Found only in the wildlife-rich remote islands of British Columbia, spirit bears have long been revered by First Nations peoples. We visit in search of the elusive ursine
How a search for British Columbia’s elusive spirit bear became a journey into Canada’s wild green heart
The osprey took off from a cedar tree and soared above, framed against a brilliant blue sky, its white underparts gleaming in the sun. My legs were braced, steadying me against the boat’s motion, as I watched the beautiful raptor through my binoculars.
A whooshing noise next to the boat made me jump, and I looked down to see that two orcas – killer whales – had surfaced right beside us. It was one of those extraordinary moments when time both stands still and races by.
There was just time to be impressed by their size and power before they descended again under the waves. There were half a dozen of us on the back of the boat, and we were all equally stunned. “Did anyone get a photo?” I asked. No, we had all been as surprised as each other by the close encounter.
The pair surfaced again further away. We also spotted a third orca that was clearly part of the little group but not travelling as closely to them. Our boat was following the coastline south, and the orcas were travelling in the same direction, albeit slaloming across our path – sometimes surfacing on one side, sometimes another; sometimes relatively close, sometimes several hundred metres away. We each took hundreds of photos of bits of dorsal fin peeping above the waves as the orcas shallow-dived.
“They are hunting for fish,” said our guide, Brady. “Or anything else they come across, such as seals or porpoises.” As if on cue, a large salmon leapt out of the water. The orca were circling in pursuit of the fish so we stopped, turned the engine off and Brady lowered a hydrophone into the water, but there wasn’t much to be heard. “They will be transients,” said Brady. “If they were residents they would be a family group and communicating with each other all the time. But these guys are hunting and not really communicating with each other.”
Often described as the wolves of the sea, orcas are divided into three ecotypes: residents who stay in an area in family groups and eat fish; transients who travel and hunt over a large range and are more opportunistic about what they eat; and offshore orca who live far out to sea and have been little studied.
We started the engine again and carried on at the same speed as the orcas. Eventually, around an hour after we had first encountered them, another boat came up behind us, belonging to some people from the local community, and we reluctantly left the creatures behind.
“We have been getting great orca sightings this year,” said Brady. “But this was one of the most magical orca experiences I have ever had.” Only the evening before, back at our lodge,
‘“We’ve had great orca sightings this year. But that was one of the most magical I have ever had”’
we had heard from a researcher that orcas have the largest brain relative to body weight of any animal on Earth, that they are highly social and have empathy, and that they are the only animals other than us who go through the menopause.
Assistant guide David turned to me. “Our people are all one of four clans: Raven, Wolf, Eagle or Blackfish (orca). I am a Blackfish. So that was very special for me.” David is one of the local Kitasoo and Xai’xais First Nations who have lived in this area for thousands of years. Although two distinct indigenous groups, they have come together, with most of the population living in Klemtu, a remote village based on one of the multitude of islands that pockmark this stretch of the British Columbia coast.
Twenty years ago, realising that their people needed alternative ways of making a living, two of the community decided that tourism could be the answer. They live in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, part of the world’s largest temperate rainforest, with a greater biomass even than the Amazon jungle. Their initial idea developed into ecotourism, and then into Spirit Bear Lodge, a pioneering ecolodge owned by the community.
What brings many of the guests here is the possibility of seeing the region’s most famous resident, the rare spirit bear, a white-furred genetic variant of the black bear of which only a few hundred exist. I have longed to see one, ever since I first heard whispers about them many years ago.
Hence, I had arrived at the lodge in a state of excitement the previous afternoon, but manager John Czornobaj soon dashed my expectations of spotting a spirit bear. He gestured to the warm sunshine outside: “This heatwave is very unusual. The hot weather and no rain means everything has been turned on its head. The salmon can’t get in the rivers yet, and it’s an exceptional berry year, too, so no need for the bears to come to the rivers. Even in a normal season your chance of seeing one would have been no more than 50%, but this year, spotting them is very difficult.”
John predicted that I would nevertheless enjoy the experience of being here. “You don’t get to see wilderness like this any more. This is the crown jewel of the Great Bear Rainforest. It is protected and will stay that way. The deep connection to land that the people have here is very special; it has lasted thousands of years. They have stories connected to each place in the territory, which go back to a time when magic still existed. It’s a really authentic culture. They live and feel it.”
Later, news came in that a local person had spotted a white bear that very day at a certain inlet, and so John suggested that I should join some guests who would be going there the next day. We clambered into the boat after breakfast, all willing that this would be a lucky day. Brady introduced our captain as Charlie Mason, hereditary chief of the Kitasoo. It was Charlie who, along with Douglas Neasloss, chief councillor for the Nation, instigated tourism and the lodge.
A heavy mist hung over the water and curtained the forested hillsides as we chugged past a pod of porpoises and through a channel, before eventually emerging on the coast. Around 90 minutes after leaving the lodge, we pulled into an inlet. Charlie anchored the boat and we transferred into a couple
‘“The deep connection to land that people have here is special; it has lasted thousands of years”’
of Zodiacs, one following the shore on one side of the bay, ours taking the other side.
Having spotted nothing, we turned back to an area where a creek fed into the bay, turned off the engine and bobbed about. It was a pretty spot, and the creek had a small set of falls. Brady explained that above the falls was a lagoon that provided ideal conditions for sockeye salmon. When there has been rain, and when the tide is high, the water rises to submerge the falls and the salmon swim up the creek.
The water was crystal clear, and a school of 20 salmon passed under our Zodiac. David explained that the community had already completed its fishing for the season as they had caught enough salmon for the winter. “We practice conservation. We got taught by our elders not to mistreat the land and the water. Otherwise, one day we will run out of food.”
For several hours – interrupted only by a break back on the main boat – we floated in the bright sunshine, the temperature in the early 20s, a gentle breeze blowing. The sole sound was the running water of the falls, punctuated by the occasional keening of a bald eagle and the splash of jumping salmon. But we eventually had to admit defeat on the white bear front, and rejoined the boat. But it was as we left the bay that nature decided to present us with a magical blackfish encounter.
The next day we rejoined Charlie and Brady but took a different direction. We spent time in an enchanted forest, revelling in the profound silence, the ancient trees, the rich smells. We walked a trail in single file, our steps muffled, and emerged at a spot where two creeks converged. Eight bald eagles took off from the surrounding trees but then returned to their perches where they watched for salmon. We sat on logs in a state of reverie, next to old hemlock trees covered in lichen. Then, returning to the boat, we found a tuft of spirit bear fur on a bush next to the trail.
At our next stop it was tufts of grizzly fur that were in evidence. In a beautiful river valley we took to the Zodiacs and pulled up at a ‘stomp’ trail used by grizzlies to visit a ‘rubbing tree’. We walked to the side of the well-worn path, covered in bear tracks, as Brady explained that in breeding season the bears would come here to rub against the spruce tree, leaving their scent. “It’s like the Tinder of the bear world.”
We still hadn’t seen an actual bear, whether white, black or brown. But one of my fellow guests, who like me was leaving in the morning, mused that she had still enjoyed her stay. “Sitting in that boat yesterday in perfect silence – it was the closest to a meditative experience I have ever had. I don’t know how I explain that to family and friends but it was very special.”
My final morning dawned, and there was a buzz in the air because dark clouds cloaked the sky, and the temperature was noticeably cooler. I was disappointed to be leaving, but was promised we’d be looking for wildlife on the way to the little airport at Bella Bella. This time our assistant guide was Troy and he introduced himself as a Raven. He explained how the clan always follows the mother’s side, and so his mother is a Raven too, while his dad is a Wolf. He admitted to a strong affinity with Ravens and that he “talks” to them using the same call.
⊳ What three days earlier may have seemed a slightly surreal conversation to be having, now seemed completely natural.
Setting off, we headed into a fjord, moody clouds blanketing the tops of the cliffs. The boat suddenly slowed down as a humpback whale had been spotted. I went out onto the back deck in time to see it do a shallow dive. “It’s been under a long…” I started to say but was interrupted by a whooshing sound, and the whale surfaced right by the boat, letting out a huge exhalation as it did so. We laughed in exhilaration, but then had to cover our faces as its rank-smelling breath enveloped us.
Carrying on further up the fjord, we anchored the boat at its end and took the Zodiacs to a spit of sand. Clams scattered the ground as we walked in single file along the beach, across tidal flats and onto an area of sedge grass. A grizzly had recently been spotted here, and so Brady was hoping we might get a sighting. We headed for a couple of bushy small trees and hunkered down, trying to merge into them.
Troy revealed that he was the grandson of Charlie, the chief, and that Charlie’s mother came from this bay. It was beautiful but more forbidding than some of the other places we had been, and surely suffered cold winters and strong winds. The diet of Troy’s great-grandmother would have been fish, crab, berries and seals.
He then told us the creation myth of his people. A raven was the creator, and it was looking for a suitable place to create human life. This spot had red cedar and sitka trees, and it had fish, clams and mussels. The raven landed and beat his wings twice. One wing fell and was the first man, the second wing fell off and was the first woman.
We had a hushed conversation about leaving for the airport, and started to shift when a flicker of movement caught our attention. We could see glimpses of a grizzly bear running, mostly hidden by the long grass. It stopped and teased us with sightings of its ears, head and back as it slowly made its way along a shallow gully. Every now and then it put its head up and looked towards us, clearly aware of our presence.
It really was time for us to leave, but then the bear strolled out onto the tidal flats. She was still a good distance away but, as she emerged, we realised why she had been so cautious of us. Following her were two cubs, around 12 to 18 months old. Unlike mum, they were unconcerned and happily wrestled and played.
We sat motionless and in silence. The mother kept checking on us, sniffing the air. Eventually, they turned away and disappeared back out of sight, the long sedge grass and forest behind swallowing all trace of them.
Spirit Bear Lodge’s manager, John, had told me how coming to the lodge had been a life-changing experience for him. With my too brief visit, I couldn’t claim that, and I had ultimately failed in my quest to see the white bears myself. Yet I realised that I nevertheless felt enriched. Oh, and that I had just experienced the best airport transfer ever.
‘After laughing, we had to cover our faces as the whale’s rank-smelling breath enveloped us’
Protected paradise Since 2016, 85% of the vast Great Bear Rainforest has been safeguarded from industrial logging
Whale of a time A humpback breaches the waters;(below) Charlie Mason, hereditary chief of the Kitasoo