Black Creek resident Dean Wyatt saw a potential market years ago, and it’s turned out to be a cash… bear.
Wyatt bought a fishing lodge, called Knight Inlet Lodge, in 1996, which is located in Glendale Cove in Knight Inlet, about 80 kilometres north of Campbell River. But within two years, he changed the entire business plan of the floating lodge, and rather than selling fishing, Wyatt decided to sell bears.
“We have an incredible product,” said Wyatt. “I saw the bears and I thought ‘oh no the market’s not the fishing,’ ‘cause the fishing was on decline, ‘the market’s the bears.’”
The lodge offers grizzly bear viewing tours from the end of June to mid-October. The lodge is already about 45 per cent booked for next year’s season, and Wyatt expects that it will be fully booked by the end of March.
Knight Inlet Lodge has garnered high ratings from many travel agencies over the years, and in early summer, the lodge was rated fifth on Tripadvisor’s list of the top 10 all inclusive resorts in the world – the only resort in Canada to even make the list. The lodge did not apply for the top 10 award, it’s solely based on ratings and comments from guests. Wyatt said the high rating of customer satisfaction feels great.
“It’s pretty cool for a place out here in the middle of nowhere that nobody really knows about, that our clients are going away so jazzed that they write into these guys saying this place is an absolute – saying it’s unbelievable,” said Wyatt.
Guests fly out of Campbell River via float plane, and within 25 minutes, are essentially in the middle of nowhere on a floating lodge surrounded by steep walls draped in trees that seem to drop straight into the water. Within another half hour they are out looking for grizzly bears and Wyatt said the appeal to “bear nuts” is huge.
“Most of the people who come, come because they’re bear nuts,” said Wyatt.
“We had a lady last week tell us that she loves coming because she’s an arctophile,” he added, then explained he had to look the word up in a dictionary.
An arctophile is, “a Teddy bear lover. She has this thing about Teddy bears so she had to come and see bears in the wild.”
However, the people who come to the lodge are not local. In fact, Wyatt said he’s never had someone from Campbell River come as a paying guest. Instead the resort’s success is international.
According to Wyatt, about 30 per cent of guests are from Australia, and 40 per cent are from the United Kingdom, with the rest mostly from Europe.
The lodge has an eco-friendly focus, and educates its guests while letting them experience nature at the same time.
“We’re an educational experiential holiday,” said Wyatt. “We really get people engaged in the education side of it, but the experience side of it – to walk on that trail that you know there was a bear there last night rubbing on that trail (because of video cameras the resort has set up to monitor the bears), and then you come to the tree and there’s all the hair on the back of the tree and people are picking the hair off – and that’s what really gets the people going.”
Among activities like kayaking tours, whale watching tours, and nature walks, guests can also release coho fry from the business’ fish hatchery into a river that grizzlies frequently feed from.
“It’s an educational tool for our clients, but it’s a chance to enhance the stock,” said Wyatt. “Our clients are actually really into this, because we take 15 fry at a time… and we go to the river and the clients put the fish back in.”
The lodge has been catching native stock and releasing fish each year for six years. It released 2,000 fish in 2010 and this year Wyatt hopes to release 3,000. However, he said it can be hard to catch the fish in the first place.
“It’s very difficult,” Wyatt said. “One year we caught three fish and we were so excited then we found out they were all males, that was really a bummer.”
He said it’s a learning experience and resort staff are getting better at the hatching process now.
The resort also works closely with the Department of Fisheries on juvenile salmon out migration studies, escapement monitoring and wild Coho enumeration.
It’s involved in grizzly bear studies, and donates money to conservation groups in Canada and the United States.
And to top it off, Knight Inlet Lodge is a founding member of the Commercial Bear Viewing Association of British Columbia. Wyatt said in the late 1990’s he fought hard through this organization to ensure strict guidelines around grizzly bear viewing were enforced by government. The company can do four viewings a day, for two hours each, with a limit 12 people on a tour at a time.
According to Wyatt, these restrictions mean that the resort can’t expand even though business is going so well. It has 15 rooms, with a total maximum of 40 guests in the high viewing season.
A company fighting to be regulated more closely by government may not be the norm, but Wyatt said he felt it important.
“It sounds backwards, but in fact I think our view has always been progressive, because it’s not about me it’s about the bears,” explained Wyatt. “If the bears leave, we have nothing, so the reality of it is that we have to leave the smallest footprint that we can so that we have the least impact upon the way that they live their lives.”