Great Bear Rainforest

Great Bear Rainforest: When to Go?

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In spring, grizzlies come down to the waters edge to eat protein-rich sedges. Captain Greg Shea. caught this one in action.

Photo credits: Kevin Smith (grizzly banner image), Jeff Reynolds (Swell wheelhouse view, sea lions), Greg Shea (bald eagle, Hartley Bay, grizzly bears, sunset, spirit bear, ducks, walking with reflections), Philip Stone (killer whale, kelp, valley view), Grace van Helvoirt (Dall’s porpoise).

What’s the best time to visit the Great Bear Rainforest?

The answer might not be what you think.

In this series of several short articles with slide shows, I’m going to talk about what you can see when, and hopefully dispel some myths that are pervasive but incorrect. As one of Maple Leaf Adventures’ owners and a longtime crew member, I’ve explored the Great Bear throughout the seasons.

Why does it matter? One myth suggests there are only 3 weeks in a year in which to visit the Great Bear, which does a disservice to travellers, the place, and everyone else.

Great Bear Rainforest Grizzly Bear

PART 1: The Great Bear Rainforest in Autumn – When to Come?
Also known as: October is Beautiful in the Great Bear Rainforest

Dispelling a Myth

Maple Leaf Adventures is a pioneer of ecotourism in the Great Bear Rainforest, having scouted it and been invited to run trips here as early as 1991. We have a lot of organizational memory about the seasons here — and also have watched the trends in what people ask about.

One thing we’ve noticed in the past 5 years is that people now think that the only good time to visit in the fall is between September 15 and September 30 each year.

Is this fact or a myth?

Short answer: myth.

Peak fall season is throughout the fall, starting late August and going well through October.

Medium answer:

If you want the best chance to see a spirit bear, make sure you are in the region (at some point on your trip) from about Sep 7 onward, well into October.

If you don’t care about that (or you are a betting person, knowing that at least 50% of the time people are viewing spirit bears on Sep 1), but you do want to be sure to have a good chance to view grizzly bears, then you can come in August as well.

And yes, October is BEAUTIFUL in the Great Bear. They sky is not always blue, but it’s not always grey, either.

Long answer: 

In autumn, bear viewing is best when the salmon are running – which means when the Pacific salmon return from the ocean and enter the rivers and creeks of North America to spawn.

Different species of salmon spawn at different times, and in different locations within the freshwater system of rivers and lakes in BC. They also start earlier in the northern part of the coast than in the southern part. Some northern salmon start entering the larger rivers as early as July, and there is quite a lot of fish spawning by mid-August.

So with salmon already among the coastal waters of the coast in early July, it’s already a good time to see marine mammals drawn by their presence. We say that by mid-August, you can start viewing grizzly bears fairly reliably. So if you’re wanting to view the amazing grizzly bears of the region during the salmon spawn, you can come after mid-August. (The other peak season to see them is May-June… but that’s another post!)

There are salmon in the rivers until at least the end of October, so safely, you can view bears in the Great Bear Rainforest in autumn between mid-August and late October (and likely later).

Here is where it gets complicated.

The grizzly bears are dominant bears, and are in the larger river systems. Black and spirit bears defer to grizzlies and often stay away from them. So often the best chance of viewing a spirit bear is in smaller creek systems, which tend to be on islands, not the mainland. (Tend to be …nothing is absolute here!)

But the small island creeks often don’t have enough water in August for fish to enter, and they tend to have fewer species that spawn in them, too, and thus a shorter spawning season. It is not until the rains come and ‘fill up’ the creeks with deeper water that fish can enter them to spawn. This can be anywhere from the end of August to the first few days of September.

So, if you want the best chance of viewing a bear with white fur, you want to wait so that your trip can include the end of the first week in September.

Now, not to forget about the rest of the Great Bear Rainforest: the forest itself, the marine mammals (whales, sea lions, seals, porpoises, otters), the seabirds, the meadows, beaches, wolves, martens, birds and human culture: these are wondrous and amazing experiences at pretty much all times you would think of visiting.

Furthermore, natural weather systems are not the same year in, year out. Some years we see a spirit bear on Sep 1. And sometimes October is sunnier than early September.

So now you know.

When is the best time to come?

Depends on what you seek.

If you seek an exploration of the entire natural wonder of the Great Bear in autumn, but you don’t mind particularly whether one of the creatures you see is a spirit bear or not, then come anytime from mid-August onward. If you want the best chance of a spirit bear, then come in September or October. And if you want to perhaps avoid rain, come in the summer (which I will write about in another post).

Remember, though, it’s a maritime environment and a rainforest so do expect to get some precipitation!

Want to come?

View our trips in the Great Bear Rainforest.

– post by Maureen Gordon of Maple Leaf Adventures


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