Within a 250-mile stretch of British Columbia’s central and northern coast, some of Earth’s oldest and tallest trees reach for the sky. Covering 21 million acres, the expansive Great Bear Rainforest—which stretches from the Knight Inlet of British Columbia’s Inside Passage to the Alaska Panhandle—is home to thousand-year-old red cedars and towering Sitka spruce trees. Grizzlies, wolves, bald eagles and the elusive spirit bear find refuge within thick stands of western hemlock and Douglas fir, sheltered from the rain clouds of the “Amazon of the North.” The sodden landscape hosts numerous rushing rivers, cascading waterfalls, mossy mountainsides and glacier-cut fjords. Sea otters, dolphins and whales cavort in the mighty Pacific, while bears amble to the edge of salmon-rich rivers each summer.
A journey into the GBR not only offers a quiet place to soak up silence and the verdant surroundings, but the rare chance—if you’re truly fortunate—to glimpse the white Kermode bear, also known as the “spirit bear.” Nat Hab explorations of the region, like our Spirit Bears, Humpbacks & Wildlife of BC trip, employ local Gitga’at guides, who are intimately connected with this isolated wilderness. These First Nations people, who have lived among the Kermode bears for millennia, know where to look for them and how to best (and most carefully) showcase the unfettered flora and fauna of this precious landscape.
Today, we take a look at what natural wonders lie within the Great Bear Rainforest, from the spirit bear to the Sitka spruce, and why it’s such an incredible natural realm to visit.
What’s so “Great” about the Great Bear Rainforest?
There’s so much “great” about the Great Bear Rainforest, it’s hard to know where to begin. We’ll begin with its great size, similar in range to the country of Ireland and encompassing a quarter of the world’s coastal temperate rain forest (and the largest piece of intact temperate rain forest on the planet). We also think it’s pretty great because it’s the only place in the world where you can hope to see the Kermode bear. One must make a concerted effort to get here, which adds to its great appeal; there are few roads, with most of the GBR accessible mainly by boat or floatplane.
As for the name, the Raincoast Conservation Society published the Canadian Raincoast Wilderness Report in 1994, in which Peter McAllister coined the term “Great Bear Wilderness.” Ian McAllister (son of Peter) edited “Wilderness” to “Rainforest” and extended its reach from large, wild areas of British Columbia’s central coast to include the entire central and northern coast. Peter McAllister was one of the main founders of the Raincoast Conservation Society, which played a large role in the campaign to protect the area.
Bears of the Great Bear Rainforest
Grizzlies, black bears and the mysterious spirit bear live within this great northern hemisphere wilderness. While no self-respecting wildlife enthusiast would overlook a great grizzly or a black bear in its natural habitat, the spirit bears have a way of beckoning our souls, as they did the T’simshian people who once shared their ancient homeland with the Kermode bear.
Local legend states that the raven made one out of every 10 black bears white as a reminder of a time when glaciers covered the territory, reminding those who live there to be grateful for the nature and bounty that surrounds them. They believe the spirit bears have supernatural powers, and they have lived in harmony with them and the other area wildlife since time immemorial. Biologically speaking, the Kermode bear gets it naturally white fur from a recessive white gene carried by approximately 10 percent of the black bears born in the area.
Ancient Trees of the Great Bear Rainforest
Complex coastal rain forest ecosystems have four common factors: they’re located in cooler climates, they are close to the ocean, there are mountains present within them and the average rainfall is high. It’s a dynamic relationship between terrestrial, marine, freshwater and estuarine systems, each at play in its own symbiotic way. The coastal rain forest is an optimum environment for some of the world’s oldest and largest trees: the Sitka spruce, red cedar, western hemlock, amabilis fir (also known as the Pacific silver fir) and Douglas fir.
These epic trees can grow as tall as 300 feet high and can have a life span of more than 1,500 years. The coastal rain forests of British Columbia are the result of more than 10,000 years of evolution, since the last glaciers of the Pleistocene Epoch melted. Natural disturbances—think wildfires—are rare and small in scale, allowing these coastal paradises to settle in and evolve unhindered.
More Plants and Animals of the Great Bear Rainforest?
Come for the spirit bear; stay for the grizzlies, the black bears, the coastal gray wolves, the Sitka deer, the cougars, the mountain goats, the orca, the salmon, the sea lions, the sea otters and the humpback whales. In between your Kermode bear-tracking outings, which require a lot of patience, you’re bound to run into at least a few of these other rain forest residents. Streams rich in salmon provide sustenance for the orcas, eagles, bears, wolves and more. In fact, wild salmon is one of the most important keystone species for coastal rain forest ecosystems, because the grizzlies depend on the healthy fish for their survival. Bears then drag off the salmon carcasses into the forest, which ultimately feeds the forest soil.
According to the Raincoast Conservation Society, “In North America approximately 350 bird and animal species, including 48 species of amphibians and reptiles, 25 tree species, hundreds of species of fungi and lichens, and thousands of insects, mites, spiders and other soil organisms are found in coastal temperate rain forests. Researchers are just now discovering the number of organisms, particularly insects, living in the canopy of North American coastal temperate rainforests. These woodlands may support the highest fungal and lichen diversity of any forest system.” So, in addition to those quiet spirit bears and skyward-soaring trees, look to the littler guys while you’re here, too. There’s much wonder to be found, even in flora as humble as lichen.
Protecting the Great Bear Rainforest
Research has found that close to 60% of the world’s original coastal temperate rain forest has been lost due to logging and development. Where North America’s temperate rain forests used to stretch from the Pacific coast between southeast Alaska and northern California, that span has now been diminished by more than half. South of the Canadian border, there is no single, undeveloped and unlogged coastal watershed larger than 12,300 acres. This sobering fact speaks to the significance of the Great Bear Rainforest and its status as the largest contiguous tract of temperate rain forest left on the planet.
Of course, with the threatened forest comes threatened species, including the spirit bear, of which there are believed to only be a few hundred remaining. Current conservation campaigns are focusing their efforts on protecting the habitat from future logging and oil pipeline development that would threaten the Kermode bears’ future. A landmark agreement in 2006 closed off a huge portion of the Great Bear Rainforest to loggers, an area almost the size of the state of New Jersey. And in 2016, the First Nations communities, forest industry, British Columbia government and several partnering environmental groups, announced the Great Bear Agreement, a “groundbreaking agreement to permanently protect 85% of the forests of the Great Bear from industrial logging.”
Nat Hab trips to the Great Bear Rainforest, such as Spirit Bears, Humpbacks & Wildlife of BC, connect you with the land and inspire its protection. Our departures introduce you to this magnificent, ancient ecosystem, where mystical Kermode bears roam, eagles soar and charismatic orcas cavort in the sea. We join local Gitga’at Indigenous guides within the protected bounds of the Kitasoo Spirit Bear Conservancy, relying on their intimate knowledge as we search for the pale bears along the creeks and estuaries. The Gitga’at people spend hours in the forest as part of their lifestyle and are familiar with the bears’ behavior and where they’ve recently been spotted. Listen and learn as you hear about experiences and stories of these secretive creatures, an oral history that has lived on through more than two dozen First Nations who have long made their home here.
We hope you’ll join us on an upcoming Great Bear Rainforest adventure in the Canada Coast Range and British Columbia’s Inside Passage, immersing yourself in a place of stunning natural beauty and that is home to remarkable plants and animals.