Going way off-grid in a floating safari tent, Sarah Marshall gets intimate with grizzlies in Canada.
Encircled by the hulking shadows of mountains, as fading stars surrender to the rising sun, our boat drifts silently in Quesnel Lake, as if slowly orbiting the bottom of a well.
Plummeting 800m at its lowest point, this is the deepest fjord lake on Earth, seeping into some of Canada's wildest terrain. Sprawling ice fields feed tumbling glaciers, serrated peaks slope into swathes of temperate rainforest, and barely any tarmac has been laid in this intermontane plateau that makes up British Columbia's Central Cariboo.
Plunged in darkness, it's an overwhelming environment, but daylight softens the edges and extends an inviting hand. By 5.30am, amorphous forests have become clusters of innocuous trees and individual peaks emerge from ridge lines, expressing bravado rather than threat.
"Boy is that mountain making a statement today," chuckles our veteran guide Gary Zorn, admiring the bold outline of Mount Wotzke cutting a sharp figure in the sky. It's a cue to start the engine and begin our journey along the Mitchell River, hurtling into the Cariboo Mountains Provincial Park, a place where people are far outnumbered by grizzly bears.
A tough and endearingly stubborn 72-year-old, whose snow-white hair is the only indication of his senior years, Gary has been guiding in British Columbia's backcountry for the past four decades. A pioneer of wildlife tourism in the province, he's the proud owner of bear guiding licence 001, having shunned hunting tours in favour of capturing animals with a lens. Local government, forest councils and National Geographic film crews have all sought his expertise; and his trademarked "bear whisperer" moniker has been deservedly earned.
Granted tenure over an area the size of Switzerland, he operates programmes through Ecotours BC with his wife Peggy. In winter, he takes guests snowshoeing in search of wolverine and lynx, and in summer he heli-hikes through high alpine ranges where the wild inhabitants may never have encountered a human before. But his latest project is the one that excites him the most.
Striking another first for Canadian wildlife tourism, his Glamping with Grizzlies package allows tourists to camp safely just metres from bears, with two smart safari-style tents erected on a floating pontoon. It's an 80km jet boat ride from former gold rush settlement Likely, where the Zorns host tourists at their Pyna-tee-ah lodge. Any roads hit a dead end a long time ago.
Along BC's coast, bear-viewing lodges are numerous, but here inland there are very few. No one else in the province offers such an intimate experience or would even consider venturing so far off the grid. "This is tough country," warns Gary, through a bristle of frosted beard. "You need to know what you're doing."
Gary hauls our boat on to a shale beach and we head into an ancient cedar forest, where girthy trunks will serve as our "blind". There are no viewing platforms or safety rails; in Gary's words, we are entering "the bears' living room".
Aware but unperturbed by our presence, a heavyweight grizzly catches salmon 15m from where we are standing. Climbing ashore, his glutenous haunches wobble like a trifle.
"Will you look at the dimples on that," says Gary, whistling. "That's Jethro; he's the big bruiser around here."
Growing up in the east country, Gary was frequently dropped by his dad in the middle of nowhere with only "firearms and a fishing rod" to get by. As a result, he moves and breathes with the forest, guided by an intuition that has never let him down.
"Some bears will let you creep right up on 'em," he claims, although he also knows when to back off. "I've never had to spray a bear and I won't start now."
Years of wandering through wilderness have taught Gary invaluable lessons that could never be learned from a blackboard or a book. "You don't know anything until you come face-to-face with a grizzly," he insists.
That afternoon, wind direction isn't on our side, so we sit on the decks of our floating home, cooking a barbecue feast and listening to the flutter of falling birch leaves compose a golden symphony on the shore.
Stirred by the shriek of a great horned owl, I awake in the early hours to hear Gary mumbling, trying to calm some of the bears down. "That was Homer, Jethro's brother," he tells me the following morning. "That grizzly was bawling at me all night."
Having watched them grow from cubs, Gary is like an absent father to these bears, familiar with individual quirks and physical traits, but forever on the peripheral of their lives. We run into a sow with a voluptuous ruff and Gary identifies her, without hesitation, as one of Matilda's daughters; and when we meet a bear so docile it ambles within yards of our boat, he knows unequivocally that it's Henry.
Over time, Gary has amassed a family album of photographs and he writes a daily diary of encounters, which he is considering sharing in a book one day. "Bears are like people," he says as we wade through the river. "They have characters. They even get wrinkles as they age."
— Telegraph Group Ltd
Adventure World Travel offers three nights glamping with grizzlies for $7469 until October 13.