By Amy Watkins
Reclusive and elusive, the ghostly graceful movements of the Kermode bears of the Great Bear Rainforest have earned them the nickname “mooksgm’ ol” or “Spirit bears.” Hidden amongst the emerald old-growth forests of the world’s largest coastal temperate rainforest, these white-furred bears are unique to the central and northern coast of British Columbia and have even been named the province’s official mammal.
Spiritually significant to the Indigenous people who have called these isolated inlets and islands their home for millennia, the Spirit bears of the Great Bear Rainforest are a magical sight for lucky visitors to the region. Stretching along the central and northern coast of British Columbia, the six million hectares of the Great Bear Rainforest encompasses a quarter of the world’s coastal temperate rainforest and spans an area that is around the size of Ireland.
Between June and October spirit bears can be spotted—or at least searched for—amongst the thick thousand-year-old cedars, Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, and mossy dens of the Great Bear Rainforest. Feeding on berries, plants, and salmon, the bears can sometimes be seen filling up in the forest in the summer or gorging on salmon from fast-flowing rivers in the fall. It’s thought that the Spirit bears have survived here so well because their white fur makes it harder for salmon to spot the mighty mammal.
Most tours will encounter these ghostly bears when the animals are fishing for salmon in September and October; staying at a respectful distance even though the Kermodes have little fear of humans, due to the remote nature of their surroundings.
Standing at an average height of 100-120cm and weighing an average of 70-135kg, these Spirit bears can weigh as much as 290kg and live up to 25 years in the wild. Given the Latin name Ursus americanus kermodei, the bears are named after Francis Kermode, who helped zoologists find the bears in the early 1900s and later became the director of the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.
Spirit bears have white fur but black noses and paws—marking them as different to albino or polar bears. Kermode bears are actually a subspecies of black bears and are the result of a double recessive gene, similar to the phenomenon that results in red hair or blue eyes in humans. Found uniquely in this area of British Columbia, it’s estimated that there are only around 100 of them in the wild and that their gene occurs in one in every 40-100 black bears on BC’s mainland coast. This number rises to one in 10 on Princess Royal Island and one in three on Gribbell Island, an 80-square mile island to the north that is 10 times smaller than Princess Royal and is the traditional territory of the Gitga’at. The Gitga’at are one of the 14 bands that make up the Tsimshian people of British Columbia’s north coast. The islands are only accessible by air or sea and are situated in remote wilderness that is around 800 km north of Vancouver and 228 km northwest of Bella Coola.
For a long time, the Spirit bears were considered a legend of the Gitga’at and Kitasoo people, based on the story of the time when the glaciers receded and Raven, creator of the rainforest, made one in 10 black bears white to remind people of the time when the earth was covered in ice and snow. Raven located these bears in the Great Bear Rainforest, where they can still be seen today.
Scientists believe that the white fur of the Spirit bears could have evolved as protection during the last ice age, when perhaps these bears were isolated from the mainland but survived and thrived due to the lack of predators. Today it’s estimated that 500 to 1,200 black bears might be carriers of the Kermode gene – it’s possible for two black bears to produce a white bear if they both carry the gene.
Spirit bears continue to have spiritual significance to the Indigenous people of the area, although for many years nobody would speak of the bears in order to protect them from hunters. The local Kitasoo people also tell the tale of a kidnapped woman who married her handsome captor, who was really a bear, and that they had three children with bear bodies and human faces. One of the offspring was white because the creator Raven made a deal with the bears long ago—after Raven shape-shifted into a child to learn how to make fire, the then-white Raven flew out of the hut via a smoke hole, covering himself with soot and remaining black. He then told the bears that some of them must remain white in his honour.
During the second half of the 1800s the Kitasoo merged with the Xai’xais and founded the community of Klemtu, in a beautifully pristine cove on Swindle Island, close to Princess Royal and Gribbell islands, in the Inside Passage between BC and Alaska. Klemtu is 228 km northwest of Bella Coola but can be reached via floatplane from Vancouver’s South Terminal airport. With a small population of 420 people, the community is comprised of two First Nations groups that both speak different languages. The Kitasoo—the southernmost tribe of the Tsimshian First Nation, who originally lived on Princess Royal Island—and the Xai’xais joined together in 1875 and established Klemtu on the region’s major shipping route.
The village became a refuelling stop for coastal steamers that needed wood and, today, fishing is the main industry here. Visitors can see the red cedar “Big House,” a traditional communal place for celebrations that features the village’s clan emblems of a raven, eagle, wolf and orca. Spirit Bear Lodge, a local Indigenous-owned tour company, has opened an eco-cultural adventure lodge in Klemtu that offers wildlife-viewing tours to explore the Great Bear Rainforest. Visitors wake up to wildlife outside their ocean-view rooms and dine together in the Great Hall, overlooking the water—the lodge is based on the architecture of the traditional communal longhouses of the West Coast First Nations. With unparalleled access to the islands where the Spirit bears reside and Indigenous guides to lead expeditions, Spirit Bear Lodge offers unique hikes and sea safaris into the forests and along the shorelines of Princess Royal and Gribbell Island to spot wolves, whales, grizzlies, and of course – the elusive Spirit bears.
Experience the unique opportunity to spot the haunting presence of these ghostly giants in the Great Bear Rainforest. Spiritually significant to the Indigenous people and spectacular to behold amongst the beautiful supernatural scenery of coastal rainforest, Spirit bears are BC’s provincial mammal in more ways than one.