The Pacific Temperate Rainforest, the largest coastal temperate rainforest in the world, stretches from Alaska all the way into northern California. Within this ecoregion, on Canada’s west coast, lies the Great Bear Rainforest, the home of the elusive Spirit Bear.
In this region, some of the black bears carry a recessive gene that can cause their fur to be white instead of black. The bears that carry this gene are called Kermode bears (Ursus americanus kermodei). When two Kermode bears mate, their offspring can be either black or white. If they are white, they are Spirit Bears. According to the legend, the Raven (the Creator) made 1 in 10 black bears white as a reminder of the last ice age.
Within the Great Bear Rainforest, Princess Royal and Gribbell Islands have traditionally had the highest number of Spirit Bears, possibly due to their isolation. For a few days in September 2021, I was fortunate enough to spend some time in this beautiful area and with these magical bears.
The trip started in the port town of Prince Rupert, BC. From there a 3.5 hour boat ride brought our little group to the community of Hartley Bay, in the Gitga’at Nation. Located close to both Gribbell and Princess Royal Islands, it was the perfect staging point for this adventure.
We left Prince Rupert early in the morning and arrived in Hartley Bay around lunch time. After a nice lunch, we packed our gear and headed out on Marven’s boat in search of the Spirit Bear.
The short walk into the “camp” involved following a trail made by the bears, up and down slippery hills and over a raging creek on piece of board. Unfortunately, I was too focused on what I was doing to get any photos or video!
Our camp was located on the banks of the salmon filled Kwa’a River on Gribbell Island. All we had to do was sit and wait for a bear to come and enjoy the all-you-can-eat salmon buffet.
That first day we barely had time to get ready before she arrived. It was our first sighting of Strawberry, a female spirit bear!
Unfortunately, there was a female black bear there as well, so Strawberry didn’t stay long, but we were so excited that she came to say hi!
The female black bear stayed with us for a little over an hour, distracting us from the constant rain that was falling.
We didn’t see anything else that afternoon, but we were happy – we’d seen our first spirit bear and had a great encounter with a black bear!
That night, the constant rain continued. By morning, the Kwa’a River was raging and was too high for us to attempt the walk into the camp. Instead, we did a bit of a boat tour of the waters around the islands, where we saw some humpback whales diving…
The scenery in this part of British Columbia is spectacular, and even on a grey rainy day it did not disappoint.
We ended up going back to the lodge for the afternoon, where we relaxed, got to know each other a little better and watched a documentary.
After dinner, we boarded the boat and made the trip back to Gribbell Island. They were hoping that Strawberry might come down to the water’s edge – it was low tide and she’d been seen there on many evenings. Shortly after we arrived our female black bear came out of the trees onto the beach.
As soon as she retreated to the forest, Strawberry appeared!
We watched her for about 10 minutes, but the light (which was already bad) was quickly fading and it was time to return to Hartley Bay.
The next morning we were back at the camp on Gribbel Island. Although it was very uneventful bear-wise, it was still a pleasant day. It was condsiderably less rainy and we were treated to an appearance by a pine martin.
And a stellar jay…
A few of us hiked up to the small waterfall just upriver, it was nice and relaxing and a great spot to watch the salmon as they tried to navigate the waterfall and get upstream!
Just as we were leaving that night Strawberry made another appearance! A couple of minutes earlier and we wouldn’t have seen her.
This was a short trip, and the next day was our last. In the morning, we took the boat over to Royal Princess Island to see if it was possible to get to camp there. While Marven made the trek to check it out, we sat by the bay and enjoyed the scenery…
Watching the bonapart gulls fish for salmon eggs was very entertaining…
Then we passed by a small seal colony with the beautiful mountains in the background. The scenery in this part of the country is nothing short of spectacular!
For me, one of the highlights of the trip came next – a group of humpback whales bubble-net feeding. It’s a cooperative feeding technique where one whale dives down below a school of fish and blows bubbles, trapping the fish at the surface. The other whales swim around the school, coralling the fish. Then, with incredible power, they explode out of the water, mouths open, catching as many fish as they can. It’s an amazing thing to see!
For our last afternoon, we headed back to Gribbell Island and our camp there. As the rain continued to fall, there was no sign of the elusive Strawberry, but there was a large well fed male black bear enjoying the delicious salmon of the Kwa’a River.
Late that afternoon, Marven spotted Strawberry downriver and heading towards our location. We all saw her walk out on a log and look around, excited she was coming our way! Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be. She went back in the forest and promptly disappeared – putting the “spirit” in Spirit Bear.
It was a fantastic trip and I urge anyone who gets the opportunity to visit this magical place at least once, guaranteed it will leave you wanting more!