Rainforest Solutions Project

Promoting conservation and economic alternatives in British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest


That’s the spirit: Simon Birch visits the rainforest of British Columbia to admire the spirit bear

August 24, 2002

The rotting, half-eaten salmon carcasses and fresh bear scat that had been left on the forest floor combined to make one almighty stench. Clearly we were in the heart of bear country, slap-bang in the middle of their picnic-spot to be precise.

“This is the bears’ favourite place to feed,” confirmed Mitch, our young local guide, who explained in hushed tones how the bears catch the salmon from the river just in front of us and then eat them where we were now crouching.

I was on Princess Royal Island, 500km north-west of Vancouver on British Columbia’s rugged and remote central coast, taking part in a wildlife tour of the Great Bear Rainforest run by the Kitasoo/Xaixais First Nation – the term now used to describe North America’s indigenous population – in whose traditional territory Princess Royal lies.

Princess Royal is situated in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. At three million hectares, it’s the largest remaining piece of unbroken temperate old growth rainforest in the world; a vast natural treasure-trove of rare plants, birds and animals. It is also a land of fjords and icy mountain tops. It is here that the Kermode, or spirit bear, has its stronghold. Although white, the bear isn’t albino. The white pigment in its fur results from an anomalous gene present within the subspecies, and it’s thought that there are no more than 400 of them in the whole of the Great Bear Rainforest – the only place in the world they exist.

Standing no more than 15 metres away from us on the far side of the river was a Kermode. The bear stuck its nose into the wind. “Even though it can’t see us, it’s smelled us and knows that we’re here somewhere,” whispered Mitch.

After deciding that we posed no immediate threat, the bear turned its attention back to the only thing that’s on a bear’s mind at this of time of year – salmon. From where I was crouching, I could see that the large pool the bear was gazing down into was darkened by the shapes of hundreds of fish.

Mid-September is the height of the salmon-run, when fish return in vast numbers from the Pacific Ocean to spawn in the streams and rivers of BC’s west coast. The bear lunged into the shallow pool and re-emerged with a large pink salmon held firmly in its jaws. Then, without pausing and with surprising agility, the bear scrambled up the river bank and disappeared into the dense forest to eat its catch.

Princess Royal Island forms the cornerstone of the Spirit Bear Protection Area that was announced by the BC Government in April last year, following a bitter 15-year campaign by environmentalists against the planned logging of the Great Bear Rainforest. The mea sure is designed to ensure the long-term protection of the bears’ habitat and forms part of a larger historic agreement between campaigners, loggers and First Nations that will safeguard a large chunk of the rainforest.

Tourism is now considered crucial in illustrating that economic value can be derived from the rainforest without it being destroyed. This is why this wildlife tour, which is owned and run by the Kitasoo/Xaixais, is so enthusiastically endorsed by Canada’s environmental lobby.

The spirit bear isn’t the only species of bear found within the rainforest. During my stay, we saw three black bears, also catching and feeding on salmon, although we failed to spot a grizzly. But we did have the unexpected bonus of seeing a pair of humpback whales on their way south to their tropical winter home. For half an hour, we watched them dive and then surface as they fed on krill in the depths of Kynoch Inlet, a spectacular fjord bordered by sheer cliffs over 1,000 metres high.

The base for the tour was Klemtu, a tiny First Nation coastal community tucked away in the rainforest; our home was a compact A-framed float-house moored next to the main village quay and surrounded by boats and boat planes – virtually the only means of transport in the road-free rainforest. We were right in the centre of the community’s activity, which at that time of year was focused on catching as many salmon as the locals’ fishing permits allowed.

The wild life trail

The September salmon run also prompts virtually all of BC’s coastal wildlife to erupt into a gigantic feeding-frenzy. Knight Inlet Lodge (+ 250 337 1953, grizzlytours.com), situated at the southern edge of the Great Bear Rainforest is famed for its resident population of grizzlies, and throughout the salmon run you’re guaranteed to see the bears scooping fish out of the rivers.

Killer whales also join in the action as they catch the returning salmon in the Johnstone Straits. Head over to Telegraph Cove on Vancouver Island’s east coast, where there’s a resident population of 220 whales (contact Stubbs Island Whale Watching, + 250 928 3185, stubbs-island.com)

You can even go swimming with the salmon as they migrate upstream to spawn. All you need is a wetsuit, mask and snorkel from the Paradise Found Adventure Tour Company (+ 250 923 0848, paradisefound.bc.ca) in Campbell River on Vancouver Island.

Late summer is also a good time to watch grey whales feeding in sheltered bays around Tofino on Vancouver Island’s west coast (contact Jamies Whaling Station + 250 725 3919, jamies.com)

While last year’s announcement to preserve part of the Great Bear Rainforest was welcomed, large swathes of BC’s forest remain unprotected from logging. Campaigners have built trails to encourage people to visit forests which, they hope, will lead to people understanding their lasting value.

Trails have been built on Meares Island on Clayoquot Sound, home to colossal trees that are hundreds of years old and dripping in lichens and mosses.

On the mainland the magnificent Elaho to Meager hiking trail was built entirely by conservation volunteers. The trail follows the river Elaho deep into the rainforest, past some of the oldest Douglas firs in the world, before finishing at steaming natural hot springs.