With the melting of snow, gushing of runoff water falls and appearance of crocuses poking up through the thawing ground, the change in seasons is a bittersweet reminder for all of us that business is not quite back to normal. Normally at this time of year our staff would be preparing for the first day our Grizzly Tour season, typically set on Mother’s Day. However ongoing issues with COVID-19 in our community and beyond, as well as marine regulations stipulating the number of passengers we can safely carry during this time has restricted our tours for a second year. For a company that has consistently offered eco-tours for the last 25-years, the challenges of a busy season usually involve preparing enough staff for the busy tours, keeping boats to the highest standard of operation, and of course keeping track of our marine and four legged friends in the vast expanse of Chatham Sound. We were as surprised as anyone that this global threat has impeded our tours for not one, but two seasons. I personally answered countless messages and emails from loyal customers, inquiring when we would be back up-and-running, and offering words of kindness and condolence for the lost season. The support and understanding of the community has never been more apparent than during the effects of COVID-19 on local small businesses.
On May 10th of last year, we journeyed privately up to the Khutzeymateen to check on our Grizzly Bear friends. During the first trip of the season, there is always a moment of anticipation as we cut slowly through the silence of Steamer Passage, before seeing our first bear. Is it too early? Are the bears still asleep or lumbering inland? This is the only time of year we can expect to see black bears as well, as they have not been chased away by the grizzlies yet. And then, on a rocky beach on the North side of the inlet, he stands powerfully and low to the ground, thick grizzled fur of dark brown mixed with blonde gleaming in the early morning sun. He is hunting for sustenance, probably shellfish on the beach, but unlike many grizzlies after a long winter, this one looks like he’s got no shortage of reserves. We kill the motor and drift silently towards the beach, the bear looking up with a passive glance at us as he continues to sniff for food. When the bear makes eye contact, I always wonder what he thinks of our silent floating body of metal and flesh. After 25 years in the inlet, they recognize the yellow flash of our vessels as non-threatening, but the look in those deep brown eyes still remains mysterious and piercing. From 50 feet away, I stand on the exposed deck of the stern, and when the bear looks our way, it still sends electric chills down my spine, the encounter becoming new all over again.
There was no shortage of bears in the inlet that day, including a mother and her juvenile cubs. The fear that somehow these bears will cease to come to the estuary edge to graze on Sedge Grass if we are not there to see them is distinctly made-up and human. And so, the best thing we can continue to do in the absence of eco-tours is continue to support the marine industry, while respecting the diverse inhabitants of the Inside Passage. Our staff keeps busy with water taxi trips within the harbour, surrounding villages and up and down Douglas Channel. Many of our guides have retrained as deckhands on these trips, while some of our deckhands worked hard to up their certifications, working towards or earning their Captain’s tickets. I traded in recounting local history for letting go of lines, and pointing out ecological features for watching for debris in the water after a stormy night. On these essential service trips, the underlying philosophy of taking our passengers (usually work crews) safely to and from their destination remains the same. And on a calm summer day, there is nothing to stop a pod of transient killer whales from popping up right outside Kitimaat Village, or anywhere else for that matter. Of all the wildlife in the region, orcas are perhaps the most enigmatic. Some mariners claim to get an auspicious feeling shortly before a sighting. I have on occasion felt this energy, but for me the real fortune is in just catching sight of these magnificent mammals skimming stealthily through the water.
Though we are not all fortunate enough to travel to the remote corners of the coastline by boat, we can all privately and safely take solace in the magnificent outdoors of British Columbia during these unprecedented times. And when the veil of COVID-19 lifts, we will be waiting to welcome back our passengers with open arms, to once again take you safely to the water.