The Bears Up There

🕔Jul 21, 2008

I’ve lived in the Northwest all my life, but I never tire of the scenery. In fact, the older I get, the more I’m awed by the place I call home—how crazily green it is, how blue the sky, how high the mountains. I’ve seen more than my share of wild animals, but that doesn’t stop me from squealing excitedly whenever I spot one.
Bears are my favourite. My love of the beasts took me to what must be the bear viewing capital of the world, Stewart, BC and Hyder, Alaska (two towns practically on the same spot on the map, divided by the American/Canadian border). The drive there (north on Highway 37 from the Kitwanga junction on Highway 16) is beautiful and remote, so remember your camera—and gas up.
You’ll know you’re nearing Stewart when you see a huge glacier on your left, fittingly called Bear Glacier. Once in town you might want to hold off looking for bears for just a bit, because it’s a charming place to explore. And it’s little: you can easily visit the unique shops, grocery store/market, and the information centre in a couple hours. You could also easily spend a lot more time than that; we plan to overnight next trip.
To get to the Fish Creek Wildlife Viewing area, pass through Stewart and US customs (everyone needs proper ID, and if you’re from outside of Canada or the US, you’ll need your passport). Drive through Hyder and continue north about four kms. This is a tourist attraction, and there’s a small user fee. It’s worth every penny though, and you won’t even notice the people once you see the bears and other wildlife.
The viewing bridge is wonderful, protecting the bears from interference while providing a great, natural viewing opportunity. The bears seem oblivious to the humans, and come and go as they please. Luckily for us, the creek just happens to be one of their favourite feeding places, for reasons you’ll smell if you go in late August when the water’s shallow and full of spawning salmon (another amazing sight!).
Because it’s not a zoo or fenced reserve there are no guarantees that you’ll see any bears, but your odds are good mid-July through early September. And the odds are equally good that you’ll see them before you hit the bridge—in the parking lot or on the trails, on their way to the same place you’re going!
We were lucky. A young male grizzly was lounging on the other side of the creek when we arrived, and we got to watch him dive into a cool green pool across from us. We thought he was after fish, but soon it became obvious he just wanted to take a dip.
I’d seen bears wade before, but never swim. It kind of took my breath away. I was expecting a clumsy dog paddle, some solely practical method of crossing water that stood in its way, but this big brown seemed to swim for the pure joy of it—rolling and splashing like any teenager. Every so often he’d stop mid-frolic and dive. The powerful swim that took him many feet under water before he popped up for air looked more like a modified breast stroke than a dog paddle.
After he’d played a long while, someone in my family shouted, “Look, he’s going to catch a fish.” And sure enough, there was a loud splash, a flash of silver, and the bear resurfaced in a shallower spot with his freshly caught dinner. He shook the salmon back and forth, then waded through the shallows to a nearby bank, settled himself, and started to eat.
We thought he seemed sweet and gentle in the water, but he was deadly on the beach. We actually heard his teeth breaking the salmon’s bones and ripping its flesh. My husband is an avid fisherman, and my kids and I know how tough a big fish is. Seeing and hearing the bear tear it apart with such casual ease was gruesome and fascinating—and a good reminder. No matter how Disney they are when swimming, bears are wild.
A little while later, the grizzly did leave, but the antics of several black bears splashing through kept us entertained.
We had come to see bears, and see them we did. Although we would’ve had a great time regardless (we drove up to see the massive Salmon Glacier too, and my kids played in the snow!), the bears were definitely the highlight.
If you adventure to Stewart, and I hope you do, watch the roads and bushes carefully, and be sure to visit Hyder’s Fish Creek Bridge so you’ll have your own photos and stories of the amazing bears up there.