Chasing the Spirit Bear

Some people say I have a cushy job, but filming for television can be hard work. Take our recent trip to Canada for example. My team and I, along with Canadian Tourism guru Donna Campbell, jumped on a plane and headed north to one of the world’s most beautiful countries. We’ve travelled Canada a number of times and every trip offers an experience that will never be forgotten. Canada is often portrayed as a great wilderness with some pretty good ski fields and, whilst that’s true, to some extent this is a country that has everything and can basically cater for any taste.

The journey took us to several amazing locations across Canada, but the most unforgettable experience was the opportunity to travel to the village of Klemtu. Getting there was an amazing experience in itself, as it took a plane trip and boat ride just to get there from Vancouver. The closer you got, the more spectacular the scenery was.

Klemtu is situated on Swindle Island in the coastal fjords of British Columbia, Canada, in some of the most stunning rainforest you will ever have the chance to walk through. Klemtu is home to the Kitasoo tribe, originally from Kitasu Bay, and the Xai’xais of Kynoc Inlet. These two tribes live together as, and are jointly governed by, the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation, who played host to us at the very comfortable Spirit Bear Lodge.

Expect the unexpected

The aboriginal people here have a rich culture and traditions that are shared with visitors and are still practiced in their everyday lives. There is a sense of mystery about the misty landscape here, which is enhanced by the impenetrable dense mountainous forests of which some local legends have reached the furthest corners of the globe. In 1968, sasquatch were reportedly seen by people from the village of Klemtu and there have been many sightings since, including the only sightings of sasquatch families. Investigators have suggested this is a hot spot, as the people here tend not to travel through the rainforest but around it by boats, leaving vast pockets untouched. As you travel through the channels admiring the spectacular views, it’s not hard to imagine Bigfoot staring back through the trees from some elevated position, wondering why we are there. It’s not a place where preconceived ideas work that well. Despite having ideas of what I’d see, it was the unforeseen that came as the biggest surprise and most rewarding part of the journey.

The unexpected came initially from the friendly and very hospitable indigenous people of the Xai’xais and Kitasoo tribes, who made us feel so welcome it was like coming home to family. The gentle and highly considered ways of these people makes you feel part of an extended family, an experience you know you’re so privileged to share, even if only for a short time. The landscape was truly spectacular; I was in awe and cherished the ability to walk through the rainforests experiencing spectacular mosses including sphagnum, hanging and club mosses, boreal tree species, waterfalls, streams and native edible plants such as wild blueberries.

Wild blueberries

Wild blueberries

The bears

The wildlife is simply incredible. Lawrence, my cameraman, said to me as we climbed off the boat onto exposed mussel beds, “if we see a bear eating salmon I will retire”. Quite literally 10 minutes later I asked him for the camera and what he would do having retired so young. There, on mossy tracks alongside a pristine, fast-moving forest stream teeming with massive salmon, we saw our first bear. A huge black bear was swiping salmon from the stream, biting their heads open to eat the brains and then eating the roe before tossing the 6-8 kilogram fish carcass to one side and continuing to hunt. Not long after that, a stunning pure white spirit bear arrived and fought for the fishing spot, before heading back into the dense forest leaving us stunned and silent.

The spirit bear is a unique genetic variation of the black bear that is extremely rare and uniquely beautiful. Our guide suggested that, despite government estimates of 120 bears remaining in the wild, they had seen fewer than 60 in recent years. This further emphasised the importance of protecting this species, which can still technically be hunted as a sport. The indigenous people of the area are guardians of the land and its life forms and they are incredibly spiritual about it, believing that the trees, plants and animals are relatives that have passed and come back as other life forms and need to be loved and protected.

Over the days we saw many black bears, including mothers with cubs. We saw grizzly bears and had the unique experience of watching a mother bear teach her cub how to fish in a fast-running stream. The spirit bears came out twice, once to great us on our arrival into the rainforest and then just before we left it.

A black bear fishing for salmon

A black bear fishing for salmon

The salmon

I also found the salmon an amazing story in themselves. The fish are born to the fresh water of the rainforest streams where, once born, their mother dies (and most likely eaten by a grizzly bear). The tiny little fish swim out to sea through the channels and then north to Alaska where they spend their life at sea. A couple of months before they turn four-years-old they swim back to the original stream where they were born and, almost to the day four years later, they make it to exactly the same place they were born to die. As they get closer to the place they are quite literally falling apart, with chunks of flesh falling off and their skin breaking apart and peeling off. They were made for exactly four years of life and that’s it, no more. Imagine knowing that your life was only a set length, the same as your friends and siblings, and that the only difference between you was the way you lived it.

The salmon have been slowly disappearing and the locals again gave us insight to what was once but is quickly disappearing. The stream we visited to see the bears was Mussel Stream. It was only 5-10 years ago that as many as 15,000 salmon would arrive to make their last journey upstream. This year the locals believed there would be no more than 7,000, but more likely 5,000. Improved fishing techniques are probably the cause, but other factors such as climate change have also been noted to have an impact on breeding cycles. I hope the salmon numbers increase to the levels they once were, because the bears need them as part of their life cycle.

Mussel-encrusted rocks at Mussel Stream.

Mussel-encrusted rocks at Mussel Stream.

The Spirit Bear Lodge

Over the four days we had at Spirit Bear Lodge we traveled each day into the forest. The experience was incredibly peaceful and beautiful, although the midges and mosquitoes got you at times. Our crew discovered from the locals a berry bush called stinkberry, which repelled the bugs beautifully, and it became part of their dress code from that point onwards.

At night we would travel back to our comfortable accommodation at the lodge, enjoy a hearty meal and share stories with other visitors, researchers and staff. At night the rain would gently fall against the window pane, and occasionally I woke to the sounds of a humpback whale cruising through the channel just outside the hotel’s windows – something I doubt I will ever experience again.

The Spirit Bear Lodge

Klemtu is beautiful, the people are friendly and helpful, the environment is truly amazing and the opportunity to watch bears catch salmon from the side of the stream in one of the world’s most beautiful landscapes is unforgettable.

The crew and I have travelled through some amazing landscapes, visited some incredible cultural experiences and shared the trials of travel over the years, but this has to be the best natural environment experience we’ve had.

See the incredible spirit bear on The Gurus Explore.

About the author – Trevor Cochrane

Trevor is a born-and-bred proud West Australian who grew up on a dairy farm in Mundijong, just outside of Perth, WA. He launched the media company Guru Productions in 2002 that has since produced over 750 episodes of television telecast on Channel 9 nationally and is now seen in over 100 countries across the globe in 14 different languages. In the years since creating The Garden Gurus he has created and produced over 50 hours of international travel shows, food and wine programs, local WA food program Our State on a Plate and the Destination WA travel series. All Guru Productions projects appear on Channel 9 and WIN Television, as well as nationally on the popular digital TV channel 9 Life. Trevor’s passion for gardening has seen him write four books and regular columns for the The Sunday Times and The West Australian Newspaper.

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