The main reason for this trip to Western Canada was to see Grizzly Bears hunting salmon in the autumn, prior to hibernation. While this could be done in Alaska, using Vancouver as a base would combine the city itself, some whale watching from the Vancouver Island base, and also a trip to the Canadian Rockies. We found that all this could be combined quite easily, and at a relatively good cost, from this base. Very little specific birdwatching was conducted, so most sightings were secondary to the activities we had planned.
For the Grizzly Bears, it is necessary to travel over to Vancouver Island, and then use one of the tour companies to be transported back to the BC mainland for the day where the bears can be found (there are generally only Black Bears on the island, although 5 Grizzlies had been reported recently). One of the best known viewpoints is at Knights Inlet. To get here, there is either a float plane and overnight stay (which is very expensive), or day tours by boat using Riptide Tours. Both are from Telegraph Cove, which is quite a trek up the eastern roads of the island from the ferry. We decided to go for the next option, which was to stay at Campbell River, and use one of the tour companies which take you to Bute Inlet, which is the next one down on the mainland from Knight's Inlet. This is to be recommended, since it not only is more or less a guaranteed spot for bears in September, but is also cheaper, a shorter drive from the ferry, and a better base for whale watching.
The Rockies section of the trip took some decisions, from where to visit, to how many nights in one particular place. Final plan was to drive to Banff, and use this as a single base for the remainder of the holiday. Birds were in low numbers here, but the main impact of the National Parks was awe inspiring (a pass is required for each day spent at any of the Canadian National Parks).
Timing and weather
Since the trip was based around the Grizzlies, the timing had to coincide with their peak activity. The salmon usually start their upstream runs towards the end of August (although it has been slightly later the last couple of years), and end mid October. So the middle of September seemed to be the optimum time. The tour company who we used and could thoroughly recommend is Aboriginal Journeys (www.aboriginaljourneys.com), who include a free return trip if no bears are seen on the paid for trip (during September).
Most of the Summer visiting birds have left by this time, and only a scattering of Winter visitors have arrived, but it is also a good time for Killer Whales, since the resident population are supplemented by the more carnivorous transients. It is worth booking a trip with an enclosed boat for this due to the high possibility of rain (Discovery Marine Safaris at www.adventurewhalewatching.com provide this - I would not recommend Campbell River Whale Watching, since they not only use Zodiacs which are open to the elements, but also do not value customers enough by cancelling long term bookings, such as ours, for more lucrative short term group bookings). We did have rain and cold weather during our whale watching tour, although overall the sun and temperatures were much higher than the temperate ones expected for the time of year.
With the demise of Zoom airways, Canadian Affair (www.canadianaffair.com) is about the only budget airline left flying to Canada. They use Thomas Cook as one of the main providers of planes, and offer an excellent, good value service to some of the prime locations in Canada, including Vancouver. It would seem that the pricing is done in the old fashioned way - cheaper flights can be had the nearer to the date of departure you book).
British Columbia (and the adjacent part of Alberta which we visited) is huge, leaving long driving times between stops). We picked up a car in Vancouver, and drove to Campbell River on Vancouver Island via the Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo BC ferry (www.bcferries.com). This is a slightly shorter crossing than that from Tsawassan to Nanaimo. We travelled on a Monday and Friday, when it is worth booking the journey ahead of time, since not all were guaranteed a place, and those with bookings go to the front of the queue.
Petrol in Canada is still a lot cheaper in the UK (about half the cost), but the distances driven put up the total eventual cost (apart from the fact that we had a free upgrade to a Ford Mustang GT - heavy on the gas, but a total treat). It is also worth planning ahead for petrol stations, particularly in the Rockies, where there can be some distance between fuel stops.