The Quest for the Spirit Bear

Mama Black bear & cub & Spirit Bear on a log in the Great Bear Rainforest

By Allen Cox

The best adventures are long-awaited. They begin as fleeting elements of daydreams and the imagination’s wanderings, and, if we’re fortunate, emerge as a reality. Northern British Columbia’s remote Great Bear Rainforest had long occupied my daydreams; the prospect of spotting the elusive spirit bear, a subspecies of the black bear sporting white fur, was enough to keep this vast wilderness at the top of my travel wish list. A handful of expedition guides and charters offer itineraries in Great Bear, but when I learned about the Victoria-based small-ship cruise company, Maple Leaf Adventures, I knew I’d found the perfect guide for this adventure. 


I had never heard of the town of Kitimat, my rendezvous point, situated at the head of one of the longest inlets on the British Columbia coast. When I stepped off of the Air Canada flight, I boarded the motorcoach with my fellow passengers, all strangers to me—I was traveling solo. We reached the marina, and I spotted the Cascadia—a real beauty—a 138-foot catamaran that would be home for the next week.

A welcoming crew greeted us at the top of the gangway, commandeered our luggage and invited us to board. The Cascadia would become a luxurious sanctuary that was a stark contrast to the raw wilderness we were about to experience. Once on board, we gathered in the lounge where the captain welcomed us and introduced his well-practiced crew: engineer, first mate, steward, expedition leader, naturalist, chef, sous chef and deck hands.

The late afternoon sun was a welcome surprise, something I didn’t expect in the rainforest. Turns out, not a drop of rain fell the entire week, a lucky window for a region that is used to nearly 22 feet of rain a year.

The excitement among the passengers, including my own, was palpable as Cascadia left the dock and made its way out of Kitimat Arm into the wider Douglas Channel. Peaks of the Coast Mountains, skirted by thick evergreen forests, lined our route.

Whales, Wolves and Bears

At 25,000 square miles—an area slightly larger than West Virginia—“vast” doesn’t begin to describe the Great Bear Rainforest. After leaving Kitimat, we passed no towns, no homes, no resorts, no civilization (other than a whale research station).

On board Cascadia, passengers quickly found a common bond: a keen interest in this unique environment, one of the wildest regions on the planet. Off-ship excursions in the tenders led by Jeff Reynolds, expedition leader and marine biologist, and Janet Winbourne, an expert on coastal First Nations, along with hiking and paddling adventures, naturalist presentations in the lounge and never-ending views of wilderness and wildlife all fueled our conversations.

The waterways of the Great Bear Rainforest are feeding grounds for humpback whales. Frequent sightings of spouting blowholes as the giants came up for air, the dorsal fins as they rolled their humps above the surface, tail fins as they dove, and the occasional thrill of a breaching whale kept all eyes on the water. Reynolds sank an underwater microphone connected to a speaker on deck to let us eavesdrop on the whales’ songs. Cameras clicked as passengers and crew did their best to capture the moment.

In one cove, on an excursion in the tenders, we spotted five sea wolves running along on shore, foraging among the seaweed and shells. These animals have adapted to thrive in a marine environment and can even swim long distances from island to island. It was the golden hour as the sun was setting, and howls rose from the forest. This was more than five wolves; it sounded like dozens calling to one another, a lupine roll call as night emerged. Reynolds told us how rare the sighting was; in fact, as many times as he had led expeditions in the Great Bear Rainforest, this sighting was a first for him—and certainly for us.

Always at the forefront of my thoughts was the hope of spotting a spirit bear. The Great Bear Rainforest is the only place on Earth where they exist. We learned that its white coat is present in only 10 percent of the black bears in this region, giving us only a 10 percent chance of seeing one if we were to see any bears at all. One day, we took the tenders to an island where they were known to be seen. A First Nations guide met us on the island and led us on a hike about a mile into the forest where we set up a day camp in a clearing along a pristine creek. We settled in, broke out the snacks, then lunch and hot coffee. Just as some of us were about to snooze in the peace of the afternoon, our guide quietly directed our attention upstream. A black bear was making its way between boulders, intent on spotting salmon in the flow, seemingly oblivious to our presence. I looked upstream to see if it had brought a white-coated companion, but no such luck. While it was thrilling to observe a black bear at such close range, the spirit bear remained elusive.

Life on Cascadia

When it comes to creature comforts, Cascadia lacks nothing. With spacious en-suite staterooms, plenty of viewing decks, ample lounge space complete with audio-visual equipment for presentations and a library focused on the B.C. coast, on-board living was a pleasure. Combine that with a cold breakfast laid out at 6:00 a.m. for early risers, hot breakfast served at 8:00, mid-morning snacks, lunch served at noon, afternoon treats served at 3:00, cocktails and appetizers at 5:00, and finally a three-course dinner with wine pairings at 6:00 kept us full and amazed at what culinary marvels could emerge from the compact galley. Between meals, watching for wildlife; excursions off the ship; and educational presentations about wildlife, the environment and First Nations of the region occupied our time. 

More about Maple Leaf Adventures

Maple Leaf Adventures’ three vessels—Cascadia, MV Swell (a converted, historic tug) and Maple Leaf (a 92-foot, historic schooner)—each offer a different experience with three things in common: a pristine coastal setting, a commitment to sustainability, and impeccable service.

Learn more about Maple Leaf Adventures’ eco-tourism practices at

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