Just upstream was the fabled Kermode. We gasped as the white bear delicately stepped from stone to stone, perching like a circus bear on a high rock, before lumbering into the stream to drag out a salmon. It came so close we could see blood stains on its cheek.
Bears are bears. But the incongruent beauty of the Spirit Bear is breathtaking. When a huge black bear emerged from the forest downstream, it was almost ignored. There is no doubt who is the star of the Great Bear Rainforest.
After the Kermode moved off people put down their cameras and smiled at each other in amazement.
“You have just witnessed the rarest bear on Earth,” Smith said. This comment gets him high fives from some of his guests.
After that, things got a little ridiculous. Black bears seemed to be wandering out of the woods all over the place – eight in total – and the Spirit Bear returned.
“It just doesn’t get any better,” Smith said. “I know I’m supposed to be, ‘Oh, it’s always like this.’ But it just isn’t. So how are you guys feeling now?”
“Beautiful,” replied Kathy Little, who with her partner, Doug Spencer, had travelled all the way from Australia for such a day.
“In Holland, if something is the very best, we say it’s top,” Jan said, noting it down in his diary. “Spirit Bear. It’s very rare to see. It’s top!”
A day later the Maple Leaf pulled into the estuary of the Mussel River, under a giant, granite cliff flecked with white mountain goats. On the flats beside the river, a mother grizzly was teaching her two cubs how to scavenge salmon carcasses.
We went ashore, huddled together for safety. The rain beat down, but nobody seemed to notice. Black bears and grizzlies were all around us, upstream and down, on both sides of the river. They showed no signs of aggression or fear. Terns wheeled in a feeding frenzy over the water, eagles glowered down from riverside perches and salmon swam and died in the shallows. It was primal, astounding and profoundly moving.
When we left, the bears didn’t even look up.
IF YOU GO
Most nature cruises in the Great Bear Rainforest leave from Bella Bella, a small town on B.C.’s Central Coast.
Bella Bella can be reached by a two-hour flight from Vancouver with Pacific Coastal Airlines, or by a seven-hour boat ride with BC Ferries, departing from Port Hardy on Vancouver Island.
Maple Leaf Adventures 2013 and 2014 trips run from April through October, and range from $2,630 a person to $5,870 plus tax. Prices include all accommodations, cruising, shore trips, wildlife guiding, meals, beverages (including wine and beer), and use of gear including kayaks. For sailing dates and information visit mapleleafadventures.com or call 1-888-599-5323.
Other small ships offering sailings include: Bella Coola Yacht Charters (sailbellacoola.com), Ocean Adventures (oceanadventures.bc.ca), Bluewater Adventures (bluewateradventures.ca) and Mothership Adventures (mothershipadventures.com).
Mark Hume is a Vancouver-based national correspondent for The Globe and Mail who often writes about B.C. environmental issues. He travelled courtesy of Maple Leaf Adventures. The company did not review or approve this article.