Challenge to the land of the spirit bear

Grizzly bear cubs play at Mussel Inlet. Picture: John Borthwick

An otter swims past us on its back, towing a wake of silent ripples across this Great Bear Rainforest fiord. On each side of our boat, walls of cypress, spruce and red cedar rear towards distant snow ridges.

We had cast off from little Bella Bella, once a fur-trading post and now the gateway to British Columbia's aptly named Raincoast. A maze of pine-clad islands, the crumbling edge of the American continent, opened as our 23m ketch, Island Odyssey, tacked between deserted shores.

"It's such an unpredictable coast," says our skipper Steve and, bang on cue, two humpback whales surface, glistening and obsidian, and blowing like fire hydrants.

"I caught the smell of oil, so I thought I'd better get here before something happens," says John, a fellow passenger who gloriously resembles actor Lee Marvin. The "oil" he refers to is a planned pipeline, running from inland Alberta through this grand, 32,000sqkm wilderness - one of the largest intact temperate rainforests in the world - to the Pacific coast. The idea of a pipeline carved across its sanctuaries, plus giant, China-bound tankers tip-toeing through its narrow channels horrifies many British Columbians.

We head into Salmon Bay. Seven of us, plus Lindsay, our naturalist-guide, go ashore by Zodiac. The banks and shallows are littered with thousands of dead salmon. What toxic event, I puzzle, could kill so many fish?

A stranger to Canadian shores, I clearly have no idea that once salmon run and spawn - from August to October - that is the end of their story. Genes passed on and their one-item bucket list ticked, they kick it, leaving carcasses by the millions to fertilise the forests or become sashimi snacks for the brown (aka grizzly) and black bears that proliferate here.

Thus enlightened, I tread softly - albeit in gumboots - following Lindsay along an indented "stomp trail" made by generations of bears. She reminds us to stay bunched together and in "stealth mode"; silence, as we look for grizzlies, the forest's apex predators.

Long before any of us see it through binoculars she spots a large grizzly on the far bank, a quarter-tonne of cuddly, killer teddy bear. We wait, wordless, motionless and well downwind. If the bear is aware of us, she sees us as neither a threat nor breakfast. Her cub ambles out from the pines and the pair play together for half an hour. Silently we watch them gambol, two extraordinary creatures doing, for them, the ordinary.

Back on board it is "anchor-down, wine-up" time and the chef, Debra, serves up hot-buttered rum. "Too much of this," she cautions, "and soon you're seeing double and thinking single". My fellow passengers - hardly a rum crew - are a democratically Canadian mix that includes two bus drivers, several PhDs, an anthropologist and a judge, plus the Odyssey's crew of four. Debra serves us a delicious main course of halibut, followed by lemon meringue pie.

The Great Bear Rainforest is Canada's equivalent of our Kimberley, a near-intact vastness almost half the size of Tasmania. Sometimes called the Amazon of the North, it stretches 400km up the coast from Vancouver Island towards Alaska. We prowl north through this wireless-free wilderness, landing several times a day to look for bear, sea lions, seals and birds - and always with success. As we cruise, humpback whales and orca packs become an almost common sight.

Our week before the mast (although we rarely sail) in these magic forests, which are home to up to 3000 grizzlies, becomes a rhythm of shore excursions, good meals and yarns on board, and prowling the inlets in an outboard-silenced Zodiac.

In Poison Cove we meet a patrol boat crewed by two First Nation rangers, known as Guardian Watchmen. They are checking for poachers or boats in trouble. The morning's cloud cover has lifted and the forest and sky are mirrored brilliantly in the cove. "Great that the rain has gone," calls one ranger, adding with a grin, "Mike here did a rain dance in reverse".

The yacht carries kayaks that we use as often as possible. In Bottleneck Inlet, a slender box-canyon that we enter via a keyhole gap, we find feather-breath mists, a seal scoping its head above the windless waters and 1000m-high forest walls with a skyfall cataract tumbling from them. A perfect place for kayaking. I paddle away, stopping every 100m or so, awed, trying again and again to take it all in.

We pass the ruined shambles of Butedale salmon cannery, its collapsing buildings and dorms looking like a backwoods version of the Bates Motel from Psycho.

A single light bulb burns, suggesting the presence of a caretaker. You'd pray to not come ashore here on a dark night and find his name was Norman.

Finlayson Channel is as silent as snow but we round a bend in it to find a roaring waterfall and, nearby, three humpbacks going ape, so to speak, with joyful breaches. One slap-happy leviathan does huge, aquatic wheel- stands so close to the yacht we are sprayed on deck.

To go ashore we dress for the occasion, that is, for all weathers. Gumboots are mandatory for the wet landings and soggy trails. When fully garbed in rainproof everything, plus sweater, beanie, gloves and more, I need to step backwards out my cabin in order to simply turn around, so tiny is its floor-space. Fortunately, I'm sharing with myself.

On one special excursion we wait all day with a Gitga'at guide on a creek-side "bear stand" platform on wild Gribbell Island.

We're hoping to see the fabled Kermode or "spirit bear", a rare, honey-blond creature found only here. It is not an albino grizzly but a black bear - Ursus americanus - with a recessive gene causing its pale fur.

We wait and wait - and there! It's a sudden, brief glimpse of a blond giant nosing out on to a log above the creek. Seeing no fish or much else of interest, the golden bear slowly retreats into the forest. John was blessed with a much longer sighting of spirit bear the previous year and describes it as, "like Christmas morning - my whole summer had been building up to that".

Orcas and epiphytes, Steller sea lions and million-Christmas-tree mountainsides. Bow-riding porpoises and a living reef of spawning salmon.

The forest's Great Bear dreaming rolls on like a vision. As Canadian anthropologist and author Wade Davis writes of the place: "Our hands will determine the fate of these forests. If we do nothing they will be lost within our lifetimes and we will be left to explain our inaction."


From Vancouver, connect on Pacific Coastal Airlines to Bella Bella.

Bluewater Adventures' seven-night Great Bear Rainforest yacht trips depart from August to October and cost from $CAD4850 ($4762).

For more information on visiting Canada, go to

John Borthwick was a guest of Bluewater Adventures and the Canadian Tourism Commission.