Day: March 27, 2018

Octavia

In restaurant real estate, people often talk about cursed locations. You know, where one day it’s New American, the next it’s Thai, two weeks later you walk by and it’s an always-empty spaghetti house. Is it bad food or just bad juju? You don’t actually know because you never even gave it a chance. Expectations are lower for cursed locations.

But then there are blessed locations. Rare gems that consistently house beloved restaurants that eventually shutter or expand elsewhere, leaving behind their good bones and even better vibes. Expectations are higher for blessed locations.

The window-walled space at Octavia and Bush has long been the latter. And as soon as I punctured Melissa Perello’s divine “deviled egg” — showered in dried marash pepper and a chile fresno relish that unleashed a scent so invigorating it could be the new Red Bull — I knew the latest incarnation of this corner lived up to, if not surpassed, its lineage.

Long gone was the New England stuffiness of the Meeting House, a place I was never old enough, or paid enough, to try (but apparently Joanna Karlinsky’s biscuits were so adored she continued baking them for customers until last year); gone was the genteel white linen and wainscoting of the original Quince; the dark-wood, golf-clubhouse air of Baker and Baker. Now, at this rarified 19th-century address, we have Octavia, open since 2015.

Spare yet warm, with wide-planked distressed floors, black Shaker-style chairs, and servers clad in long denim aprons, you could call Octavia’s look upscale Amish. An airy Pac Heights barn packed nightly with blazers and silver hair, yes, but also short dresses and long locks, new boyfriends, old friends, Frances fans making the cross-Market trek. Everyone swooning over dinner out as it used to be: unadulterated. Before hovering became the standard and mixologists became a must, before tightly crammed communal tables and fast-casual counters and drawn-out tasting menus.

Oh, Octavia has one, if you wish. A tasting menu. And we wished one weeknight. Though, unlike most, it wasn’t a big to-do, or, at $75 per person, a boggling bill. It just allowed us to sample anywhere from nine to 12 dishes in four courses — and catch up, without having to agonize over the brief but beguiling menu.

Like we did on ensuing visits:

Should we get the meaty Pt. Reyes lingcod in a lightly creamy nori beurre blanc scattered with perfect fingerling potatoes, sweet onions, and pearls of Manila clams? (We should.) What about the wild nettle tagliatelle in a tangle of bacon, egg yolk, peppercorns, and pangrattato? (Most definitely.) The ricotta malfatti stuffed with chanterelles, cauliflower, and French sorrel? (Dry and dull; that’s the one entree we should’ve skipped.)

What about the tomatoes? “Nah, a tomato is a tomato,” my friend declared, arguing that he could slice and drizzle olive oil over the same fruit at home. But the firm, sweet, multihued heirloom hunks, sprinkled with sea salt and sprigs of basil, won him over. Proving that when a restaurant like Octavia offers you tomatoes on a warm September eve, you bite.

A $14 avocado, however? You’re welcome to balk. “It’s a Brokaw avocado,” the server explained, seemingly as unsure as we were what exactly that meant. Clearly it was code for pricey avocado, albeit one that was as smooth and creamy as a savory pot de creme. Covered with broccolini and crisp quinoa, however, it looked more like a Chia Pet.

Any moments of mediocrity were fleeting: Chalky chickpea poppyseed sable crackers overpowered otherwise delightful pickled anchovies on one night, plump mussels with smoked pimenton another. But at least both were only a one-bite, six-buck disappointment. A palm-sized bowl of chilled squid-ink noodles with bottarga and fennel, in a pungent lemon agrumato, appeared to be a nightly staple, but unfortunately tasted more like next-day Bento box leftovers pulled from the fridge. After giving them a second chance on my second visit, I guiltlessly snubbed them on my third.

But that allowed for an encore order of the delicata squash — brawny, beautiful, donut-sized rings coated in a thin, crisp, tempura batter accompanied by a puddle of citrusy aioli and dash of chile.

On one night our petit filet begged for an extra pinch of salt. But that was okay, because lo and behold! There were actually mini ramekins of salt on every table. Fitting, as Octavia is not a place that emanates ego.

Rather, it exudes intentionality. From the open kitchen framed like a painting to each piece of earth-toned pottery by Berkeley’s Sarah Kersten to Perello’s fostering of female chefs, like executive pastry chef Sarah Bonar, who also does the desserts for Frances, and now chef de cuisine Sara Hauman, a 2015 Eater Young Gun, who came on in April off a stint as sous chef at Mister Jiu’s, by way of Huxley and Bar Agricole before that. (She actually got her start cooking at health spas in San Diego; she’s obviously back on butter — and for that my lingcod and I were grateful.)

Our only complaint about Octavia was that every starter we ordered arrived at once — also intentionally so. Receiving that dreamy deviled egg at the same time as the chickpea crackers, at the same time as the delicata squash, at the same time as Bonar’s purple barley levain, which is baked daily downstairs? Too much. The egg deserved our undivided attention! Then, fine, let the other dishes follow.

Desserts, on the other hand: bring ’em on. The more of Bonar’s creations the merrier. Our spoons dove eagerly back and forth between subtle treats that were acutely seasonal. And not in a Starbucks Pumpkin Spice way.

The Eton Mess was a visual mess, but an edible miracle: a mound of meringue mixed with poached quince, gooey butterscotch, and cinnamon ice cream. The toasted angel food cake was firm and moist (as much as we all hate that word, that’s what it was, and it was delicious). With a crackling creme brulee-like crust, it was unlike any of the you-call-this-cake? angel food cakes I recalled as a kid. Especially since it came with a scoop of squash ice cream. (Also delicious.)

That’s the thing about Octavia: It’s the kind of place where you feel like an adult, without even being a tiny bit bummed to be one.

Looking around the dimly lit, 55-seat room, at locals from all decades drinking wine and digging in, the scene was soothing but not serious, fun but not frenetic. For a moment, it felt like something was missing, and I couldn’t put my finger on what. Until I noticed: there was no bar, not even a little one. Unlike so many new San Francisco restaurants these days, Octavia bore none of the trendy moneymaking trappings of the moment. The kind that perhaps a less-blessed location — and chefs blessed with less talent — might rely on.

What I loved most about Octavia, I realized, was that it was there. And will be, I hope, for a long, long time.

Hook Fish

It was August in the Outer Sunset and so of course there were puffy coats and wool beanies and beards. And flip-flops.

Everyone out here wears flip-flops, no matter what the weather. It’s the only appropriate footwear for Ocean Beach. And, really, the only appropriate footwear for fish tacos.

As dudes in wetsuits strutted by still dripping, I wondered, what about bare, sandy feet? “It happens,” says Christian Morabito, co-owner of San Francisco’s newest seafood spot. “People try and bring in their dogs, though, and I’m like, no. This is a food facility!”

Friday night at Hook Fish isn’t like Friday night anywhere else in the city. Many of those who cut through Karl the Fog to get here do so on foot. Two blocks from the water, on a mostly residential stretch of Irving Street, there are no double-parked Ubers or eager Elite Yelpers or underdressed tourists, just a bunch of close-knit locals sitting on reclaimed pier pilings, putting back cold Pacificos, and slurping plump West Marin Miyagis, stoked to see each other — and stoked to have a new homegrown restaurant in the ’hood.

It’s a restaurant that feels more like the main cabin of a beautiful wooden sailboat — with hand-built, honey-hued everything: the counter, the benches, the one big table, the ceiling, the wall lamps, even the cash drawer is a log that’s been salvaged and sawed. All elements are the handiwork of resident woodworker Jay Nelson, the sustainability-minded talent behind Outerlands, a restaurant that pioneered the transformation of the nearby 4000 block of Judah.

You could call Hook Fish a “seafood shack,” and I’m sure by next summer, all the food and travel magazines rounding up their lists of “best seafood shacks” will. With just 15 seats inside, it’s the size of one. But that makes it sound rickety and salty and slippery, or like one of those sprawling waterfront traps trying to seem authentic.

Hook Fish is neither. It just is authentic. I don’t mean the food, per se — I mean the people and purpose behind it.

Co-owner Morabito is a 28-year-old lifelong surfer who quit his job delivering boxes of produce for the Fruit Guys to bike 1,600 miles down to Cabo with his brother. They rigged up a bike trailer big enough to lug their boards, camping gear, a bunch of water, and their fishing rods and Hawaiian slings. For three glorious nomadic months, they sustained themselves on spear-caught rockfish, halibut hooked on a fly, clams dug at low tide.

Back home in San Francisco, nostalgic for Baja, he started buying a whole albacore every now and then off the dock in Half Moon Bay. He and a few friends — friends who knew more about cooking than he did — would turn it into poke or ceviche, buy a bunch of beer and chips, and invite everyone over. Soon, that morphed into catering gigs for companies like Patagonia that cared, like him, where their fish comes from.

For a second, Morabito admits, he thought about starting a dog food business that used quality, local ingredients.

I’m so glad he didn’t. Instead, in June, having scored a decent rent from the former owners of Cajun Pacific, he opened a seafood business that uses quality, local ingredients. San Francisco’s 120,000 dogs may balk, but I think Hook Fish is a better boon for the city.

The goal was ambitious, and admirable: to open an “accessible place” to eat (and buy) seafood caught off the California coast, a place that connects “our fisherpeople” to all people while cutting out the many hands that typically touch a slab of salmon before it gets to the consumer.

The city’s most respected chefs, of course, do this already on their nightly changing, more elaborate menus. But Morabito just wanted to serve restorative food and really good fish at prices fair to those both catching it and eating it. And, magically, somehow — even in San Francisco — he did.

That’s a lot of backstory, I realize, but it’s important to understand what Hook Fish is and why it’s worth a long-ass Muni ride.

Morabito and his business partner, Beau Caillouette, hired fellow surfer Luke Johnson, a former in-house chef for Couchsurfing, to do the cooking. Together, they honed the brief menu that hits all the familiar beachside staples — made with your pick of the four of five catches of the day. They are all listed along with the vessel they were caught on and the method used to hook them (i.e.,Halibut, Port: Half Moon Bay, Method: rod and reel, Vessel: Krabmandu, Price: 33.95/lb).

Honestly? It’s all good. Could I really tell the difference between the lingcod and the halibut and the rockfish tacos, when each came cloaked in the same combo: pico de gallo, fresh avocado, a splatter-paint of spicy aioli, and a lively cumin- and coriander-spiked curtido, aka pickled cabbage slaw? Nope. They add a little too much pickled cabbage slaw, but on heavy, handmade corn tortillas, I loved them all anyway. I didn’t want to even bother trying the fried avocado tacos, but I was pleasantly surprised. They were meaty and creamy, and I barely missed the flesh of fish.

Other standouts: the blackened fish sandwich, which I had with halibut. It was firm and flavorful and smeared with tangy house-made tartar sauce, more of that slaw, and pepperoncinis on a not-too-bready roll. With a few dabs of the house-made carrot-habanero, it was even better. The only letdown about the burrito was the same letdown about any burrito: too much rice. When you’re paying 16 bucks for one stuffed with lingcod, you kind of want to be able to taste the fish.

If I lived two doors down, like pretty much everyone behind the counter, I’d come in daily at lunchtime for the house-smoked trout salad, served on a tin tray of seasonal greens doused in creamy creme fraiche, slivers of red onion, sunflower seeds, and these hidden “everything” nut clusters that added such a delightful crunch, I started seeking them out to ensure I got one with every bite.

Drawbacks to Hook Fish? The Fisherman’s stew tasted more like a mild minestrone. (Even on a cold night, I’d skip it.) And despite requesting they pace your over-order, it’ll arrive all at once — and always, impressively, within minutes.

The thing is, though, Hook Fish is the kind of place where you want to, you know, chill. If it took 25 minutes for my tacos, and I had to order another beer, I wouldn’t mind. My only fear is that as the weather warms this fall, and the word spreads, I may get my wish.

But for now, sitting outside on a bench made of cribbing timber, bundled up beneath a hammock of electrical wires sharing fish and chips with friends, Hook Fish still feels like a secret. Maybe the masses will stay away. After all, this is not a place to eat overpriced seafood overlooking the ocean with a sunset view. It’s better than that.

It’s a place to eat reasonably priced seafood with the Outer Sunset crew, ironically the warmest community in this ever-frenetic city. A true outside land, where people prefer to spend time together, surfing waves, not the web.

Duna

Dinner at Duna involves very few decisions, and for this we should be grateful. We’ve got enough to think about as we scroll endlessly, depressingly, through our Trump-strewn newsfeeds all day. Come dinnertime, it’s comforting to walk into a restaurant that’s homey and hearty and Hungarian — with a menu about as brief as a tweet.

It’s a little less comforting to have to stand in line and order at the counter while listening to people ask questions like “How’s the riesling?” and “How many dips should we order?” (My answer, after trying all five: all five.) Then survey the room for an open table. Then carry over your own glasses and carafe. And then have everything you ordered — especially when you ordered just about everything — come in rapid succession, like a blitzkrieg, mere seconds after your wine arrives.

If not before, as our chilled yogurt soup did one night. A peeve. Even the training manual at Pizzeria Uno, where I once worked, dictated that drinks be delivered within four minutes of a customer’s order.

It wasn’t like my soup was going to get cold or anything. So I ignored my pretty antique floral-patterned bowl of garlicky, house-made yogurt mixed with cultured kefir cream and brimming with bits of cool, garden-fresh cucumber, crumbled pecans, and a whole lot of dill, while I waited, for quite some time, for my glass of orange-hued rebula. (Both were ultimately delicious.)

Maybe delayed wine and DIY water are just what it takes to get a decently priced dinner in this town these days.

Due to the astronomical costs of running a restaurant in San Francisco, “fast-casual” spots keep proliferating — eateries with solid food and suitable ambiences that forgo welcoming hosts and doting servers and busting-their-asses bussers in favor of affordability. It’s a format that’s proving successful for the Little Gems and RT Rotisseries of the city, where people know what to expect.

But Duna — which debuted in June in the former Herbivore space, following chef-owners Nick Balla and Cortney Burns’s fleeting pop-up, Motze — is a bit of a different beast. It bills itself as “fine-casual.”

And fine it is. If fine means food that’s soulful, creative, and cooked with care, using local, organic — or as they put it, “noble” — ingredients. Accompanied by candlelight.

It’s the “casual” part of Duna I found confusing. It’s a compliment, really: Balla and Burns’s modern Central European fare deserves full service. Or at least some service.

After three visits, I’m not convinced this kind of quickie, truncated experience works for Duna. Perhaps it works for the owners — and that certainly counts for something — but from the customer perspective it’s uneven, almost awkward (especially when you go to punch a tip on the iPad at evening’s end. Philosophical question: Is 20 percent still fair?).

But nice only goes so far when you want, say, another slab of doughy, warm smoked potato flatbread, and are told, as we were on our first visit: “Sorry, you’ll have to get back in line.” (They’ve since rectified the issue by providing a phone number for already-seated diners to “text for re-orders.”)

And you will want more flatbread. We got seconds every time, as the dips — creamy, vibrant — routinely outlasted it. Standouts include roasted pumpkin seed doused with hot green chile and grapeseed oil; sweet preserved eggplant scattered with preserved kumquats and sprigs of mint; a spicy Liptauer paprika cheese thick with onion, garlic, and toasted sesame seeds that was reminiscent, in the very best way, of Trader Joe’s jalapeno pub cheese. When the last tear of bread was gone, rather than bother ordering another, we scraped the rest with our spoons.

The chopped salads — served family style, like every dish at Duna — are supposed to be eaten with spoons, too. I used my fork for the Sofia, which was essentially just a Greek salad named after the capital of Bulgaria. Nothing special, nothing more. But the Budapest was a bowl of beauty. A brightly colored jumble of bold flavors: juicy red tomatoes (cherry, Early Girl, andheirlooms), fiery electric-green padrons, and soft cubes of Point Reyes’s toma tossed with slices of smoky sausage, rings of piquant peppers, button mushrooms, and finished with plenty of paprika. The dressing — the vegetables’ natural juices soaked in red vinegar with garlic and marjoram — was simple and soupy and indeed worth slurping.

Balla and Burns have tried, yet again, to transform the formerly dull Herbivore space into something warm and woodsy, with bark and branches, woolly art and leafy plants. Intended to resemble the banks of the Danube River — for which Duna was named, perhaps? — it works well enough, but that drab gray institutional tiled floor will remain a thorn in Duna’s decor until they decide to do a real redesign.

Admittedly, no one but the critic seemed to care. Everyone in the long, narrow room clustered around votive-topped tables, as cozy and content as if they were in their own dining rooms (which is possible, as Duna does deliver).

If I squinted past the startup logo-emblazoned hoodies and the latest $300 clogs, it was almost as if 21st-century Valencia Street had time-traveled to 19th-century Budapest. But no, it was just the San Francisco elite digging into Duna’s “peasant” food.

As I slurped my fisherman’s stew, I wondered if the Old World ate this well. I doubted it. I also wondered if the Old World had teeth, as almost every entree had the same texture. That is: none, really. It was like a mushy, madly flavorful meal a sophisticated baby could love.

A duo of cabbage rolls stuffed with chicken and pork snuggling beside slippery house-made sauerkraut, slices of smoked sausage and pork belly, meaty roasted mushrooms, and dried apples was at once delicate and hardy. The chicken paprikas, in a thick, pungent gravy poured over eggy, soft spatzle was just as satisfying. Only the lentil croquettes were a disappointment. A beloved holdover from Balla and Burns’s Bar Tartine days, but made over at Duna, they were dense and dry. Luckily they were surrounded by a gorgeous assembly of roasted spinach, turmeric-tinged cauliflower, and chile-infused yogurt — all of which we devoured.

But we abandoned our croquettes. Like the staff did our otherwise empty dishes, which cluttered our table throughout the entire meal — until eventually I had to text someone to take them away.

“Sunday suppers” at Duna are ticketed, intended to be a more civilized, supposedly slower affair, with cultural themes like “Road Trip to Southern Bulgaria” and “Paprika and Onion.” We’d reserved two seats on the “Boat Trip to Belgrade” (which must have been a speedboat, because somehow our $170 meal was over within 52 minutes). We relished our lively yogurt soup; mild lamb tartare peppered with raisins and parsley; and spicy, rich rock-cod stew nonetheless.

But nothing was as good as Duna’s dips. Especially not dessert: a tasteless frozen custard coated in a parched black-sesame crumble that left me wishing for its doppelganger — Carvel’s crunchies — instead. The “peanut-butter and jelly truffle balls” were the kind of finale only a diehard gluten-free diner could love.

America’s Answer to the African Safari: The Great Bear Rainforest

It’s well into Day Two, and people are wet and cold and starting to worry. “I’m concerned,” says Carol, crinkling her nose.

We’ve spent the past three hours floating quietly on a small Zodiac raft in the salmon-filled Kinoyuk Inlet, then bushwhacking in borrowed gumboots beneath hemlock trees heavy with moss. All of it in the rain. And still: no bears.

“What if we don’t see any?” says Carol, clearly annoyed it’s taking this long.

She’s been everywhere from Iran to Gabon to “all the –stans,” and now she’s here, on a sailboat in remote northern British Columbia, in the Great Bear Rainforest, wearing a waterproof cape, for one reason: bears. Black bears, brown bears, and in particular, the Spirit Bear: an extremely rare, elusive white-furred black bear found only on this remote archipelago of mostly uninhabited islands.

Marci and Marc’s spirits have yet to be dampened. They have saved five years for this trip of a lifetime. They also have matching M&M tattoos (“like the candy”) and camera lenses the size of telescopes. “Marc is always hoping to see bears on any hike we take,” says Marci. “Booking this trip almost guarantees seeing them!” adds Marc. “When I was younger, I admired bears’ beauty, size, ferociousness,” he says. “Now, I look at bears as one of the smartest creatures on earth. They don’t get caught up in life’s trivial things like we do. They’re all about survival, nurturing their young, teaching them to take care of themselves, that’s it. They live a simple life.”

And this week, so do we. Here, biding our time among fjords and estuaries and islands. At 21 million acres, Great Bear is the largest coastal temperate rainforest in the world, alive with 1,000-year-old western cedars and 4,000-foot waterfalls, a scattering of First Nations communities who’ve lived here for 9,000 years—and more wildlife than annual visitors. An unspoiled swath of our otherwise increasingly spoiled planet, accessible only by boat or float plane.

Consider this British Columbia’s answer to the African safari, only with grizzlies in lieu of elephants and humpbacks instead of hippos.

*

The night before, our first aboard the Maple Leaf, all eight of us squeezed thigh-to-thigh around the galley’s mahogany table, drinking wine and dining on almond-encrusted Coho salmon as the ship’s captain, Greg Shea, asked us to share our “wildlife expectations.” Apart from a penchant for nature photography and zip-off pants, this motley crew—ranging in age from 32 to 82, from Seattle to Switzerland to both coasts of Canada—has little in common other than a desire to commune with bears.

These nice but clearly crazy people I’m with for the next 192 hours or so want to see them all. All day. Every day. Up close. A pack of coastal wolves, they all agree, would be super cool, too.

They’re certainly in the right place. In 2016, legislation was finally passed to protect 85 percent of this 6.4 million-hectare old-growth forest from logging. And on November 30 of last year—thanks to the work of conservationists and the indigenous First Nations communities—the state of British Columbia completely banned trophy hunting of grizzly bears. The First Nations had already banned trophy hunting back in 2012 in their traditional rainforest lands, and our captain explains that means more bears. Lots of bears.

Plus, they’re less skittish than they used to be, now that they’ve learned people aren’t out to kill them. “Bear-watching has been better than ever!” beams Captain Greg, his blond curls spilling out of a faded Maple Leaf cap that reads “Small Ship, Big Adventure.” Expectedly ruddy, with a genuine perma-grin, capable hands, and a calm, confident demeanor, he is for sure the kind of guy I want to be with if —when?—I do see a bear.

 *

The Great Bear Rainforest isn’t exactly on the honeymoon circuit. And with a bunkroom for eight, two small “heads” (ship speak for toilets), and one shower per person—all weekneither is the Maple Leaf.

It is, however, one of the most beautiful old wooden boats you’ve ever seen. The 1904 schooner used to haul halibut, before it was spiffed up for eco-tourism trips. It’s the kind of ship you’d find inside a bottle, a masterpiece of Douglas fir and yellow cedar. Wifi? Nope. Nine whole days without it.

But there are two walking Wikipedias on board: Captain Greg and naturalist Brandon Harvey, who know everything there is to know about the Great Bear Rainforest—its crannies and its creatures.

There’s also a hardworking crew ready to hoist sails and pour coffee and replenish TP as needed, as well as a talented chef who cooks four meals a day from scratch, including not one, but two breakfasts (7a.m., granola, muffins; 9a.m., frittatas, French toast); steamy bowls of lentil stew or beef chili for lunch; two hardy midday snacks; and a three-course supper.

There’s no casino, no lounge show, no midnight buffet. Bedtime follows soon after dessert. It’s up-anchor by 6am, after all.

The cabin is tighter quarters than a freshman dorm room, with as much privacy as a rock band’s tour bus. Only a curtain separates each of the four double bunks, which means, despite the provided earplugs, you get to know the nighttime noises of people you just met. I learn that Marc, a hulk of a man, snores like Fred Flintstone. And that Carol calls out in her sleep. And that Doug and Jean, a sweet, silver-haired couple who’ve been married for 56 years, whisper to each other in French before kissing goodnight.

Still, a trip aboard the Maple Leaf is supposed to be about observing wildlife, not fellow passengers. We just have to be patient, the captain reminds everyone. This is nature, not a zoo.

*

Before arriving here, I assumed that everyone—other than the lunatic profiled in Werner Herzog’s 2005 film, Grizzly Man—was afraid that a 900-pound carnivore might maul them to death. When I booked this bear watching trip, I kind of hoped it would be from the deck of our boat, with, like, really good binoculars.

Not exactly what the Maple Leaf has in mind.

We would be landing on terra firma, walking on shore, along the banks, even, at times, through the woods. Be quiet, we were told. Walk slowly, as a group—no straggling behind! We look bigger together than we do alone, Captain Greg explained. All food stays back on the boat, of course.

After that brief training, I felt (sort of) prepared to meet a towering, hungry bruin on its home turf. I also felt a surge of excitement (mixed with sheer fear), the first time we stepped into the inflatable Zodiac and motored toward shore. But since then, things have slowed down.

Wildlife isn’t something you can just summon On Demand, like Planet Earth II. In this age of Google Express and Amazon One-Hour Delivery, a world where everything from filet mignon to organic marijuana to a personal masseuse can arrive at our doorstep with a single swipe, it’s no surprise we’ve become a society of virtual Veruca Salts. We want what we want and we want it now. Instant gratification has grown so expected that when our favorite podcast pauses to buffer or Uber cites “12 minutes until arrival,” it’s cause for distress. Twelve minutes! An eternity!

It’s sad, but true: We’ve forgotten how to wait. Especially, god forbid, without an iPhone in our hands to keep us occupied. Yet here in the Great Bear, wait times, I find, are on a scale of hours and days, not minutes.

*

When not cruising the inlets on a futile hunt for bears, we roam aimlessly around the ship, from the wheelhouse to the galley to the head to our bed, as we wait—for the rain to stop; for a whale to breach; for the anchor to drop; for the sugar cookies to come out of the oven.

As we make our way further north to Mussel Bay, the rain does stop for a spell, and I start to realize that maybe just hanging around waiting—for something, anything, to happen—isn’t so bad.

Not when you’re cruising slowly through serene waters, gazing up at granite walls carved out by glaciers 12,000 years ago and bald eagles presiding from treetops, and waterfalls cascading into the sea. Which, I notice, is a soft gray today, almost indistinct from the sky. There’s also not a single boat, let alone another sign of civilization, in sight.

*

Just before supper on Day 3, we give it another go. We climb down the boat’s wooden steps and pile back into the Zodiac. We zoom out to the estuary, where we crouch in our gumboots and wait on the grassy, wet bank. We don’t make a sound. We listen and look, hoping to hear the crack of a tree branch or spy a movement in the brush. Time passes. Eventually, not one—but freaking four—grizzlies wander down to the water.

I whisper Oh My #@&%ing God and inch closer to Captain Greg. And watch: They’re only cubs, but they’re massive; ambling on all fours through the shallow water, searching for supper. My visit happens to fall in September, prime salmon time, so they find it, no problem. They prowl the shoreline—then pounce, tearing into the pink flesh of the belly as blood and guts plop back into the water. Then they go back for more.

Somehow two hours pass, and at some point I start to relax. A little. I’m captivated. You can’t really get bored watching bears, because, you know, you’ve got to stay alert. They eat and wade through the waist-deep water, they inch closer to our side of the bank—until we’re standing less than 20 feet from them, snapping photos like paparazzi. And yet they barely register our existence. Apparently all they want is fish. Phew.

*

The next afternoon, we head out on the Zodiac and quietly clamber out as Greg points to a big brown furry mound on a grassy slope: four bears napping, a mama and her three cubs. We sit on the bank in our supposedly rainproof pants, watching bears sleep for almost an hour.

My butt is getting damp, my hands are getting cold, and I’m getting ready to head back to the Maple Leaf for a glass of wine. But Captain Greg is engrossed. He has no idea what’s about to happen, but he’s well-versed in the ways of the wild—he knows what we eventually come to learn: that if you wait long enough, something will.

And something does. All of a sudden, mama bear’s mammoth body starts to move. She lumbers onto her back, nipples up, torso outstretched like a limo, and props herself on her elbows (if bears have elbows?). Her three cubs nuzzle close. At first it looks like they’re just cuddling, until we realize, wait, no— they’re suckling. It hits us that we are sitting in the mud in the middle of nowhere, WATCHING A MOTHER GRIZZLY NURSE HER CUBS. Even Captain Greg is gawking at our good luck. Despite a decade observing bears, this is a first for him, too. We’re mesmerized, even a little embarrassed to witness such an intimate, primal moment.

But like any forthright feminist, mama doesn’t mind. This is what we do, she seems to say. The cubs pull off. Milk dripping from their snouts, they look right at us then saunter off into the trees.

What if we’d bailed before the bears woke up? Proof, people, that patience pays off.

*

In the days that follow, the fog parts and the sun shines. Beneath cloudless, electric-blue skies, we cruise up Princess Royal Channel—alongside breaching whales and dancing dolphins, barking sea lions and swimming deer (what? yeah).

We scatter ourselves around the deck, reading, journaling, talking, not talking, leaping up whenever Brandon spies a whale spouting in the distance—and we wait, cameras poised, ready to capture the perfect whale tail. Or two. “It’s a double breach!” Sara, a self-proclaimed whale fanatic, squeals in her thick Swiss-German accent. Once the whale action subsides, we resume our lazy positions and watch the screensaver-worthy landscape roll by.

Every so often, someone in a sun hat wanders by on their way to the bow or the stern and can’t help but say: “It’s so beautiful, isn’t it?” Because it is.

In between kayaking around estuaries and soaking in hidden hot springs, jumping off the bowsprit into BC’s ice-cold sea and barbecuing pork loin over a sunset bonfire on a deserted beach, we zip around in the Zodiac in search of bears.

We find them almost too easily now: Bears chasing fish. Bears chomping fish. Bears sloshing through a marsh. Brother bears wrestling like little boys. Bears standing on their hind legs, arms around each other, like two best friends posing for a picture.

*

Day 5, we unload at Gribbell island, home to the sacred spirit bear—or at least a handful of the only 100 or so estimated to be in existence. We follow a man named Garnet, of the Gitga’at Nation, to a small wooden platform tucked in the trees, a few feet above a rocky river. Along the way, chef Tom picks angel wing mushrooms to cook up later for dinner.

“My last group waited 11 hours,” warns Captain Greg. “We can stay as long as it takes.” It’s 7:30 a.m. We could be here until dinnertime, he says, and still never see one. Bring it on, I say to myself.

We peer upriver. We peer downriver. Then upriver again. Then downriver again. Kingfishers flutter above. Salmon flutter below. A jet-black bear wanders by and bats at some breakfast.

A good three hours pass before we spy him: a ginormous, cream-colored marshmallow slowly making his way up river: a spirit bear. Not just any spirit bear, apparently, but “Big Boss,” as dubbed by Garnet.

As he gets closer, I wonder if he knows he’s an anomaly. The fringe benefit of his rare mutation: Salmon can’t see white bears as well as they can black or browns. That probably explains his healthy bulk. I wonder if he knows we’ve been waiting all morning for him, all week for him. Heck, Carol’s been waiting her whole life for a glimpse of him. He has no sense of his celebrity. He eats his lunch, then moseys up river.

Spirit bear sighting box checked, we could easily leave, head back to the boat. But why? We know better by now. We wait.

And indeed, a few hours later, Big Boss comes back. He sees a black bear fishing on his turf and he isn’t happy. Next thing we know, it’s a full-on bear fight—right beneath our feet. The white bear rams over the mossy rocks, like a Mac truck on the loose, coming at the black bear from behind—and slamming him so hard we can hear their bodies crash above the rushing river. They huff and grunt and push and shove, water splashing, until eventually, true to his nickname, Big Boss triumphs.

It’s like the Nature Channel come to life, and in a matter of minutes, the show’s over as quickly as it began. Apparently, an IMAX crew has been hanging around Great Bear for weeks hoping to catch this kind of action, boasts Greg. And we just happen to see it in the flesh—after a mere five-hour wait.

Toward the end of the trip, I decide to skip the morning safari and take a kayak out for a solo morning paddle instead. After a week on a motor-powered sailboat, I need a little human-powered movement. I need a little alone time.

Until I look ahead and see my fellow passengers sitting in the Zodiac staring at a spit of land. They’ve been sitting perfectly still for at least a half-hour. Curious, of course, I quietly move toward them—and then I hear it, too: the howling of wolves in the wild. It’s haunting. And humbling.

Back at the boat, at second breakfast, the rest of the party is giddy: They actually saw the coastal wolf. A rare sighting, rarer than even the spirit bear. Brandon feels elated after a lifetime spent looking. Carol announces she sure got her money’s worth. Marc gives Captain Greg a big bear hug. And me? I feel like I missed out. I was impatient. I paddled away too soon.

But then I realize: Aren’t we always missing it? The wolves and the whales, the bears and the birds, all living their lives in the wilderness while—a world away—we live ours?

Tomorrow, I’ll say goodbye to the bears and Big Boss, to the sunsets and stars. .I’ll be heading back to laptops and Netflix, to traffic and take-out Thai food. I’ll leave the Maple Leaf bobbing by the dock and catch a ride to the tiny airport in Bella Bella. I’ll take a seat in the one-room terminal, and wait.

And wait. And wait. “Flight’s been delayed,” the man next to me will say. I will look around: at the unstaffed counter selling nothing but coffee. At the two fishermen chatting in their plastic chairs. At the little boy slumped beside his mom.

I will try my best to be in the moment, to be the wilderness sage I’ve become, and wait patiently for whatever’s next.

Which, unfortunately, will not be my plane. And then, like the typical 21st century human I still am, I’ll reach for my iPhone, and hope the Wifi works. I will want to send my family photos of Big Boss and the wrestling brothers and the nursing cubs—knowing full well that a picture won’t do them justice.

 

Getting Here

A trip to the Great Bear Rainforest aboard the Maple Leaf ($3,450 for 8 nights in spring, $5,250 for 7 nights in fall; mapleleafadventures.com) begins and disembarks in Bella Bella, BC, a short flight from Vancouver. The cost includes all meals, wine or beer, accommodations, gumboots, and guiding. Trips to see the spirit bears only take place in September and October, and they often sell out months in advance—so if you want to see one of the 100-or-so spirit bears on planet earth, and watch grizzlies munching on fish during the autumn salmon runs, best to lock in an autumn trip soon. Maple Leaf Adventures also runs a boat called the MV Swell, a gorgeous restored tugboat, and this season, has added a third boat to its fleet: the Cascadia, a luxury catamaran.

Rachel Levin is the author of LOOK BIG: And Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds, published by Ten Speed this month.

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