British Columbia’s Inside Passage may be the one place on Earth where you’ll spot humpback whales feeding just offshore while a grizzly bear and two cubs forage for mussels on a nearby beach. By land or by sea, the region surges with life. The area that encompasses the central and northern sections of the province’s coastline runs about 500 kilometres from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert, extending inland to the Coast Mountains.
The water is sheltered by a chain of islets and islands, just west of the continent’s edge, which form a natural breakwall against the pounding Pacific swells. Ocean currents and wind combine to push nutrients from the sea floor to the surface, serving up an all-day organic buffet to the area’s marine residents. Whales, porpoises, sea lions and sea otters all flourish here, alongside 50 species of fish and 190 different types of marine invertebrates (at last count).
On shore, the world’s largest intact coastal temperate rainforest provides habitat for grizzly bears, black bears, coastal grey wolves, Sitka deer, cougars, mountain goats and bald eagles, among thousands of other species of animals, birds and plants. Ancient trees dominate the lush landscape. Thousand-year-old cedars draped in lichen mingle with moss-covered 90-metre-tall Sitka spruce. In 2016, the provincial government officially recognized 6.4 million hectares along this route, an area the size of Ireland, as the Great Bear Rainforest, an act that permanently protects 85 per cent of the old-growth trees from industrial logging.
Not only is life plentiful, but it is also unique. In Johnstone Strait, orcas weighing up to six tonnes delight kayakers by breaching — launching their bodies out of the water, their white undersides flashing in the sun. A well-established population of more than 300 orcas ply these waters for salmon, preferably chinook.
One predator that is notably rare in the Inside Passage is people. No road connects it to the populous Lower Mainland. Most access still requires a boat or a floatplane, usually both. And so, the scenery remains much as it always has — at least since the last great ice age ended some 11,000 years ago. The cobalt- blue waters of the glacier-carved inlets and fiords perfectly reflect the densely forested peaks above. Experiencing the Inside Passage is akin to time travel, back to an era when grizzly bears roamed the beaches from Washington to Alaska.