The tranquility of the Great Bear Rainforest
Destination BC/Yuri Choufour
The rare Spirit bear
Amid the secluded waterways of British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, Guy Wilkinson experiences the transformative powers of nature while in search of the elusive Spirit bear.
Destination BC/Sean Scott
Thick trails of mist hover inches above the water’s surface as our zodiac speeds towards shore, the low, guttural growl of the engine the only sound amid the serene coastal landscape of British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest. As we hit land, biologist Matthias Breiter cuts the engine, sending us scrambling up a muddy riverbank towards a narrow, gently flowing creek. The forest is still at this hour, a few rays of sunlight arrowing through the branches of hemlock, spruce and cedar trees smothered with an almost luminescent moss. I tread carefully, mindful to maintain our stealthy approach but then a sight stops me dead in my tracks. Up ahead in the mud, fresh bear and wolf prints are clearly visible. It’s an unnerving spectacle but Breiter’s expertise is a calming influence and as we creep further towards a clearing, we catch our first glimpse; two furry half crescents peeking out above the tall grass. Not 50 metres away, an adult female grizzly is playing with her two cubs. For several minutes we stand, transfixed. Beside me, a tightly wound 50-something city slicker named Mike is mesmerised. It’s clear the effects of this region are profound, calming.
Back onboard the Island Roamer, a 68-foot yacht serving as headquarters for our explorations, there’s an undeniable buzz following our encounter. Initially, it had taken a while for me to adjust to life onboard. Still stuck in city mode, I found myself frequently pacing the deck, needlessly checking my phone for reception that doesn’t exist, preoccupied with the trivial matters of daily life. But as soon as we embarked on our first grizzly search, our collective senses were heightened; each of us more in tune with the surrounds; I can hear the rush of a waterfall a little clearer, the high-pitched shrill of a passing eagle, or simply, exist in an infinitely less frenetic headspace.
Peace surrounds the Island Roamer yacht
Destination BC/JF Bergeron
Our group – a diverse mix of Canadian and international travellers from young professionals and retirees to wildlife photographers and enthusiasts – has come here to embark on an eight-day sailing voyage with Bluewater Adventures around a lesser known region of British Columbia called the Great Bear Rainforest. So remote, roads only get you so far into this 64,000-square-kilometre wilderness area that spans a labyrinth of waterways along the central and northern coast of British Columbia. Many travellers in fact opt to venture via boat from gateways on Vancouver Island. There are numerous operators in this region offering all manner of ecotourism, from sailing trips (Maple Leaf Adventures) or stays at a beautiful floating lodge (Great Bear Lodge), wildlife tours, forest bathing and cultural excursions with Indigenous communities, and more. But to my mind, there’s no better way to explore this lush temperate rainforest environment than via chartered boat; from the water, you get a clearer perspective on everything around you.
Destination BC/Andrew Strain
Lead by veteran skipper, Neil Shearar, we cruise the fjords further through tranquil navy-blue waters allowing the drama of the landscape to work its potent magic. From the deck, we watch humpback whales dive for fish, spraying water from their blowholes as they dip beneath streaks of fog with colossal tails smashing into the water’s surface. Anything can happen here: it's a place where wolves and bears prowl coastal inlets filled with spawning salmon; waterfalls cascade from snow-dusted granite rock faces; and the smell of cedar hangs heavy in the air like a persistent, earthy cologne as you wander through calming forests of ancient trees. The climate here is crisp and cool, bears emerge from hibernation and the flora and fauna breathes new life; this is where you can experience a slice of pristine Canadian wilderness off the radar of many travellers. It’s a region where providers like Spirit Bear Lodge and Great Bear Lodge can give you access to the healing power of nature. Nature that can truly transform you, especially during these blooming months of seasonal renewal. But there’s an additional drawcard; the Kermode bear. Known as a ‘Spirit bear’ among the Indigenous people, this creature is a walking anomaly. Thanks to a recessive gene, about one in 40 black bears is born with a pure white coat. On nearby Princess Royal Island, the odds are as high as one in 10.
A SPIRITUAL SIGHTING
On our penultimate day, Shearar steers the boat to Gribbell Island, where Marven Robinson of Gitga'at Spirit Tours leads us to a ramshackle wooden viewing platform facing a shallow river. For a few minutes our group sits silently, unsure of what to expect. From downstream, an adult black bear and her two cubs lumber past our line of view in search of food. When the mother catches a fish, the cubs wrestle it from her grasp, learning early that fighting for food is essential to survival.
A Spirit bear is only found in BC’s Great Bear Rainforest
Destination BC/Clare Levy
The Spirit bear is sacred to Indigenous communities
Then we see it. From the bushes, a striking, dishevelled white figure emerges. Pausing to sniff the air, a fully-grown male Spirit bear surveys the scene, practically close enough to touch. Shuffling onto a small rock, he scoops a salmon fresh from the river, trapping it firmly beneath a colossal paw. Back on board, I reflect on my experiences. While none of us will ever forget our spiritual encounter, time spent in this region is about so much more; it’s about letting the healing effects of nature re-invigorate your mind, body and soul by being so present to the wild landscape. "People often take a while to 'arrive' here mentally," says Shearar. "We come from a world that for many is filled with expectations on us but out here, you don't have to see a Spirit bear, you don't have to complete some kind of checklist. It's just a stunning place to be."