Marcus Waring sees both sides of British Columbia, up close with a grizzly and through the window of a luxury train
It's the Canadian conundrum. Most visitors want to see a grizzly bear and get a handle on the scenery. Unfortunately, this is a vast place - the second largest country in the world - the range of scenery is enormous, and there are at most only 66,000 grizzlies scattered across the whole of North America.
However, last year Rocky Mountaineer Railtours teamed up with Knight Inlet lodge at Glendale Cove to offer a package combining a close grizzly encounter with a luxury train journey from Vancouver to Calgary through some of the country's most varied scenery.
Knight Inlet lodge is a floating wooden platform moored just off a pine-covered hillside, an exhilarating 40-minute seaplane ride from Vancouver Island. A three-night stay is made special by great staff, excellent food, comfortable accommodation, a full programme of activities and an odds-on certainty of meeting the odd grizzly or three. Banff national park, in the neighbouring province of Alberta, can claim no more than 70 grizzlies in its whole 2,000 square miles, but Glendale Cove is swarming with them, with 43 in just 7sq miles. And there are black bears, cougars, seals, orcas and eagles to keep them company.
Minutes after checking in, Jill, our guide, was taking us on our first Estuary Tour, the skiff gliding slowly across the flat water. Near the lodge, wooden posts rose up out of the water, the skeletal remains of a salmon cannery from the 1920s. When logging was big here, there used to be a school, a church and around 1,500 people. Now the 7 sq miles around the lodge is protected and hunting forbidden, and there are plans to extend this to 40 sq miles. Sadly, the bears roam a lot further. Numbers in British Columbia are officially put at 11,000-13,000, although biologists believe this is optimistic, while hunters continue to "harvest" their trophies.
We soon found Ursus arctos horribilis, the world's largest land carnivore after the polar bear. This one was a sub-adult grizzly wandering along the shoreline, flipping large grey rocks as though they were pebbles, to reach the molluscs beneath. Through my binoculars, I could see the expression in his eyes as he tried to suss us out. "We don't allow camera flashes, we look for signs of stress when we approach the bears and leave if they are stressed," said Jill. "This means we can spend longer near them."
Early-morning kayaking was a silent way of seeing bears in the sedge. When they emerge from hibernation in the spring, they feed on this vivid green grass at the mouth of the estuary where a river winds out of the forest. In the Fall, you can watch the bears catching salmon here. We paddled quietly up the river, two woodpeckers tapping away in the trees deep in the mist.
For the Tracking Tour, we rode in an old yellow schoolbus down a disused logging road on the opposite shore. Tim, the guide, found bear prints, scratch marks on trees and old salmon skeletons on a carpet of pine needles above the river. Stepping out of the bus felt like walking into Jurassic Park without the luxury of being able to shout "Cut!"
The Inlet Tour in a motorboat took us north up the wide fjord, pine trees growing all the way down to the deep water, snow-capped peaks rising above green mountains. Around 250 Pacific white-sided dolphins appear here to hunt the herring. We were splashed by five of them bow-surfing, close enough to touch.
Then, after surviving wilderness hazards that are impossible to imagine encountering in the UK (apart from drinking with fishermen), we were suddenly back in a bustling Vancouver, the guard yelling a theatrical "all aboard!" as we joined the Rocky Mountaineer. There is a choice of classes: Silver Leaf is a normal train coach, but Gold Leaf has a restaurant car with a glass-roofed observation car.
The railway across Canada was completed in 1885, after years of tunnelling, dynamiting and accidents - it is estimated that a Chinese worker died for every mile of track. Somehow, the first train crossed the entire country and arrived only a minute late.
The first day covers 285 miles from Vancouver to Kamloops, leaving the skyscrapers of Vancouver via the huge Fraser river swing bridge for the Okanagan valley, the farmlands of BC.
We followed the annual migratory salmon route along the Fraser. According to the onboard commentary by our guides - both called Lisa - every town has a story, although some have better stories than others. Hope, at the meeting of the Fraser and Coquihalla rivers, was so named because it was hoped that the fur hunters of the Hudson's Bay Company would have easier access to the interior here. It was also where Sylvester Stallone's First Blood was shot. But Hell's Gate, touted as the place to take photos, was not as gushing and dramatic as the commentary preceding it.
By afternoon the air was hot and the landscape surprisingly khaki as we entered the desert of Osoyoos. Arid slopes were dotted with scrubby bushes as we admired desert outside and dessert within.
No exaggeration was needed concerning the western cabaret about the 19th-century train robber Billy Miner in Kamloops, a laid-back town of 87,000 spread over a valley where we stop for the night. "It was so bad it was good," Carol and Marsha from Tennessee agreed over eggs benedict with lobster the following morning back on the train.
On the 405 miles to Calgary, we passed the spot where Billy and his gang pulled off their last robbery, netting an impressive $15 and some liver pills. Apparently his problem was that he was too polite.
Shuswap Lake was bordered with osprey nests on telegraph poles and luxury houseboats where you can get pizza delivered by boat. In Glacier national park, the broad pebbled Bow river widened and turned a cold green, dead pine trees lying underwater like ghosts.
As the air freshened it rained, then snowed, as the Rocky mountains appeared at last, snow defining the crevices, and cloud enveloping the peaks of Mount Temple and Castle Mountain. East of Banff, the 10,000ft Three Sisters were a fitting climax to the Rockies. Then they faded into the sunset as we moved into the dry grass plains. I spotted a lone coyote in the thinning trees at the edge of the prairie, a suitable farewell from the wild interior where the lights of Calgary don't reach.
Getting there: Travelpack (0870 1212020, www.travelpack-canada.com) offers London-Vancouver flights. Other options include Air Canada (0871 2201111, www.aircanada.ca), British Airways (0870 8509850, www.ba.com) and Zoom Airlines (www.flyzoom.com).
Where to stay: The 11-night Grizzly Bears of Knight Inlet package from Rocky Mountaineer Railtours (01622 832244, www.rockymountaineer.com) includes transfers, sightseeing tour of Vancouver, flights to Knight Inlet via Painter's Lodge, wildlife tours, rail station transfers in Vancouver, Kamloops and Calgary, two days' Gold Leaf service on the train, five breakfasts, lunches and dinners and accommodation in five-star Fairmont hotels (www.fairmont.com), Painter's Lodge on Vancouver Island (www.painterslodge.com) and Knight Inlet (www.grizzlytours.com).
When to go: from early May until October 18.
Further information: www.travelcanada.ca.