On the Road with Nancy Brown: Into the Great Bear Rainforest
Travel Writer Nancy D. Brown goes in search of the great spirit bear and gets stranded on Canada’s Princess Royal Island.
Kermode Spirit Bear in Great Bear Rainforest by Tanja Betz
When I look down at my hands, covered in bug bites, I smile as I reflect on my latest adventure. I had read of the elusive Kermode bear, a subspecies of black bear that’s actually pure white, found in northern British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest. Determined to see the “spirit bear,” as the native First Nations tribes call it, I booked passage for Canada.
My adventure began with a flight from San Francisco to Vancouver. After an overnight stay at the Fairmont Vancouver Airport, I was ready for an early morning of plane hopping. A quick shuttle ride to Vancouver’s South Terminal had me boarding an hour-and-a-half charter flight north to Bella Bella, a small First Nations community located on British Columbia’s Central Coast. From here, a group of 12 passengers took a 45-minute scenic flight to Barnard Harbor and uninhabited Princess Royal Island, one of the last untouched corners of the world.
Our 1948 Grumman Goose floatplane landed with a graceful belly flop in the scenic waters of Barnard Harbor. We would be staying at King Pacific Lodge, a floating, three-story fir and cedar paneled luxury hotel housed on a 15,000 square foot former U.S. Marine barge for three nights (which turned into five nights, thanks to a two-day storm) replete with whale sightings, a boat ride to Gribbell Island in search of the spirit bear, a kayaking trip to a shipwreck in Cameron Cove, and bonding with guests over card games, cocktails, and canapés as we waited out the storm.
“Whale, one o’clock,” shouted our Saltwater Guide and First Nations Gitga’at (rhymes with Kit-Kat) Native George Fisher. On our first day, we’d hit the water for fishing and whale watching. Our Boston Whaler punched and jumped the waves in Drummond Bay, like a featherweight fighter in the boxing ring. “Here comes the fluke,” continued Fisher. “Get your cameras ready.” We kept our eyes on the horizon and listened for the sound of humpback whales coming up to the surface for air. Fortunately for lodge guests, the waters of northern BC are rich with krill and small fish, meaning whale sightings around King Pacific Lodge were as abundant as the pink salmon that spawned in the nearby rivers.
Speaking of the salmon, I had a Coho, or silver salmon, tugging on my line when I was distracted by a spray of salt water off the starboard side of the boat. Sure enough, a humpback mother and calf were peacefully feeding alongside our small fishing vessel. Like a choreographed waltz, we watched as the dance partners dove and re-surfaced to their own beat. I quickly reeled in my 12-pound catch, my guide snapping the obligatory trophy picture before dumping the fish unceremoniously into the boat’s hold. Visions of barbequed salmon on a cedar plank danced in my head.
Our second day began with a sun drenched two-and-a-half hour morning kayak paddle around Cameron Cove with a lodge naturalist. Bald eagles, perched on limbs of red cedar and Sitka spruce, waited to splash down and swoop up their prey in powerful talons. Blue herons flew by, squawking a throaty cry as they sailed along the cove’s protected corridor. Low tide revealed a shipwrecked tugboat, as well as a collection of the world’s largest sea stars; their colorful bodies of red, purple, gold, and green created an artist’s palate on the rock walls.
We didn’t spot any wolves or bears on this trip around Princess Royal Island, but the sea lions were nothing if not memorable. It’s hard to say which sense hit first: the barking sound of hundreds of them wedged together on a rock, thick as sardines packed in a tin can, or the powerful smell that accompanied them. Their heavy bodies flopped into the ocean, and, once in the water, the inquisitive creatures darted and dashed under our boat in streams of gold and brown.
It was drizzling the morning we ventured to Gribbell Island, a 45-minute boat ride from King Pacific Lodge. Bear Guide and Hartley Bay Gitga’at First Nation native Marven Robinson had radioed to let us know that a spirit bear had been sighted. Our troupe of five bear viewers scampered across the rocks and up a ladder to a rustic wooden platform overlooking the river—and a rare Kermode bear. The bear fished for salmon with the laid-back body language of a California surfer dude. Our group sent camera shutters clicking as we basked in the glory of a successful spirit bear sighting.
As the Kermode bear wandered upstream to continue fishing, a mother black bear appeared, fishing alongside her two young cubs. Undisturbed by our presence in the elevated stand, one bear cub climbed along a fallen tree branch strewn across the river. The Great Bear Rainforest had earned its name that morning.
Day Four … and Five
As our band of travelers gathered with our bags in the lobby, ready for a morning departure, we were greeted with unsettling news. Due to inclement weather, the floatplanes would not fly out that day. Some took the news as bonus vacation; others retreated to their smart phones and iPads to check the weather forecast. Heavy rain continued the following day, accompanied with high wind gusts that rocked the floating barge. As is typical in the Great Bear Rainforest, weather patterns changed on a moments notice. Sunny skies in Vancouver, 323 miles away, do not necessarily equate to clear skies on Princess Royal Island.
Fortunately, we were on a barge with a crackling fireplace and gourmet food options. Head server and bartender Robbyn Macdonald and the rest of the staff created three wonderful meals a day: Each night a menu offered two unique dinner options, paired with Canadian wines. The rack of lamb with a wine reduction sauce was sublime, while fresh caught halibut in a light cream sauce, accompanied with local vegetables and fingerling potatoes had me swooning. The food and wine reflected Tsimshian, Japanese and British Columbia heritage, with a nod to local sustainability.
Certainly there are far worse places to be stranded, and after a couple of bonus vacation nights we returned to Vancouver with beautiful memories of Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest.
If you go:
You’ll want to fly into Vancouver, Canada, the day prior to departure. I stayed the night at Fairmont Vancouver Airport after a morning non-stop flight from San Francisco International Airport. Fishermen flying home with their catches will appreciate the Fairmont Vancouver fish valet program. Check the website for details.
Fairmont Vancouver Airport, Vancouver International Airport, 3111 Grant McConachi Way, Richmond, British Columbia, Canada (604) 207-5200, fairmont.com, twitter.com/FairmontYVR
United Airlines, San Francisco International Airport, (800) 864-8331, united.com, twitter.com/United.
Have you vacationed in northern British Columbia?
The video below gives an idea of what to expect at King Pacific Lodge:
A lifelong resident of Contra Costa County, Nancy D. Brown grew up in Moraga. When she’s not traveling, she lives in Lafayette with her husband and teens. Nancy is the Uptake.com Travel Editor, writes the What a Trip blog, and is a Contra Costa Times Lamorinda Sun columnist. Horse lovers will find her at writinghorseback.com. Follow Nancy on Twitter at twitter.com/nancydbrown.