Each summer, about 10,000 tourists visit Blue River to see the wildlife and scenery of Grizzly Bear Valley. Called the Jewel of the Yellowhead, Blue River is located halfway between Kamloops and Jasper. It’s a prime location for heli-skiing in the winter and canoeing, kayaking and wildlife viewing in the summer.
The hour-long tours offered by River Safari are one of Blue River’s summer attractions. The company is owned and operated by Russell Critchlow, who said he hasn’t felt like he has to go to work since starting this venture in 1999.
On the way to River Safari’s waterside headquarters, colourful flags lined the bridge on either side forming a permanent flag salute that welcomes visitors.
Four boats bobbed by the dock. Each can carry a maximum of 12 people for a wildlife tour on Mud Lake. River Safari uses custom-made boats to reduce its impact on the environment.
“We use a boat that has a combination of a very light engine and a very flat bottom,” said Critchlow. This design allows the boat to skim the surface and make the smallest wake possible on the water to minimize erosion on the shoreline. Most of the engine is also contained within the hull, keeping it away from the animals.
Here, you don’t have to search far for wildlife. At the start of the tour, our guide Zakk pointed to a huge osprey’s nest perched on a nearby tree. As if on cue, the bird flew overhead back to its nest as we watched. There’s also moose, eagles and deer, but the area’s biggest draw is the bears.
“Most of our customers have never seen a bear,” said Critchlow. “Through most of July and August is when we show a lot of people the first bear they’ve ever seen in their lives.”
If you’re looking for a bear, you need luck and patience. But when you’re out in the planet’s only inland temperate rainforest with one of the world’s densest bear populations, the odds are in your favour.
Snowcapped mountains and lush forests surround the glacier-fed waters. These glaciers also form beautiful waterfalls including the magnificent Parberry Falls.
The area is prime habitat for black bears because of the vegetation, specifically the countless wild berries that grow in the area.
“They feed on different berries throughout the summer season depending on what’s ripe,” said Critchlow. “We have blueberries, raspberries, huckleberries, thimbleberries, bearberries, salmonberries, gooseberries, elderberries, strawberries.”
About five kilometres up in the valley is Mud Lake Provincial Park, a protected moose habitat and a calving area in the summer. Further up the valley is the grizzly bears’ lair, thus the name.
Although we didn’t spot any moose or grizzly, we did see a black bear cub feasting on greeneries a few feet away from the boat.
Occasionally, tourists get a taste of the wild that few have ever seen. Critchlow has witnessed both the fierce and the gentle side of these untamed creatures: a mother bear defending her cubs from a male bear and a female moose giving birth to a calf.
It’s easy to understand why the tours are famous. It’s a small piece of paradise tucked in a small town waiting to be revealed.