Wilder and Wilder

In Canada's Great Bear Rainforest, nature one-ups itself at every turn.

From Virtuoso Life May/June 2012.

NOTHING REALLY PREPARES YOU for your first day in the Great Bear Rainforest, a remote landscape of mist-cloaked fjords, forested islands, and snowy peaks running 250 miles down British Columbia’s coast. It’s one of the planet’s last great expanses of coastal temperate rain forest, a place where you can still find salmon, wolves, eagles, grizzlies, and even the rare Kermode – or spirit – bear. Having donned rain gear and boots, you might be speeding across the silver-gray water in a boat, when someone shouts, “Whale!”

And then you see it: a massive shiny-black shape sliding out of the depths. A humpback! Humpbacks, once driven to near-extinction by whalers in the region, are returning, as are orcas and fin whales – the second-largest creatures on earth - (behind blue whales). But what most people who make the journey to this far corner of northern B.C. really want is to see the iconic white spirit bear. There is, however, no guarantee.

“Spirit bears are shy. For every one you do see, there are another four you don’t,” says Marven Robinson, a wildlife guide who has lived here all his life as a member of the Gitga’at First Nation. A black bear born with a recessive gene causing white fur, the spirit bear – mooksgm’ol to the Gitga’at – exists almost exclusively in Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest. There are maybe 1,000 of them (some  estimates put the number closer to 400, making them more rare than the giant panda).

Wildlife photographers have been known to go weeks searching for spirit bears without a shot. Exploring the region by boat last summer, my husband and I had stared at the shore for hours without seeing anything white but rocks. 

As a guest of the 17-room King Pacific Lodge, however, your chances of bumping into a spirit bear increase exponentially –  as does your access to such an inaccessible place. From the moment you arrive (splashing down in a vintage Grumman Goose floatplane), it’s clear that King Pacific earned its reputation as one of Canada’s most renowned adventure lodges based on its knack for getting guests out to explore this wild landscape in comfort and style. The lodge itself, which is accessible only by air, features fir- and cedar-trimmed interiors, guest rooms where the main star is the view, a great room with a soaring stacked-stone fireplace, and an intimate spa. It would be nice in any location, but what makes it so otherworldly here is the setting – and the fact that the entire three-story retreat floats on a barge secured in Barnard Harbour June through September. (It’s towed back to winter over in Prince Rupert each fall.)

YOU COME EXPECTING THE MIST and rain, the rocky shoreline, the islands capped with cedar and hemlock. What you don’t expect is the degree to which King Pacific’s staff helps guests venture into the Great Bear, a place where, given the climate, some of us might be content to sit inside sipping peppermint tea. 

“We’re experts at helping you pack as much into your weekend as possible,” explains lodge manager Leanne Lalonde the first day as we watch people trying to decide between fishing, kayaking, whale-watching, or hiking. Unlike most lodges renowned for fishing, King Pacific’s refinement appeals to men and women. Cubbies are prestocked with gear to keep you warm and dry: red Mustang Survival suits, baseball caps, rain boots by size. Soon everyone zips up and takes off: Three couples go salmon fishing; a father and son kayak; four of us hike on nearby Campania Island. The next day presents more options: heli-fly-fishing, whale-watching, kayaking, massages, and, of course, spirit bear viewing. Excepting spa services and helicopter and spirit bear outings, it’s all included in the nightly rate. 

There are a few other lodges in the region, but none providing this level of service. Each morning and afternoon, groups of two – or, at most, four – step into aluminum boats, kayaks, or helicopters with individual guides and head out. At lunch and dinner everyone has stories to tell. It’s like being at a weekend house party where the hosts are eager not only to make sure you explore their thousand-acre backyard, but also to ensure you have an extraordinary time doing it.

Three-course meals are served at communal tables overlooking Barnard Harbour. Dinner might be beet salad with arugula and goat cheese, followed by a choice of seared local coho salmon or roast rack of lamb, and chocolate-almond tart for dessert. Wines, cappuccinos, and an open bar are all included, adding to the feeling that you can pad downstairs in your slippers whenever you wish and make yourself at home. 

Because of the region’s biological richness – now threatened by a proposed pipeline that would send oil sands crude from Alberta to the British Columbia coast and export it to Asia in supertankers through the Great Bear’s intricate waterways – a National Geographic photographer was in residence during our stay, along with a German film crew. After several days surrounded by humpbacks and eagles and sea lions, it was hard not to feel like we’d stepped into a wilderness documentary ourselves. Especially when, after we’d spent a day crouched beside a stream on Gribbell Island (just feet from black bears as competitive as soccer moms, catching salmon for their cubs), a spirit bear finally stepped out of the forest. 

He turned his head left, then right. He sniffed the air groggily as if he’d just woken from a nap, then dipped a vanilla-colored paw in the river. He was so close we could hear him huff-huffing as he walked slowly across a log, his white fur backlit by sun, made his way upstream, and vanished. 

“It’s like seeing a unicorn!” my husband whispered. I was thrilled speechless. But there was more.

Hiking out of the forest, we came face-to-face with a rare northern spotted owl. It was perched in an alder maybe 20 feet away, so close its dark brown eyes seemed to pierce right through us. Even our guide was astonished. Later we learned there are fewer than 100 nesting pairs of spotted owls in all of Canada. Does it get any wilder?

WELL, YES, IT TURNS OUT. On our departure day, as if nature needed to remind  us who’s in charge here, gale-force winds blew in. It was too rough for the floatplanes, so everyone was invited to stay another night, and then another – gratis. 

If seeing spirit bears and spotted owls is the magic realism of wildlife travel, being held hostage in a luxurious wilderness lodge is the reality TV. Three storm days later, after the group had bonded further still over card games and cocktails on the house, the adventure show continued when we all pulled on our red survival suits and took a two-hour ride in an armada of fishing boats to a bus to an inland airport. 

It was a wild departure, and fitting – underscoring the extreme remoteness of our weekend. Looking back on it now – our dramatic escape, seeing the spirit bear and spotted owl, being surrounded by whales and whale breath – it seems like something out of a dream. As if the Great Bear Rainforest, as such, is more a feeling than a place.

Maybe that’s how the spirit of mooksgm’ol lingers. Creeping in on its ursine paws. Reminding us what’s ancient, and essential.  

By Kim Brown Seely.  All rights reserved.