Family travelogue: Going on a bear hunt in Canada
A walk in the wild for all the family. Meeting Canada's black bears at Clayoquot. It's the great outdoors at its absolute greatest.
By Liz Harper, expert travel writer and former A&K PR and communications manager
Molly's initial reluctance to give up the edible goodies in her backpack was pretty short-lived. 'Black bears have an incredible sense of smell,' Adele told us, 'over 2000 times better than that of humans. We do get bears wandering into the camp all the time and it's important that you don't have any food in your tents as they'll sniff it out. If you hear the dogs barking, chances are there's a bear in the vicinity.'
Suddenly the temporary confiscation of the sweets in her backpack didn't seem quite so absurd, and Haribo and chocolate buttons were handed over without further debate: Mol's love of bears didn't extend to inviting one into our tent apparently. The seaplane flight from Vancouver gives a real sense of the beauty of the region and the remoteness of the lodge. Molly's nose was squashed against the window for the entire journey, the hour-long flight an experience in itself as we flew over snow-capped mountains, temperate rainforest, and meandering rivers. On arrival, we were met by owners John and Adele and a posse of the lodge team – the welcome couldn't have been warmer, or more genuine. 'Climb up, jump in,' the Stetson-wearing and cheery Dixon shouted from the driving seat of the in-resort taxi, a horse and wagon. Two minutes later we pulled up outside the cookhouse.
Clayoquot Wilderness Lodge
Central to the camp, the cookhouse is a large wooden, glass walled building. It's where you eat all your meals, chat over a sundowner with fellow guests in the evening and share stories of the day's adventures. The log fire is stoked up day and night, and the open plan kitchen enables you to see phenomenal chef Ryan and his team at work. A long, wooden bar lined with jars of sweets, homemade cakes, biscuits (oh, and a token bowl of fruit) is affectionately referred to as "death row" by the staff. Mols paid a couple of visits during our stay – her father was a more regular visitor to 'the row'! Outside the cookhouse is another whopping fireplace, surrounded by antique furniture, table lamps and sumptuous sofas - like a country house lounge, only outdoors, and in the Canadian wilderness.
A Clayoquot Wilderness Camp 'tent'
Not being a camping kinda girl, I was chuffed to bits when we were shown to our 'tent' for the week. The only resemblance it bore to camping was the canvas which separated us – along with the solid wood flooring, luxury furnishing, log burning stove, king size bed and ensuite bathroom – from the elements outside. It was reminiscent of an African safari tent, but with river, snow-capped mountains and rainforest views replacing that of the bush. Oh yes, this was Vancouver Island at its absolute best.
Mols is a proficient rider, but husband Nick and I wouldn't know a rising trot from a rein back (still none the wiser!). 'No worries, we've got a horse for everyone'. Dixon reassured us sensing our nervousness, and leading my reluctant husband towards his steed for the morning. Sure enough, the team had got our measure: Molly rode ahead with Kelly, trotting through the rainforest, galloping up the tracks, and wading through the river. Nick and I, accompanied by the ever-patient Sam, plodded after her, at a somewhat more leisurely pace, on gentle and surefooted horses that were perfectly suited to the nervous novice. 'This is my sixth season here,' Sam told us, 'I keep coming back, and consider every day here a privilege'. It was easy to see why. Even we newbies could see the appeal of riding in such a stunning setting: the rainforest, river and mountains providing the most spectacular backdrop as we explored the area around the lodge. Molly and her horse Moon had an immediate connection, with the set-up at Clayoquot enabling families to set their own agenda each day, and allowing for differing levels of ability to be catered for.
Our second day we decided to hike up to Penny Falls. Mols charged ahead with our wonderfully enthusiastic guide 'Skippy'. 'Grab the rope and climb up the rock face in front of you,' Skippy instructed from above, 'don't look down'. It was a steep and slightly daunting prospect and if her father or I had suggested anything as ludicrous, she'd have downright refused - at Skippy's request however she charged up the rock wall in front of her with the agility of a mountain goat. The slightly condescending 'well done, Mum', I got on reaching the top suggested considerably less grace on my part. 'Do views get any better than that?' Skippy questioned. The climb from the base of the falls to the top, may have been challenging at times, but took less than an hour: the view from the top was breath-taking – forest, ocean and mountains.
A family of black bears
Day three saw us 'walking on the wild side' – the resort's signature excursion. The highlight of the day was undoubtedly the bears. We'd hoped to see black bears in the wild on our visit, but hadn't appreciated quite how many we would get to observe, or just how close we would get to them. 'We come out at low tide because that's when the bears come down onto the beach looking for food,' guide Eugene told us. As we sat in our zodiac boat, bobbing just feet away from the foraging bears, we were transfixed. This was a real life teddy bears' picnic and it felt as if we were guests at the party as we watched the playful bears turning over the rocks to get to the crabs underneath. Bear sightings were followed by viewings of grey whales, seals and sea lions, before we were dropped off on a deserted beach on Flores Island. Walking along our landing beach and into the rainforest which surrounded it, our guide Jess taught us about the local flora and fauna. Our forest walk eventually opened up onto another unspoilt, beautiful and empty beach. It was hard to believe we had such a stunning spot to ourselves as we picnicked on the white sand, the water lapping at our feet. We didn't see another soul all day.
Clayoquot is a remarkable place. It's the great outdoors at its absolute greatest. You can explore by kayak or zodiac, foot or horseback, harness or zipwire. You'd have to stay for a month to experience all the activities on offer, and you'd still leave wanting more. The staff are young but massively experienced and wildly passionate about the place they call home for five months of the year. It's one of those very special places that you feel privileged to have experienced, and desperately sad to leave. For outdoor loving families it's a tough one to beat. As owner Adele handed back the previously confiscated edibles and hugged Molly goodbye, we heard the sweet-natured and energetic Peggy-Sue barking outside the cookhouse. Bears? Quite possibly – Mols hurriedly packed the Haribo into her case and we reluctantly boarded our float plane for the return flight to Vancouver.