Finding the True Spirit of Nature Travel

Candice Gaukel Andrews October 5, 2009 14

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.

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.”

Only about 400 Spirit Bears remain. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

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.

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?

Does solitude enhance a nature experience? ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

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,



  1. C. Andrews October 21, 2009 at 1:35 pm - Reply

    Thank you, Kim. You’ve made me think that, sometimes, we even have to “see to support”!

  2. Leila October 19, 2009 at 1:57 pm - Reply

    What wonderful pictures. I’m sorry that we missed the trip. It sounds as though it was magical and truly wonderful.

  3. Kim Dodson October 19, 2009 at 2:33 pm - Reply

    My colleague, Wendy, just returned from the same trip and had very similar sentiments. Candy, your descriptions really give all the photos I’ve seen such depth and life…thank you.

    As they say, all good things in moderation–pumpkin pie and ice cream, a roller coaster ride, fresh flowers on your coffee table, viewing a mighty polar bear with her playful cub at dusk. Once you become excessive, the beauty and value are taken away. However, when you think about enjoying wildlife in solitude versus supporting conservation of an endangered habitat or species, you find yourself in quite the moral dilemma. Sometimes we must see to believe, and we must believe to support. Eco-tourism is an excellent option.

  4. Sandra Drissen October 13, 2009 at 10:55 am - Reply

    Low fog burns away / bald eagle topped trees appear / oh to reach such heights We certainly did reach the heights in this magical journey. The sense of quiet and solitude was wonderful and I feel quite greedy in wanting to hold it to just a few. A conflict I cannot resolve. I guess I will trust to moderation. I certainly thank Candy for gathering us into this fine NatHab trip. Bluewater Adventure is terrific, the crew and fellow travelers tops. I can only say thank you.

  5. Carlyn Kline October 11, 2009 at 4:27 pm - Reply

    “We have seen much of the world and enjoyed every trip, but few have enriched our souls as this one did. True unspoiled wilderness shared with very special people gave us memories we will cherish always.”

  6. Mary Kuppenheimer October 11, 2009 at 12:43 pm - Reply

    Truly, the Spirit Bear trip was life-changing. The opportunity to visit such an untouched area was a privilege. Selfishly, I would hate to see many new tour companies added, for some of the magic would definitely be erased. Yet your point of helping fund the preservation of the area is a valid one.

  7. Pat Marron October 8, 2009 at 11:20 am - Reply

    Your story really captures the wonder of this area that we were privileged to visit. I remember how our captain asked us to be quiet in the zodiacs and just experience the environment. It was a truly magical time, a small group of people riding softly through the water, surrounded by misty mountains, watching for the wildlife, “alone” in the wilderness.
    I hope that eco-tourism in this part of B.C. will be done wisely, and that the Olympics will not bring too many people to Princess Royal Island. There is a lot to be said for the solitude we found.

  8. Muriel Shiff October 7, 2009 at 2:48 pm - Reply

    I knew I was missing a great trip, which after reading your article, sounds awesome. Hopefully I’ll be able to rejoin the group in the future. You do such a fine job of relating a story that it makes me fill like I was there.

  9. Travis October 7, 2009 at 1:53 pm - Reply

    I think the unanswered question here is what does a half-whale/half-bear look like?

  10. Art Hardy October 7, 2009 at 5:53 am - Reply

    There just aren’t many places in the world that haven’t been affected by our desire to visit them. Excluding or limiting access to specific groups of people is often not an option and a balance has to be struck with the ultimate goal being preservation of the environment and the creatures who live there.

    Long live wild places!

  11. Nine Quiet Lessons October 6, 2009 at 2:54 pm - Reply

    Tourism is probably best when practiced in moderation; it seems like the level where you were is about right.

  12. Helen October 6, 2009 at 10:10 am - Reply

    Well done..great article…You’re right, hope not tooooooo many folks end up in the solitude..It’s easy to say when we have been there..Always a dilemma when viewing wild life ..There were about 40 jeeps trying to see the poor leopard in Kenya ..I got a photo of him next to a big SUV tire…poor guy..Ugh…


  13. Helen Iltis October 6, 2009 at 10:02 am - Reply

    Well done..great article…You’re right, hope not tooooooo many folks end up in the solitude..It’s easy to say when we have been there..Always a dilemma when viewing wild life ..There were about 40 jeeps trying to see the poor leopard in Kenya ..I got a photo of him next to a big SUV tire…poor guy..Ugh…


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