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The population of Spirit Bears is stable, but small. Researchers put the number between 100 and 500. (Kevin J. Smith/Maple Leaf Adventures)
The population of Spirit Bears is stable, but small. Researchers put the number between 100 and 500. (Kevin J. Smith/Maple Leaf Adventures)

Travel

Searching for a Spirit Bear Add to ...

“Did you know about the sleeping arrangements?” asked a surprised Jan Bink, a retired Dutch businessman who, with his partner, Antje, has explored the world from their home on Curaçao. “I have friends who would have walked away when they saw those small quarters.”

He was glad he had not. The shared quarters only added to the spirit of camaraderie and adventure. We were definitely in this together, although two women did retreat to sleep separately in the ship’s wheelhouse.

As Smith navigated north he provided commentary on the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines project, which would bring Alberta oil sands bitumen to the B.C. port of Kitimat to be loaded onto huge tankers. The project, now the subject of a review by a federal government panel, is controversial because it would generate a dramatic increase in oil-tanker traffic through the narrow inlets on the Central Coast. First Nations and environmental groups are aligned against it, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said opening an energy corridor to the West Coast is of national importance.

Not in Smith’s opinion. Based on his years of experience sailing the West Coast, he believes the risk of an oil spill in these sensitive waters is just too high. “These are dangerous waters,” he said, showing on a chart how we had thread past hidden reefs. “Can you imagine a tanker making a 90-degree turn here? It is just madness.”

While his main concern is the damage that would be done if a tanker spilled oil here, he and others also worry that an increase in shipping traffic would harm the large whale population. When we encountered a group of humpback whales, Smith threw a hydrophone over the side. It was so sensitive you could hear raindrops on the sea surface and the eerie calls of whales echoing far below. Later, the hydrophone went over when a tug was passing in the distance, and a mechanical roar replaced the spiritual song of the whales. The point was made: Whale song and tanker traffic won’t be a good mix.

One night we went ashore under a full moon to bathe in thermal hot springs sheltered by a wooden hut. Fishing-net floats, lit by flickering candle lanterns, hung from the ceiling.

All of this was magical and beautiful – but by the evening of the fourth day tensions were building.

“We want a bear,” Jan said bluntly at dinner when the captain came to give us the next day’s travel plan.

Smith took a deep breath and smiled. “Don’t worry,” he said. But we did, even though the next day we were to meet a special bear guide from the Gitga’at community of Hartley Bay.

In the morning, Chris Stewart, 24, jumped off a small power boat and ran up the forest path to greet us. He was dressed in brown neoprene chest waders, Nike shoes rather than wading boots and a designer ball cap turned back on his head. He assured us we had come to the right place, at the right time, and led us to a small platform perched over a stream. Salmon sloshed in the shallows.

“The bears feed day and night,” Stewart said. “They only leave to nap, but sometimes they nap for six hours.”

We settled in for a long wait. But within an hour a small black bear came out of the forest, its head swinging from side to side. It pulled a fish from the water and delicately ate the brains and eggs.

After the black bear wandered off, Stewart told us he is still hoping for a Spirit Bear. When he was younger, he said, his grandfather warned him never to tell anyone where he had seen a white bear, for fear hunters might shoot it. Now bear hunting is banned throughout most of the rain forest – and native guides happily lead tourists to the animals they once were afraid to talk about.

As Stewart talked about the reverence his people have for the white bears, Bob suddenly interrupted with an exhaled whisper: “Spirit Bear!”

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