Realm of the Spirit Bear 2014 Trip Report

By Mike Byrne on Sep 19, 2014

Arriving at the First Nations village of Klemtu in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest is a unique sensory experience. The landscape is stunning: steep forested hills soaring above calm coastal waters dotted by leaping salmon. The village is a tidy collection of homes, commercial buildings and docks and is inhabited by about 400 locals. A historic tribal longhouse graces a high promontory.

Outside the village there is very little evidence of typical human civilization.

This is my kind of place.

The most prominent sound is the constant splash of salmon. Crows squawk and eagles yelp. Rising above the soft hum of village activity is the whisper of a light breeze and the lapping of waves against the rocky shore.

Here at Spirit Bear Lodge the predominant smell is of freshly baked bread, cedar leaves and damp moss—though we will soon experience the tang of dead and dying salmon in spawning streams.

We are here to see and photograph the spirit bear, one of the rarest animals in the world. There is considerable debate on spirit bear numbers, but the most optimistic estimate is a total population of about 400. Scientific studies suggest a number closer to 200 and some experts say there may be as few as 60–70 spirit bears. Whatever the real number, they all live here in the Great Bear Rainforest, an area larger than the state of Maryland and roughly the size of Switzerland.

It’s a bit like finding a needle in a haystack. This land is rugged, heavily forested, bereft of roads, and snarled with fjords, inlets, passages and bays. Waterfalls cascade from the hills at every turn and a multitude of streams brim with salmon—the spirit bear’s main source of food at this time of year.

Our safari is primarily boat-based. We explore the fjords and estuaries using 13-passenger boats equipped with warm cabins. At times we climb into 6-passenger Zodiacs to better explore the shallow streams and, at other times, we clamber across rocky shores to better viewing positions.

One thing to remember about the Great Bear Rainforest: while our attention tends to focus on the “Great Bear” we mustn’t forget “Rainforest.” When it wants to rain in this part of the world, it can really rain. And it will do so frequently. Happily, our lodge provides all the heavy rain gear anyone could need—hooded jackets, bib pants and rubber boots, in all common sizes.

Our first day of exploration takes us to the Kynock River. It is a damp, overcast day with intermittent gusts of rain. The bears are sensibly bedded down somewhere out of sight while we wait patiently. We are rewarded with the appearance of a sharp-shinned hawk that settles on a nearby branch and spreads its wings to dry during a lull in the rain.

On Day 2 the clouds break at sunrise and, as we speed toward our destination, we capture dozens of classic West Coast landscapes—bright sun filtering through bands of cloud and fog, highlighting rows of vivid green hills and sparkling water.

While it is a fruitless day searching for spirit bears, we follow a mother grizzly and her three cubs for much of the day. I remind my group that spirit bears are rare. We won’t see them every day; we might not see them at all.

Day 3 is sunny and hot and we are headed to a place called Steep Creek on Princess Royal Island. Seventeen percent of the black bears on Princess Royal have the double-recessive gene that produces the unique white fur and claws that typify this sub-species (Ursus americanus kermodeii)—the spirit bear, also known as a Kermode. A young spirit bear was spotted at Steep Creek yesterday and, as bears are territorial and often develop predictable routines, we hope to find it today.

In fact, we have barely landed on shore when our boat captain radios a terse message, “He’s here. Just below the trees on the far shore.” Sure enough, there he is—our first spirit bear, probably a three-year-old, fishing for snacks in the tide pools. He entertains us for about 15 minutes without approaching any closer. It’s big lens territory and my 600mm produces decent images, but he’s still a long way away.

In the afternoon we explore further up Steep Creek and watch two large male black bears dine on dozens of fish they easily spear from the cascading water. Later a female visits us near a small waterfall. She clearly wants to walk near where we are sitting, but our guide encourages her to walk around. She listens carefully to his softly spoken words and cautiously walks around us, presenting several fabulous photo opportunities.

The following three days follow a similar pattern (and the weather continues to be sunny and hot), highlighted by a couple of days when a young, curious spirit bear just can’t resist the opportunity to check us out. He approaches quite close—carefully watched by our guide—and almost circles our group, again providing many great photo opportunities. When we retreat to our boat for lunch, he emerges once more to inspect the pile of camera gear we’ve left ashore. More great photos.

On two of the days, while cruising from the lodge to the estuaries and streams, we encounter humpback whales. On several occasions the whales bubble-net feed and surface quite near our boat—a real bonus—as we click away happily.

At the end of the tour I have a few thoughts to share:

  • It’s not a tour for everyone. You need good mobility and balance—transferring from boat to Zodiac can be tricky—and you need to be able to carry your camera gear across beaches of barnacle-encrusted, seaweed-draped boulders.
  • Come prepared with appropriate camera equipment. The landscapes here are spectacular and well worth devoting time to photograph.
  • Spirit bears are very rare. It’s possible you could spend a week in this area and not capture a good image of one. You’ll see plenty of bears, but maybe not a white one. This year we’ve been lucky.
  • This location—the Great Bear Rainforest—is amazing, as are the spirit bears. I’ve photographed a lot of bears but none have the same mystical, magical…well, spiritual presence. Spirit bears are curious, playful, photogenic and very, very special.