Mikhail Belikov Photography (nature, adventures, travel)

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Princess Royal Island: 

My First Adventure in the Wonderland of Bears, Wolves and Salmon


It all started with watching SPOIL: Fight to Save the Great Bear Rainforest -- a documentary by the International League of Conservation Photographers, still available on the Internet.

Even before, I had heard fairytale stories about endless wild temperate rainforests along BC's central and north coasts, bears and wolves feeding on salmon, and First Nations communities with exotic names like Bella Bella and Bella Coola. It all sounded too good to be real. And so I did not put this wast area on my mental map as a destination for an expedition until this documentary had shown me what the Great Bear Rainforest could offer. I had also learned that the area was home to an illusive spirit bear: an extremely rare subspecies of the American black bear with a creamy-white fir, known in science as the Kermode bear. Finally, with the oil pipeline and oil tanker route proposed to pass through the Great Bear Rainforest, I had decided to get there soon, while it was still wild and unspoiled.

My follow-up research had identified Princess Royal Island, just off BC's north coast, as a place with highest concentration of spirit bears. Best time for visiting the area was during the summer-fall salmon run (mid-July to October), when the wildlife was feasting on spawning salmon. Internet posts had pointed on September as the prime time for spotting spirit bears on Princess Royal Island, and that was when I decided to be there.

Over previous years, I had pushed durations of my solo kayaking expeditions from three weeks to just over a month. This time, it was making sense to go for something even longer, considering the island size, the unpredictable weather and the time required for getting there and back. Five weeks seemed to be about as long as I could be away from my home base in Victoria. So, I had decided to depart in late August and finish my trip in early October, allocating most of September to exploring the island.

The ideal programme for this trip was to circumnavigate the island, checking out its numerous bays and inlets, and also visiting along the way adjacent islands and mainland bays. However, I knew that this was not going to be realistic except in case of an exceptionally good weather: the time required just to circumnavigate the island, without exploring its inlets, was about two weeks, if paddling every day in my inflatable kayak. Going into inlets and visiting adjacent islands could have easily doubled the timing. Expected storms had also demanded allocating some extra time to waiting them out. Completing the whole programme in five weeks was certainly less than likely.

My minimum programme was to get into Laredo Inlet, where wildlife concentration seemed to be especially high. Kitasoo Spirit Bear Conservancy was there, a protected area primarily covering Laredo Inlet. Its name was certainly hinting on where spirit bears were likely going to be. Even in case of a prolonged stormy weather, the inlet would be offering me some protection and an opportunity to explore it on foot and by kayak.

And so it was settled. Klemtu, a First Nations community on Swindle Island adjacent to Princess Royal Island, offered a convenient starting and finishing point being on BC Ferries' route from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert. The only major remaining decision was the direction of my travel. Each had its advantages and disadvantages. Going from Klemtu clockwise would take me into Laredo Inlet within a couple of days of paddling. Then, depending of the weather, I could stay in its protected waters or keep circumnavigating the island, checking out other inlets and visiting adjacent picturesque islands. Finally, I would get into channels between Princess Royal Island and the mainland that were forming part of the Inside Passage. From there, I could access mainland inlets with salmon-fishing grizzlies and wolves. 

The other alternative was doing the same route counter-clockwise, starting with mainland inlets. According to the highly regarded Wild Coast guidebooks by John Kimantas, my main source of information, in addition to grizzlies, mainland inlets were also offering breathtaking views of snow-capped mountains. However, the mountains were only visible when the skies were clear, and as I had learned before, clear skies were an unpredictable treat. In addition, going counter-clockwise I would only end up in Laredo Inlet in late September, if at all, when the salmon run would be already winding up and prolonged storms much more likely. 

Finally, another important concern could have impacted my travel plans: availability of a bear spray in Klemtu. Based on my research, Princess Royal Island was home to black bears, while grizzlies were a common feature on the mainland. Many reliable sources deemed having a bear spray in the black bear country optional; however, everything had pointed out that getting into the grizzly country without it would be unwise.

Since I was going from Victoria to Port Hardy by a Greyhound bus, I could not take the bear spray with me, and the only alternative was to buy it in Port Hardy or in Klemtu. Failing that, exploring and camping in the grizzly territory over prolonged periods of time would be way too risky. Unfortunately, my bus was arriving to Port Hardy at a time when its outdoor store was already closing down, and the ferry was departing just a few hours thereafter. I had called the band store in Klemtu: no, they did not have bear spray in stock (and no gas cartridges for my camping stove either); it was unlikely that any other location in Klemtu would have the spray. At the end, I had decided to leave it to the weather on arrival and to my luck with finding the bear spray in Klemtu to guide my travel direction.

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