Thompson Sound: whales, dolphins, bears, Trapper Rick and his new guide, Rees Wilson

Traveling south from the Broughtons back to Campbell River and Desolation Sound is much more comfortable when the typical NW winds blowing down Johnstone Strait are “light” (15 knots or less). Unfortunately, the typical NW winds blowing down Johnstone Strait are “Gale” (35+ knots) or “Strong” (20+). On Sunday, the wind forecast for Johnstone Strait for Monday morning were “light” so we decided to make our way back to the south part of the Broughtons so that we were set up to enter Johnstone Strait on Monday morning. On our way we hoped to see a bear on the beach looking for crabs or clams at low tide.
We stopped first at the Kwatsai Bay Marina to check it out and use some of the best internet in the area so far. It’s a really pretty little bay, surrounded by high mountains, and run by a lovely family although the docks could use some newer planks. The marina was fully reserved, but there was an open spot at the dock where we were allowed to tie up for a quick visit. It’s definitely a good stop for the future. 

 At Kwatsi we got a much-needed Grandparent fix by trading quick text videos with James before leaving to find our anchorage for the night. Based on descriptions in the Waggoner Cruising Guide (our go-to reference text), the Captain decided to investigate the head of Thompson Sound, about 10 miles away. Although the waters of Thompson Sound are so deep that there is almost no place to anchor, the cruising guide said there there was a small area at the very head of the Thompson Sound where a few boats could anchor. 

So began our magical adventure in Thompson Sound. I decided to take a quick snooze so to recover from my late night star gazing the night before when Jim spotted “Wanda” the Whale breaching in the middle of the Thompson Sound, about a mile in front of our boat. 

   

 We spent the next hour watching Wanda, becoming amateur biologists by counting the number of breaths between each of her dives. The typical pattern was ten breaths: 8 lounging on the surface before bowing her powerful body on the 9th and then diving down strongly after the 10th, showing us the pretty white underside of her tail (which is how we identified Wanda as a humpback whale). Wanda typically remained submerged for 5 minutes (presumably searching for food) before repeating her routine.

The head of Thompson Sound is a glorious place, surrounded by mountains and including the Kakweiken River, where salmon run and bears hunt salmon. The Captain and I had not seen a bear yet, but this was prime bear habitat, so we were hopeful.

The head of the sound had one boat anchored in the little area where anchoring was possible, plus a small shack and a little dock about a mile away. The depths shown by our depth sounder were very different from those on our charts (much shallower in the areas closer to the mouth of the river, and much deeper in the areas farther away. Later we would learn that there was a huge rock avalanche last year that had really changed the river, the shoreline and the nearby bay.

After anchoring a kayaker paddled our way from the small shack and the dock. He introduced himself as Rees Wilson and said that he and his boss had the “wilderness license” for the area and offered bear tours. He seemed like a sweet young man but his first price was much too high for us. After paddling back and conferring with his boss (he referred to him as “the old man”) we soon negotiated an acceptable price, and set the time for our “tour” for the early evening when it would be cooler.

Now we assumed Rees and his boss would be taking us on a boating trip up the river. We assumed wrong. At the appointed time we took our dinghy to their dock where we were introduced to the “old man”: Trapper Rick. Now Trapper Rick is lanky man who looks like he has been in the Canadian outback for decades. It turns out that our young kayaker, Rees Wilson, was training with Trapper Rick to become a licensed “bear guide”. In Canada you must first apprentice with a guide for at least a year before you can take the official bear guiding class. Although this seemed backward to us, we assume the government is just trying to reduce the average class size in their bear guiding school.

Assuming our adventure used a boat and not our legs, we wore our “chako” hiking sandals, not hiking shoes, and Jim didn’t bringing his hiking poles. Nevertheless, we just went for it when Trapper Rick suggested we just put on some bug spray and follow the two of them up the trail from the little dock to a truck that was apparently parked about a half mile away. The trail was once a road, but the road was destroyed by last year’s rockslide, which also washed out a bridge and other parts of the road.

Truck? Huh?

At this point we guessed that we would be taking a truck to a boat that was on the river upstream, and then using the boat to go see the bears. Wrong again.

Along the trail I turned around and looked at Jim smiling and mouthed “OMG”. 

Rees was carrying a can of gas. It turns out that was for the old, very used truck. Because Rees and Rick had no funnel, the siphon method was used to put a couple of gallons of gas in the truck before we drove off into bear country.

As we began our drive up the logging road, we learned that we were Rees’s first official clients during his bear guide training

We were honored to be Rees’ first clients, but glad that Trapper Rick was in the truck with us.

  Trapper Rick gently instructed Reese from the back seat as we made our way up the logging road where we had our first encounter with a grizzly bear: Emma or just “Em”. Rick had named most of the bears over the years. Emma responded to Rick talking to her from the truck, window down, which really made Jim nervous. But, Rick said not to worry, Em could break into the truck easily regardless of whether the window was up or down.

Grizzlies are big bears, even from a distance, and Emma was a female and thus smaller than all of the males.
The logging road abruptly came to an end where an old bridge across the river was now missing. So, we got of the truck walked on a trail followed the river upstream. This river meanders up the mountainside, with occasional small waterfalls. The truck ride took us 600 feet above sea level. 
Once again we were walking a trail, in a line, late in the day in Grizzly country, just Trapper Rick, Rees, me and then Jim. We learned that Trapper Rick, thank God, carried a big 45 caliber handgun and, less comforting, that Rees had a big can of pepper spray. But we were all having a good time and Trapper Rick and Rees certainly seemed confident in their abilities and leadership.

Jim later told me that he was thinking about the old saying: “you don’t have to run faster than the bear, you just have to run faster than the people you’re with” as we walked the trails. Unfortunately for Jim, even though Trapper Jim had a bad leg, he still was pretty fast for an old guy, so Jim felt he was the definitely the slowest in our group. Of course, Jim was counting on Trapper Rick to take on a bear with his gun if needed while we made our escape, giving Jim a short lead at least in getting back to the truck! I never had these thoughts because I assumed I was at worst the second fastest in our group.

Now we thought: it must be time to get in the boat. And there was a boat! 

  Unfortunately, it was a sad little rowboat, with no engine or even a paddle, at the bottom of a steep embankment. The old boat was tied to a rope crossing the river and was used like a small river ferry in old westerns movies, where the passengers pulled the rope to traverse to the other side.

  
OK! 

So we climbed down the embankment using a ladder to reach the lower riverbank. We got into the old boat and Rick and Reese pulled us the 30 yards across the river. Again, this all happened on a salmon river in grizzly bear country. Let’s just say that if we had seen a grizzly bear there, it would have been very intimate, but also a bit unnerving.

Safely across the river, we climbed out and headed to Rick’s mountain cabin about a half mile away, situated right next to a 10 foot waterfall and an old concrete salmon ladder. The cabin, like every other aspect of Trapper Rick’s Wilderness Bear Adventure Experience, needs some work. But the location was amazing: the salmon were beginning to run, the sun was about to set, and Trapper Rick thought our chances of seeing grizzly bear were excellent. 

OK! 

  We walked a short trail from the cabin to the riverand hung out for about 30 minutes on the river, next to the fish ladder, while Rees watched for bear and Trapper Rick fished for salmon with a rod and reel. 

Jim later told me he was preparing his escape route down one of the weaving concrete chambers in the fish ladder where he figured the bear couldn’t squeeze through. But Jim’s escape route was unnecessary, as there were no bears at the fish ladder while we were there. 

 As the sun was setting we made our way back the way we came: trail past the cabin to the boat, boat across the river, trail to the truck (where Trapper Rick briefly couldn’t find the keys because Rees hid them in the ash tray instead of “leaving them in the ignition in case of an emergency” as he was told), truck down the logging road (it was getting dark, and the headlights weren’t working), truck to the end of the road and finally trail to the dock. 

Halfway down the logging road Rees said he sensed that we would see another bear and we did. The biggest male bear in the local area ran across the road in front of us. Grizzly sighting number 2!

We were all tired and hungry when we got into our dinghys to head to our boats. Yes, Rick and Rees were staying in the other boat in the small anchorage. Probably a good idea given the grizzly bears living in the area!

We said our goodbyes at the dock and drove our dinghy the short distance back to the safety of the True Love where I cooked up some chicken legs on the grill and heated up a package of Trader Joe’s gnocchis. We washed those down with some celebratory champagne. After much needed showers we shared some ice cream on the upper helm while looking at the glorious stars and reliving our big adventure in GrizzlyLand.

What a crazy, wonderful, unexpected adventure. Both Trapper Rick and Rees love what they are doing and where they are working in this beautiful land. Trapper Rick stays in the area in the winter and hunts sable in the winter. His life has taken him from Nova Scotia, to Los Angeles (where he was briefly a member of Hell’s Angels before witnessing a murder), to working as a welder in Northern Canada to his current gig of Wilderness Bear Guiding in Thompson Sound. 

The sounds of seals splashing in the water filled the air as we fell into a long, deep sleep. The next morning it was low tide and we hoped to spot another bear at the beach during low tide. Rees paddled over to say goodbye and while he was aboard we all saw Emma on the nearby beach.

  
It was a little tricky bringing in the shore tie because the seaweed on the surface had tightly bound both the incoming and outgoing lines together. We’ve never experienced this before. It wasn’t impossible to detangle, just tedious.

Because of the problem with our shore tie and the lovely morning bear sighting, we left a little later than expected which led to rougher seas than we hoped as we cruised south down Johnstone Strait. On our way out of Thompson Sound we passed some  more Dolphins. 

   

But fortunately, the winds and seas were going in the same direction as we were, and the True Love and its crew made it the 20 miles to the next safe harbor, Forward Harbour, without a problem. The calm bay was a bit crowded with boats gathering to prepare for the trip north to the Broughtons the next morning.  But we found a good anchorage, took the kayaks out for a spin and slept in the next morning before heading down to one of our favorite spots: the “Crawford Anchorage” next to Erasmus Island, near the Blind Channel Resort. It was as perfect as we remembered, so we stayed there for a couple of days before meeting up with Jasmine and James at Dent Island. 

  Crawford Anchorage is a practically perfect location with room for just one boat, fantastic views, eagles and a short tender drive to Blind Channel. 

  
Blind Channel is one of the nicest places in this area with a yummy restaurant for dinner, little store, fuel pumps, internet and overnight docks. Last night we went there for dinner. Their salads are beautiful with edible flowers and yummy fresh greens. After more than a week out we are out of fresh vegetables, so I was craving greens.
Today we are going to do some provisioning back at Blind Channel, kayak, fish and edit these blogs so that we can share our most recent adventures with you! 

True Love Adventure copy editor hard at work!

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