They're breaching into the air all around, a dozen or more at a time, then smacking back into the water. It's a surreal spectacle that doesn't go unnoticed by a flock of circling seagulls and half a dozen bald eagles perched in moss-draped spruce and cedars. A black bear and her cub are pawing them out of the pebbled shallows as fast as they can gorge on them while five dumbfounded tourists bobbing in a speedboat can't decide whether to pick up their cameras or their fishing rods.
Figuring the photos can wait, I grab a fishing pole and haul in my first-ever salmon - a feisty 8-pounder - on my first cast.
"Waste of time, these rods," quips Robert Stirling
from London. "I think they simply want to jump into the boat."
I had arrived barely an hour earlier by float plane from Port Hardy on northern Vancouver Island smack into the middle of British Columbia's remote Great Bear Rainforest, a lush roadless wilderness stretching from Desolation Sound on the central coast north to Alaska. We'd landed one of Seymour Inlet's watery tentacles alongside the 114-foot coastal freighter Pacific Yellowfin, our base for six days of exploring inlets, islands and fjords on the lookout for "fuzzy wuzzies," as Captain Colin Griffinson
calls black bears and grizzlies and - if the gods are with us - rare white black bears called Kermode or "spirit bears."
This is also home turf for cougars, wolves, whales and colossal numbers of spawning salmon arriving each fall to migrate up local streams.
After a hot-tub soak on the deck, I grab a vase-sized signature Yellowfin Bloody Caesar cocktail and head to the wheelhouse, settling into my favorite vantage point, a hefty 19th century barbershop chair - a prop from the movie "Mississippi Burning" - that serves as the captain's chair.
Spinning the huge wooden wheel, the Dublin-born captain grins ear to ear as the boat's original engines start up with a rhythmic, retro pocketa-pocketa sound. If Griffinson is a grown-up kid, then the Yellowfin is his floating toy box crammed with kayaks, mountain bikes, mopeds, golf clubs, fishing rods, skeet-shooting guns, a waterslide, wakeboards, stand-up paddleboards and a speedboat.
The Pacific Yellowfin began life in 1943 as a junior mine planter, built in Maine by the U.S. military to keep Eastern harbors safe from German attacks. After the war, the 450-ton wooden vessel was sold to the California Department
of Fish and Game for tuna research - hence her name.
She popped up in mysterious 1960s CIA operations in the Caribbean during the Cuban Bay of Pigs
fiasco, then lounged for decades in the Sacramento River as a houseboat, until she was discovered and resuscitated by oilman Pete Whittier
into his private yacht.
Griffinson - a wooden-boat addict who had already revamped a 72-foot wooden salmon seiner into his family home - fell in love with the Yellowfin at a Port Angeles, Wash., wooden-boat show, befriended Whittier, and years later the two men traded vessels.
Several million dollars later, the Pacific Yellowfin began a new life as an eight-passenger luxury yacht with four traditional staterooms, all varnished mahogany and teak with polished brass portholes. For the past decade, it has been exploring the length of British Columbia's Inside Passage as a charter yacht, but in 2013 began taking individual travelers onboard in spring and fall for the kind of pampered experience once accessible only to celebrities and Middle Eastern oil ministers.
It's a pricey trip for sure, a once-in-a-lifetime bucket-list affair, but it allows adventurous travelers to experience life aboard a private yacht, complete with a top chef and nature guide to actively explore remote, pristine wilderness in comfort.
A ride on the Yellowfin is not your usual destination-to-destination cruise.
"We subscribe to the practice of 'gunk-holing', an old naval term that means meandering about according to whim and weather," says Griffinson. "No two trips are the same."
Searching for bear
Our first whim the following morning is to bundle into rain slickers and Zodiac slowly up rain-swollen streams in search of bears. We trek through a dripping temperate rain forest where stumps sprout moss Afros, and trunks, branches and rocks are cloaked in spongy green. We follow "bear stomp" trails and spot muddy dens, but no fuzzy critters.
"I'd be able to smell them," says our "bear sniffer" guide, Dominic Giossan. "They really stink."
Cruising on, drenching rains have turned the tap on waterfalls streaming off fjord walls straight into the water. Rains can be epic in these parts, as illustrated by an Environment Canada hazard warning over the radio warning boaters of a float home whose tether was washed out, sending the house bobbing along the coast with only the roof visible.
We poke along some of little-visited Seymour Inlet's 950 miles of glacier-carved shoreline, with its stands of old-growth forest, ancient pictographs, the occasional logging camp engineer's float house and abandoned homesteads - the outposts of "beachcombers," folks who scavenge for "lost logs" left behind by logging operations.
Paddling in the sun
On day three, the sun finally appears, banishing ghostly wisps of "forest sweat" streaming off the trees. We slip into kayaks and paddle labyrinthine channels between wooded islets in water so clear we float over colorful kaleidoscopes of starfish, anemones and bright red-lipped gooseneck barnacles.
Lunch is a much-anticipated event. Chef Milan Kocourek, who takes summers off from working in the top kitchens of Whistler, B.C., creates magic in the Yellowfin's tiny galley. It might be homemade soba noodles topped with smoked local sablefish or ingredients we have foraged ourselves.
"We can pull up salmon, trout, halibut, prawns and crabs, fill buckets clam-digging, or pick our own wild oysters," says Griffinson. "Then we watch Milan create a 1-nautical-mile diet."
Lunch and lavish dinners are served accompanied by British Columbia white wines and microbrew beers, either in the dining saloon or on the enclosed fantail deck on a table fashioned from two of the boat's spare propellers.
In the afternoon, we bump along abandoned logging roads through the forest on mopeds. At one viewpoint we spot clear shallows below where thousands of salmon school like minnows, watched over by a pair of grizzly bears on the shore.
We decide to head south toward the Broughton Archipelago in search of whales. First, though, we have to exit the inlet via the Nakwakto Rapids that guard the narrow entrance. Some of the world's fastest tidal surges - up to 19 mph - squeeze through a 980-foot-wide opening.
While we wait to take the Yellowfin through during a slack tide that lasts a mere seven minutes, we hop into the speedboat to whiz around huge whirlpools and surf standing waves churning in the lee of a rock islet standing smack in the middle of the opening. It's nicknamed Tremble Island because it allegedly shudders during strong tides.
Then we cruise out into Queen Charlotte Strait, surrounded by an escort of harbor porpoises, sunning sea lions barking from rocky outcrops.
Broughton Archipelago looks like handfuls of ill-fitting puzzle pieces nudging up against one another - perfect terrain for kayaking through a web of lagoons and channels.
We head toward Blunden Harbour, a gleaming white shell midden beach littered with old pottery shards and glass trade beads at the foot of Nakwaxda'xw, the site of a once-thriving aboriginal community where rows of totems lined the waterfront. Scrambling through dense rain forest behind the beach, you can still make out the massive, moss-covered beams of longhouses and pit houses abandoned when the community was moved in 1964.
Nearby Grave Island, where cedar boxes containing the bones of the dead were traditionally left, exudes an eerie aura.
No sooner are we back on the ship entering Wells Pass than we're surrounded by whales - minkes to the left of us, humpbacks to the right. They breach, cavort and send plumes of steam into the air as we shoot photos and sip Dark and Stormy cocktails.
The next day we kayak along snaking inlets beneath spectacular coastal ranges toward remote Nimmo Bay, a luxury heli-fishing wilderness lodge started 30 years ago by a colorful and entertaining couple, Craig and Deborah Murray, who first came to the region as loggers.
After a breakfast of kale and brie eggs Benedict, we drop anchor at Hopetown (population: 1) to meet Henry Speck, a Kwakwaka'wakw carver and sole resident of another former native community that anthropologists reckon was occupied for 7,000 years. Speck tours us around his home studio, where grand masks in various stages of completion cover the walls alongside photos of his works in international museums.
On our last morning, we drop crab traps before heading ashore on Cormorant Island to prowl Alert Bay, a village adorned with First Nations art, including one of the world's tallest totem poles. There are carvings and poles on the main street, in the cemetery and in the U'mista Cultural Centre, which also features a unique collection of artifacts from once-banned potlatch celebrations.
In late afternoon, we pull up overflowing crab traps and drop anchor in a cove for our last night. Chef Kocourek prepares a simple and messy feast that has us tearing apart bales of Dungeness crab with our hands.
The rollicking evening moves from a fierce limerick competition to guitar-led folk tunes and finishes with our normally reserved engineer, Jack Dixon, reciting ridiculously funny vaudeville monologues from the 1930s, transporting us all back to the era of this 70-year-old ship - without even raising anchor.
If you go
((866) 640-5935 or (604) 321-2124, www.pacificyellowfin.com
) operates only charters during July and August. Individual traveler trips take place in June, September and October to the Gulf Islands, Desolation Sound and the Great Bear Rainforest. All rates are per person based on double occupancy and include all meals, use of the ship's recreational equipment at the crew's discretion, and wine and beer with meals. Does not include transportation to and from the vessel.
Great Bear Rainforest:
Two different cruises will be offered for late September/early October 2014. Cruising the Great Bear Rainforest is an eight-day trip starting and finishing in the central British Columbia community of Bella Bella. A seaplane transfers passengers to the vessel. From $7,900 per person, double occupancy. Totems and Orcas is a seven-day trip that starts and ends at Port McNeil airport on northern Vancouver Island. From $7,200. Exact dates will be announced in coming months, so subscribe to Pacific Yellowfin's newsletter or Facebook page, or make contact by e-mail. It's possible to add a stay at Nimmo Bay Lodge as part of a Great Bear Rainforest cruise.
Four-day cruises in June start at $3,800 per person, based on double occupancy.
Five-day cruises in June start at $9,500 per person.
Margo Pfeiff is a freelance writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org