bear-viewing and wilderness/cultural history tours.

Cruise ships bound for Alaska also skirt the area, although some sail along the B.C. coast at night and farther out to sea.

To explore the Great Bear Rainforest in more depth, a small-boat tour or, for the adventurous and fit, a kayak trip, is the way to go. Ecotour companies offer everything from daylong grizzly-viewing excursions to small-boat cruises and kayaking trips for a week or longer.

Maple Leaf Adventures is one of the companies offering sailing trips along the coast of the Great Bear Rainforest. Company owner and ship's captain Kevin Smith grew up sailing the B.C. coast, and has made it his life's work and pleasure. He pilots the Maple Leaf, a classic 92-foot schooner, carrying nine passengers at a time, and for years was part of an advisory committee on the area's future.

Now, says Smith, the coast he loves will be better preserved.

"Everybody was talking about saving the Amazon rain forest. This was the forgotten coast — it was labeled as the 'mid-coast timber supply area' on the government maps."

Although small-boat tour operators can't guarantee wildlife sightings, Smith remembers one magical day aboard the Maple Leaf. The crew and guests awoke at their anchorage to see a pack of wolves on shore, feasting on spawning salmon. After sailing away, humpback whales surrounded the ship, swimming circles around it. And on the shore of Princess Royal Island, a young Kermode, or spirit bear, gamboled along the beach, a white-furred rarity in the wilderness.

"People used to think that all we needed to do was make the forest look pretty from the window of a cruise ship," said Smith. "[But] there's a deeper meaning to wilderness tourism. Our guests are intelligent and curious. They want to see the wildlife. They want to get out in the rain forest and understand it up close. They want to see untouched spirit bear habitat. That's what we fought for."

Kristin Jackson: 206-464-2271 or kjackson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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