A large province in a large country, Canada’s British Columbia is almost three times the size of Germany. So how do you begin to wrap your head around this remote, rugged and ravishing region? Just start at the edge, among the nearly 40,000 islands and 16,000 miles of coastline.
If you’re looking for wildlife, adventure or relaxation, you can access it all by boat – whether it’s a giant ferry powering its way up the Inside Passage or an inflatable raft slowly drifting downstream in the Great Bear Rainforest. Put your camera in a dry bag and get your float on. It’s time for an up-close look at the best in British Columbia.
Whales and wildlife from a powerboat
Mike Willie’s eyes light up when he sees a clump of sea birds rising from the surface of the water. He steers his powerboat toward them as a cloud of spray explodes from the waves just a few yards away. Slowly, the jagged shape of a humpback whale’s body crests.
“He’s going to fluke,” Willie says, and sure enough, the 25-ton animal’s massive tail comes out of the water, flares out and slowly descends below again. One or two cameras click, as a group of about 15 travelers soak in the moment from open-air decks fore and aft.
Willie runs Sea Wolf Adventures, a wildlife-watching and cultural expedition on the northeastern coast of Vancouver Island. In addition to humpbacks, Willie’s passengers can get up close to orcas, otters, seals, dolphins, wolves and grizzly bears. Along the way, he shares stories of his Kwakwaka’wakw ancestors, illustrated in real-time with ancient rock paintings, waterfalls and First Nations settlements.
For Willie, a hereditary chief of his people, running an indigenous tourism business has an important dual purpose. “It’s a win-win for us,” he says. Connecting travelers to the sights and stories of the region “gets us back to reconnecting with our own territory.”
Cast off: Stay in the beautiful town of Telegraph Cove, itself one of the most charming sights in the region, where Sea Wolf Adventures will pick you up for seasonal tours starting from $149 per person.
Explore the coastal islands by kayak
If even the deck of a powerboat is too removed from the water and wildlife, you can’t get any closer than surface-level. The Broughton Archipelago is a sea kayaker’s dream – a maze of crystal-clear bays, inlets and coves to explore. Vast curtains of underwater kelp support a vibrant wildlife ecosystem. It’s hard to know where to look when you’re paddling toward a pod of orcas as a bald eagle takes flight overhead and a pair of ornery sea lions swims under your feet.
Andrew Jones and his team of guides at Kingfisher Wilderness Adventures lead paddlers of any skill level on a four-day excursion along the majestic coastline. They have everything you need – from kayaks and waterproof jackets to a tent-village base camp with beds for up to 10 travelers in the heart of an old-growth rainforest. Maybe it’s because you’ve been paddling all day, but you’ll swear the cedar-smoked barbecue salmon they whip up there is the best seafood you’ve ever tasted.
Cast off: Kingfisher’s all-inclusive four-day guided tours start at $1450 per person. For a more do-it-yourself experience with kayak rentals, waterfront accommodations and massage therapy, The Paddler’s Inn can be reached by water taxi from Port McNeill and Telegraph Cove.
Make a connection on the Inside Passage
The long-promised, often-delayed direct ferry route from Port Hardy on the north end of Vancouver Island to Bella Coola on the Central Coast finally opened in September 2018. It was worth the wait. The 10-hour route on BC Ferries' 150-passenger Northern Sea Wolf vessel will now connect the quirky port towns of the island with the rugged tourism center of the Great Bear Rainforest. It’s a relaxing ride to Bella Coola, certainly better than driving the 280 miles from the next closest town, and let’s face it – there’s no better way to scope out the breathtaking scenery of the Inside Passage.
Step out on deck as the ferry powers up a pristine glacial fjord, with mountains covered in massive trees pressing in on both sides. Watch a long-abandoned salmon cannery come back to life for a moment as a sunbeam breaks through the fog and bathes it in a golden glow. Chase the whales off the coast of a temperate rainforest and watch the porpoises gambol through the ferry’s massive wake. It’s a spiritual place.
Cast off: Sailings can have limited space, so reserve early online. Standard one-way fares are $169 for adults and $84 for kids 5-11, plus $336 per vehicle.
Drift through the Great Bear Rainforest
You’re always at the mercy of nature when you go looking for grizzly bears in British Columbia, but you’re practically guaranteed an ursine encounter in the Great Bear Rainforest, a 12,000 square mile tract of old-growth rainforest on the central Pacific coast. It all starts with at least five species of salmon, which swim up the Bella Coola River system each year to spawn. The waters teem with fish, which means it’s a veritable buffet for grizzlies looking to pack on the pounds before winter.
The best way to view the bears, without question, is via river drift boat – a non-motorized inflatable raft that holds up to six, steered with oars by a professional guide. This isn’t whitewater rafting; the thrill doesn’t come from high speeds and crashing rapids. It comes from a peaceful glide, lulled by bubbling waves and eddies, until a 600-pound bear and two cubs pop out of the undergrowth to feast, just yards away.
Along the banks, you’ll see plenty of wildlife watchers with huge camera lenses stationed in raised viewing platforms, wishing they were down on the water with you.
Cast off: Tweedsmuir Park Lodge offers multiple drift boat trips per day on the Atnarko River, starting at $130 per person. The lodge also offers wildlife and nature walks, a covered viewing platform on the river and chalet accommodations. It’s so close to the grizzly action that bears will often lounge on the lawn.
Fjords and hot springs via fishing boat
Leonard Ellis knows more than most about getting close to grizzly bears. As the legendary story goes, he was leading a tour, running toward a massive bear he saw in the distance, when he burst through some brush and came face-to-face with another one. He slammed on the brakes, lost his footing and slid directly between the bear’s paws, under its belly. “Well, this is it,” was all he had time to think before the bear snorted in his face, turned and ambled away.
Ellis is full of these stories. Like the one about the time he hung backward out of an airplane caught in a tornado. Or the time he parked a 15-foot boat between what he thought was the dorsal fins of two sharks but was actually the dorsal and tail fin of one massive shark. He tells them to the astonished travelers around the campfire at his Bella Coola Adventure Resort. Somehow, amazingly, they still want to go on tours with him.
One of Ellis’s most popular Central Coast excursions is his eight-hour Glacial Fjord and Hot Springs tour, aboard the 42-foot fishing boat Nekhani. With glaciers and pristine marine wilderness as a backdrop, Ellis regales travelers with the history and lore of the settlers in this unrefined area. “Just a handful of people built this whole enclave,” he says of the old Bella Coola harbor. “No gasoline, no diesel, no nothing. All by hand.”
After a day cruising past settlements, waterfalls and fisheries, and with the epic view of Mt. Nusatsum looming over all, the highlight of the trip is a secluded, intimate pair of natural hot springs. Whether you choose the one in a craggy and isolated crevice, or the one in the open looking over the fjord, it’s the perfect place to sit back, relax and retell your own stories: the ones you made on board a boat in British Columbia.
Cast off: The nearby Brockton Bistro at Bella Coola Mountain Lodge offers delicious upscale takes on regional favorites. Bella Coola Adventure Resort also offers marine, grizzly bear and bus tours starting from $150, as well as log-cabin chalets and a gazebo for nightly group gatherings. Ellis himself made the cabins’ bannisters by hand, out of bent logs from the property. Or so the story goes.
Lonely Planet writer Ben Buckner traveled to Canada with assistance from Destination British Columbia, Tourism Vancouver Island and Cariboo Chilcotin Coast Tourism Association. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.