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The ecosystem has become a hub for regenerative travel and non-invasive, culturally sensitive scientific research

Under a dense, primordial canopy, deep in the Great Bear Rainforest, Gitga’at guide Marven Robinson pulls a single strand of pale, shimmering hair from the bark of a silver fir – evidence that an elusive Spirit bear has recently ambled by and fancied it as a rub tree.

My tour group huddles rapt around the blond wisps, craning our necks in unison to catch a glimpse. This may be as close to the rare animal we get, after spending the last 10 hours waiting for it in vain by a river.

It had taken some doing to get here. Two days ago, after converging at a small airport in Terrace, B.C., we drove into ever-dwindling cell service toward Kitimat, staccato sunlight flickering through the trees, guiding us into more than 6.4 million hectares of protected temperate rainforest on the Pacific Coast.

From there, we boarded a catamaran and sailed into the rugged landscape with Maple Leaf Adventures. That first night, the expedition yielded a two-for-one bear sighting: grizzlies fishing for salmon under the crisp outline of Ursa Major.

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A stuffed spirit bear greets outgoing passengers at the small airport in Terrace, B.C. It’s the closest I’ve come to one during my visit. It’s beautiful and disarming, and seems to hold the whole departures lounge in its dizzying orbit.

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Using our expedition leader's laser pointer, I play with the outline of Ursa Major in the night sky over Eagle Bay Park. As we sail away from the light pollution from Kitimat, the stars become more visible.

In recent years, a new economic model has taken root here, where industrial logging once reigned supreme. The breathtaking coastal ecosystem has become a hub for regenerative travel and non-invasive, culturally sensitive scientific research. Both promise to safeguard the biodiversity of the region – and benefit its local communities – as the effects of climate change take hold.

The spirit bears are one of the big draws for visitors. Until the 2010s, Indigenous communities tried to minimize coverage of these rare white black bears for generations, for fear that colonizers would trophy hunt them into extinction

“Can you imagine if the Hudson’s Bay Company knew about these bears?” Robinson asks, referring to the early days of the fur trade. Growing up, he never spoke of them, and when he found a bear trap with some friends at 16, they destroyed it. “We closed it up and shot holes through it so it wouldn’t be able to open again,” he recalls.

This summer, the B.C. government renewed and expanded shared stewardship of the region with First Nations citing the successful implementation of the historic 2016 Great Bear Rainforest Agreement. Decades in the making, the agreement brought together local First Nations, the provincial government, forestry interests, and environmental NGOs to protect a swath of the world’s largest intact coastal temperate rainforest.

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The negotiations were not without concessions; notably, significant swaths of the GBR were set aside for logging from the outset. But landscape destruction could have been much worse.

Robinson, for his part, believes that the decision to finally embrace public interest in the spirit bear, and the subsequent tourism interest, saved his homeland from irreparable harm when the now quashed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project was at their doorstep.

At the Fin Island Whale Research Station, volunteers track whales passing through Squally Channel. In recent months, the team has been called upon to search alongside the Gitga’at Guardians for whales either killed or injured in ship strikes.
The North Coast Cetacean Society is working with Coastal First Nations and various non-profits to establish a hydrophone network, in part to monitor underwater noise disturbances in the region before and after tanker traffic begins along the LNG route.
In the traditional territory of the Gitga’at and Gitxaala Nations, we sail toward the granite-etched peaks of Campania Island with our onboard naturalist, Marlo Shaw.

“The Chief at the time said it’s time to bring this bear out and show people what we have at risk,” he says. “When you think about it, basically this bear has saved our territory from oil tankers.”

Yet industry keeps coming. On the seventh day of our trip, we set sail through Wright Sound, a migratory route for whales, which will suffer increased tanker traffic when Canada’s first LNG export terminal begins operation in 2025. The passage is flanked by equally cetaceous mountains, rolling forward like the countless humpback spines arching out of the deep.

Two whales eventually emerge near our ship, so the captain turns off the engines and the silent giants circle us with such uncanny intention that it brings a couple of us to tears. When one comes up for air, I feel its dewy spray on my face and think of a researcher we’d met the day prior, Eadin O’Mahony. Our group had visited her on a remote outcrop at the Fin Island Whale Research station, where she explained a clever sampling technique: Fly a petri-dish-clad drone above a blowing whale, and voila – their precious snot is ready for analysis.

This hands-off approach is by design. Through the GBR agreement, scientists conducting research in the protected area must take special consideration to respect the wildlife by implementing non-invasive, culturally sensitive data gathering techniques, such as studying the scat of sea wolves rather than attaching GPS trackers, or collecting hair shed from bears instead of sedating them.

From the riverbank, we watch hundreds of salmon in their attempts to leap against the rushing current. “You really feel for them,” says Gerry McKenna, a tourist from Ontario, acknowledging that after hours of watching their mad perseverance, he’s started to get attached.
I am also starting to get attached to the fish, and feel mildly guilty for wishing another obstacle upon them: The spirit bear’s white fur gives the predators an advantage: From the salmon’s perspective, they’re camouflaged against the sky.
We sit, forest-bathing by a small river for hours in the hopes of seeing a spirit bear. One side is for human observers, the other is for the bears to roam without intervention.
William Keating, 27, one of our spirit bear guides, radios for an update on whether any bears have been spotted farther downriver.
I realize that this bear-watching experience is informed by the Commercial Bear-Viewing Strategy; a confluence of Indigenous and Western scientific knowledge collected in an evolving framework.

Back at the river’s edge, the tranquillity of the forest has its own sedative effect, but still hasn’t coaxed out a Spirit bear. I ask William Keating, a 27-year-old Gitga’at Spirit bear guide, what he thinks of the old scientific tracking methods. “We’ve been coming here for this long and never felt the need to know exactly where they are all the time,” he replies. “You could tranquillize them and find out all this stuff and then say, ‘yeah, well now we know,’ but do you really need to know?”

As the hours wear on, no-see-ums (“That’s their Latin name,” Keating says with a laugh) start to erode our group’s resolve. I begin to feel like a dejected fan, wait-listed to see Taylor Swift – another charismatic megafauna with near mythological appeal.

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A cluster of red huckleberries grows on Campania Island. These berries are a favourite of bears in the area, who gorge themselves on them in late summer.

But where could be better than here, sitting courtside at the hysterical salmon Olympics, watching a conveyor belt of endless delectable fish, each performing astonishing feats of self-sacrifice toward a bear’s idea of an all-you-can-eat-buffet?

With the pathetic hubris of a city-dweller, I muse that the river resembles a white noise machine, before realizing that, of course, it’s the other way around. When it becomes clear we won’t be seeing a spirit bear, Keating speaks over the sound of rushing water. “They’re out here doing their own thing. … I think a little bit of mystery is OK.”

As the expedition comes to a close, I watch our wake spiralling out behind us; a corkscrew tethering me to this place, even as I head back home.

The writer travelled as a guest of Maple Leaf Adventures. It did not review or approve this article.

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