Home to incredible fjords, wild islands, vast river estuaries, and the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest, British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest is a Canadian treasure. Bears and wolves roam the land while whales and seals roam the sea. Covering 6.4 million hectares, it’s roughly the same size as Ireland but with almost no human habitation. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a rich human history here. The First Nations have called this wild place home for millennia and continue to thrive here today. All of this, combined with one of the world’s most spectacular coastlines, has inspired countless documentaries, environmental movements, and of course, exploration. Oh, and of course, everyone wants to see the famous spirit bear.
This slice of Northern British Columbia has long been on my bucket list. I’ve been to other nearby places like Tofino, Nanaimo, and Campbell River. Each one is incredible in its own way. I was also recently in Prince Rupert to take one of Via Rail’s adventure trains to Jasper, Alberta. It was a beautiful train excursion but my timing on the trip was a little off. Travelling in late March, I missed both the summer whale-watching season and the fall grizzly bear season. I knew I had to come back but had no idea I would be back so soon.
To truly get off the beaten path and into some remote areas, we joined Maple Leaf Adventures on their Whales and Wild Isles adventure, one of many tours they offer throughout the year. Maple Leaf Adventures is one of Canada’s top operators of small ship cruises, promoting the appreciation of Canada’s natural, cultural and aesthetic heritage while remaining conservation-focused. They’re part of Destination Canada’s “Signature Experiences Collection”, have been rated as one of the “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth” by National Geographic, and were awarded the Parks Canada Sustainable Tourism Award in 2012. They also pioneered travel in BC’s Great Bear Rainforest and northwestern Vancouver Island and have made significant contributions to conservation. Needless to say, we were in good hands.
While we’d certainly love to experience every trip they offer, this year we opted for the Whales and Wild Isles Tour, which explores the Great Bear Rainforest. Normally, this trip consists of 8 nights but due to some schedule changes, they created a shorter 4-night trip, which worked out great for us.
Starting from Prince Rupert, this excursion travelled down the stunning coastline towards Kitimat, which is where we would disembark the boat and fly back home. Although each trip is different, I’d like to fill you in on what we did each day to give you an understanding of what the experience is like.
Day 1: Prince Rupert to Lewis Island Anchorage
Our first day was just a quick evening. We boarded the boat in Prince Rupert quite late thanks to a late flight from Air Canada combined with them losing our luggage. This resulted in us having to frantically run around Wal-Mart, buying as much clothing and bathroom supplies as we could. We also bought new luggage to store it all in and then grabbed a taxi to the port. Once there, the friendly staff was there to greet us and show us onto the ship.
Once settled in, we proceeded to cruise down to Lewis Island Anchorage, where we’d be spending the night. We were shown to our room, which was very spacious, and we all gathered in the lobby to do a meet and greet with the staff and passengers. We also learned about the ship’s amenities and sat down for our first of many delicious dinners, all prepared by a world-class chef.
Day 2: Kumealon Lagoon to Tuwartz Inlet
Waking up to a very rainy day, we made our way to Kumealon Lagoon for our first adventure. One of the things I love about small expedition cruises is the chance to do something completely new. Although Kevin, the owner of Maple Leaf Adventures and our lead for this particular trip, has been visiting this area for many decades, we got to do something for the very first time. We jumped in the tenders and headed towards the lagoon. However, the mouth of the lagoon is very shallow, and because of the tides coming in and out, there’s only a very short window of time where a little boat can make it in. While waiting for the tide to reach maximum depth, we saw a seal swimming around looking for salmon, which was such a perfect BC coastal moment. We hesitated quite a bit as this is not something you want to get wrong, but then out of nowhere, another man showed up in his boat. His job is to count fish for the BC government and since he’s been in there many times, we waited for him to take the lead. After watching him pass safely, we followed. It was remarkable to look over the boat and see how fast the water was moving in and out of the lagoon. It’s hard to see the speed of it from the surface but when you look over the boat and see it rushing over the rocks, it’s like a fast river. Once inside, we travelled over towards an estuary to see if we could spot some wildlife. Although we only had 20 minutes to make it back through the passage, we managed to see four beautiful bald eagles and a blue heron.
Once back on the ship, we made our way down the Grenville Channel, travelling a whopping 72 nautical miles to Tuwartz Inlet, stopping only to see some beautiful humpback whales in the distance. This was the longest travel day of the trip.
Tonight’s dinner: Stuffed truffle mushroom with crispy basil. Chicken supreme with fingerling potatoes, prosciutto and white wine mustard jus. salted caramel apple tart with Baileys anglaise.
Day 3: Kayaking and Travel to Campania Island
In some ways, it was a bit of a blessing to have rain and clouds the day before, as it was like a magical surprise to wake up to the beauty of Tuwartz Inlet. Although the morning had some mist to start, it wasn’t long before we had clear blue skies and the sun shining down on us. This was one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen in Canada, and thankfully, it was where we were going kayaking! Although my mom was hesitating to go as she had never kayaked before, I managed to convince her to come. After all, the inflatable kayaks were very stable and the water was almost as smooth as glass. We paddled down the inlet, slowly cruising by the beautiful lush rainforest, spotting starfish along the way and learning about its unique ecosystem from our onboard naturalist. We made our way over to an estuary to enjoy the scenery and see if we could spot any wildlife, although we didn’t see any bald eagles this time. Now that we were out on the water, my mom was very happy that she joined and I had to remind her that if she continued to go kayaking once the trip was over, it would likely be downhill from here as very few places could compete with the beauty here on the coast. Jokes aside, this was an incredible place for a first-time paddle and after about two hours, we made our way back to the ship. However, before getting off of the kayaks, we were able to kayak underneath the Cascadia catamaran, paddling in between the two hulls.
After a much-deserved lunch, we travelled over to Fin Island Research Centre for another special adventure. The Fin Island Research Centre is part of the North Coast Cetacean Society, whose goal is to understand the habitat needs of whales through dedicated research programs and collaboration with coastal First Nations communities in the Great Bear Rainforest. Not many people have the opportunity to visit an active research centre like this, but because Maple Leaf Adventures contributes to their funding, they have a special relationship. It was fascinating to learn about the things they do, such as the BC Hydrophone Network, which listens to the whales communicating under the sea in addition to all the Ocean Noise they deal with, and their incredible drone-based genetic sampling and photography. With more and more massive tanker ships planned to navigate these crucial whale seaways, we hope their research can lead to a consensus that helps avoid ship strikes, entanglements, and ocean noise.
Once we were back on the ship, we made our way to Campania Island where we would anchor just off the shores of Wolf Track Beach, a stunning coastal beach that is home to coastal wolves. Like most wolves, they are quite elusive, but they have been spotted before. You can also occasionally find their paw prints in the beach sand. Since this was the first clear night of the trip, a couple of us opted for a quick polar dip (yes, the water is that cold) and finished it off with a dip in the top-deck hot tub where we could admire the dazzling display of stars.
Tonight’s Dinner: Salted beet salad with goat feta, arugula, and citrus. Grilled pork medallions with palm puree, braised red cabbage and brussel leaves. Chocolate mousse, wafer cookie, and hazelnut cream.
Day 4: Travel to Fish Trap Bay and Hawkesbury Island
Although we fell asleep on a clear night, we woke up to a sheet of clouds and a drizzle. As much as I love blue skies, these misty days feel right in this part of the world. They give it that mystic vibe that just fits in so well with Canada’s west coast. Since the rain wasn’t that strong, we geared up and made our way to the beach to begin a rainforest hike. It was quite beautiful to finally see the coastal temperate rainforest up close and to learn about its unique flora and fauna. We even found a banana slug, which quickly shrivelled up as a defence mechanism when Kevin held it on a leaf. However, Kevin explained to us that if we all hummed together in sync, the slug would “come to life”, which was really cool to see. The scenery here was also quite unique and it’s rocky landscapes reminded me of the karst mountains in Malaysia.
After the hike, we travelled 48 nautical miles down Whale Channel and Verney Passage, but not before slowing down around Ashdown Island to see a massive colony of sea lions. Along the way, we were also incredibly lucky enough to see four Fin whales. However, the most spectacular event of the entire trip happened towards the end of the day when we witnessed dozens of humpback whales around Verney Passage, blowing into the air against the backdrop of the rainforest. It was a rare event, not just because of the amount of whales, but because they seemed to be travelling as a group, which isn’t common for humpback whales. Either way, it was an incredible way to end our visit to the Great Bear Rainforest.
Tonight’s dinner: Beefeater Gin tomato soup with garlic foam and juniper butter. Pan-seared scallops with cajun corn and crispy capers. Beef tenderloin with scallop potatoes, green beans, and baby carrots. Lemon goat cheese cheesecake.
Day 5: Short Trip to Kitimat
Just like day one, our last day of travel was short and sweet. We travelled 33 NM up the scenic Devastation Channel to our final destination of Kitimat. We enjoyed a delicious brunch, packed all of our stuff together, and said goodbye to the folks we got to know throughout the journey. The skies were mostly blue, which allowed us to truly take in the stunning scenery one last time. Once in Kitimat, we loaded into vans and were driven to Terrace, where we caught our flight back to our home city of Calgary, Alberta.
What to Expect with Maple Leaf Adventures
Maple Leaf Adventures’ multi-day excursions give guests one-of-a-kind experiences in some of the most beautiful and rare places in the world, often in areas that were once under threat of destruction or in dire need of protection. Their strong expedition ships are also heritage pieces themselves.
They offer a wide variety of trips on three different vessels, including Cascadia, a luxurious 138-foot steel-hulled catamaran, Maple Leaf, a traditional 92-foot schooner sailing yacht, and Swell, a classically authentic 88-foot tugboat. Destinations include Alaska, Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands), Great Bear Rainforest (Inside Passage), Vancouver Island, and Gulf Islands National Park / Salish Sea. Explore islands, fjords, and ancient rainforests while learning from Maple Leaf’s A-list naturalists and local guides. Frequent shore trips, optional kayaking, gourmet cuisine, well-connected crew & comfortable accommodations are all part of the experience.
Trips are suitable for independent travellers, groups of 8-24 people, or family charters.
When to Go and How to Get There
In terms of when to go, it largely depends on what you hope to see. If it’s whales, you’ll want to go in the summer. If it’s grizzly bears you’re after, you’ll want to go in the fall. If it’s culture, you’re good to go whenever the ships set sail to a specific destination, such as their incredibly popular Haida Gwaii tour. Their trips tend to start around mid-April and finish around late October.
Please visit mapleleafadventures.com for more information.
Looking for more things to do near the Great Bear Rainforest? Check our our BC travel guides below: