There’s a place where Spirit Bears can still fish unbothered by humans. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

It almost sounds mythical.

But there’s truly a place on the far western edge of our continent where a rare animal—a white black bear—can still hunt, fish, gather berries and raise cubs unbothered by humans. There are no roads here, no cut trails, few settlements and even fewer trappings of civilization. It’s a good place to be a bear.

The place is the Great Bear Rain Forest on the far western edge of Canada’s most western province, British Columbia. The Great Bear Rain Forest is one of the largest intact temperate rain forests left in the world. And underneath the boughs of its 1,000-year old cedars, Kermode bears, or “Spirit Bears” to the indigenous First Nations people, thrive. There are only about 400 Spirit Bears left in the world today, and they all live on Princess Royal Island or on its surrounding islands.

Only about 400 Spirit Bears remain. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Spirit Bears are a subspecies of the American black bear (Ursus americanus). In recent years, the habitat for the Kermode bear (Ursus americanus kermodei) has been under threat from logging. As of February 2006, the government of British Columbia entered into a land-use agreement with the First Nations Tsimshian, environmental groups and the logging industry to protect the Great Bear Rain Forest. But in September 2006, logging began in the Green Watershed, a critical area of Spirit Bear habitat that was not protected under the agreement. The British Columbia government has stated that ecotourism will be “key for the conservation of this rain forest and the Kermode bear.”

In order to help further safeguard the future of the Spirit Bears and their home, the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games chose a character named “Miga,” who is half Spirit Bear and half whale, as one of three mascots (the other two are “Quatchi,” the Sasquatch, and “Sumi,” the Thunderbird). It is hoped that by selecting a Spirit Bear as a mascot, a spotlight will be focused on the real bear in front of the world’s largest TV audience, resulting in more global public support.

Recently, I went on one of those ecotours the British Columbia government said would be the key to conserving the bears and their home. Before I departed, I thought I would be extremely lucky to see even one Spirit Bear given their rarity, and I would have been happy just to see their rain forest home and a paw print in the sand to prove that they still existed. I was overwhelmed when I actually saw three different Spirit Bears during my quest: one swimming between the islands and two fishing a creek bed. Part of what made the adventure so special was that I saw only one other tourist boat during the whole nine-day trip. On one day, our small tour group met up with a Zodiac full of photographers who were cruising the same fjord we were exploring.

Does solitude enhance a nature experience? ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

I think that Spirit Bear ecotours will become more popular once the 2010 Vancouver Olympics takes place, which in all likelihood will be good for the bears and for protecting their world. Increased tourism dollars will help keep logging at bay. But I’m glad I saw these bears now, before 2010, because I worry that some day soon there could be four boats out there at the same time. Eight boats, maybe, or 10. And then would my wild and remote encounter with a Spirit Bear be the same? Or would it make me happy to know that so many people care for these bears and what happens to them, much like the experience of seeing several tundra buggies on the horizon while witnessing the much-written-about polar bears of Churchill?

According to a First Nations’ legend, Raven went among the black bears and promised that every 10th bear cub would be born white as a reminder of the time when the world was pure and clean and covered with snowdrifts and glaciers. Raven promised the Spirit Bear a life of peace and harmony in the ancient rain forest, its mountains and valleys. Will the bright light of the Olympics allow the prophecy to remain true?

What makes a nature trip special? Is it the rarity of the experience? Or doesn’t solitude matter? Could the more important issue be that there is a conservation program in place that your travel dollars support, no matter how many other people you run into during your journey? Please post your thoughts below.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,