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Canada wildlife holiday at Spirit Bear Lodge

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My first encounter with a Spirit Bear at Spirit Bear Lodge

​Back in 2004 we travelled to the remote community of Klemtu to achieve a lifetimes ambition of viewing and photography the rare and endangered Spirit Bear (or Kermode Bear). We knew our chances were slim due to the combination of the rarity of this unique bear, but also the fact that there continued to be pressures on its fragile ecosystem in the Great Bear Rainforest. including timber extraction, trophy hunting and the constuction of salmon farms which cause disturbance to this naturally shy bear. We never imagined we would enjoy multiple sigthings over the four days we spent there and some of the close encounters - including a white female with her two black cubs - were the most exciting we have ever witnessed in Canada. Below is an account of our stay at the Spirit Bear Lodge during our tailor-made Canada wildlife holiday and the amazing wildlife we witnessed.

Klemtu is a vibrant First Nations community on a small island off the beautiful Central Coast of British Columbia, halfway between Port Hardy in the north of Vancouver Island, and Prince Rupert to the north. Here in a cluster of small islands covered in pristine old growth temperate rainforest these mystical white bears occur in greater numbers than anywhere else in North America, Here 1 in 10 Black Bears are born white due to a recessive gene, and on one island in particular the ratio is as high as 1 in 4.  I wasn’t getting my hopes up however as everything I had read and heard about Spirit Bears had reinforced how notoriously elusive and rarely sighted they are. After all they are spiritually very significant to the local First Nations population and an appearance by one is considered to be an extremely omen and potentially momentous. Spirit Bears are quite often observed fishing for salmon and have been shown to be more successful than black bears. There is a school of thought that there white coat blends in more with the sky and therefore the fish do not see them as well as the darker form of the bear.

Led by our Tsimshian guide, myself and the other guests had only just stepped off the boat and got settled in a natural hide when, from the treeline on the other side of a river, a magnificent white mature female emerged. She was followed by her two first year cubs, bundles of mischievous energy, and as black as their father who obviously did not carry the Kermode gene. The small family group wandered the far bank for about 15 minutes before the cubs decided to raid a nearby crab apple tree. In the blink of an eye, as agile as monkeys they had reached the high branches, 50 feet up, soon to be joined by their mother, whose not insubstantial bulk seemed to defy both gravity and the seemingly spindly nature of the branches. I certainly could not imagine a local brown bear and her cubs showing the same tree climbing skills as these three bears and perhaps we had also witnessed a way for the Spirit Bears to avoid conflict with there much larger relative.

Our guide who had earlier told us that this bear was dominant in the area having chased off larger males and even a grizzly on one occasion (confidence is everything in bear world), then forecasted that she would head back downstream to where the river emptied into the ocean, circumventing us by following a well worn bear trail through the deep bush behind us. We therefore positioned ourselves accordingly, intently scanning the treeline 200 yards away for twitching branches that would herald their arrival, and waited. An hour had passed when suddenly we heard a commotion of snapping twigs nearby, and moments later the white bear in all her glory stepped into the open, only 30 yards away! For what seemed like an eternity she stood blinking, seemingly as surprised to see us as we were to see her, and time seemed to stand still with just the clicking of shutters to signal its passage. After man and bear had stayed rooted to the spot for what seemed like an eternity, the two cubs arrived on the scene, and an unexpected calm settled on all concerned. The white bear sat on her haunches facing the cameras, posing like a professional, while her two young cubs draped themselves over a fallen log behind her, looking drowsy. Time passed unmeasured until the bear family seemed to lose interest in the unfamiliar bipeds (the reverse was certainly not the case) and sauntered off downstream. As we watched them go I think we were all aware that we had been privileged to witness something quite extraordinary, a one in a million, certainly once in a lifetime moment of pure magic.

Although it’s hard to top the most memorable wildlife encounter in your lifetime, the Great Bear Rainforest still held something in reserve. My luck held and the following day, after patiently waiting for hours, I was rewarded with a sighting, albeit in the middle distance, of a first year white cub with its 3 black siblings (clearly sired by a different father – the wonder of delayed implantation) and equally black mother who had obviously inherited the Kermode gene from one of her parents. Having been truly blessed by the rainforest spirits for 2 days, and enjoyed the wonderfully warm hospitality if the First Nations community in which we were staying, we elected to end the trip by spending a night at a remote beachfront wilderness cabin and the following day looking for Grizzly Bears on a nearby salmon river. We enjoyed a wonderful evening on the beach beside the campfire, learning to cook salmon in the traditional First Nations way using cedar wood, and then capped a veritable bear tour de force by seeing 5 grizzlies the following day, and then getting another brief glimpse of the female spirit bear as we cruised by the mouth of her river on our homeward journey.

If you would like us to design a bespoke Canada wildlife holiday that gives you a chance to see the iconic Spirit Bear, then click here to read more about our Canada wildlife tour which visits the Spirit Bear Lodge.

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