Canada’s answer to the African safari? An epic sailing trip in search of grizzlies, humpbacks, and unplugged serenity

Spirit Bear
Greg Shea
The star attraction: an elusive spirit bear

It’s well into day two of our sailboat cruise, and people are starting to worry. We’ve spent the past three hours floating quietly in British Columbia’s salmon-filled Kynoch Inlet, then bushwhacking in borrowed gum boots beneath hemlock trees in search of, gulp, bears. “What if we don’t see any?” asks Carol, a passenger clearly annoyed it’s taking this long.

Marci and Marc—with their matching M&M’s tattoos and camera lenses the size of telescopes—are still hopeful. “Booking this trip almost guarantees seeing them!” says Marc, who saved up for five years to go on the nine-day Great Bear Rainforest cruise aboard the Maple Leaf. “I look at bears as one of the smartest creatures. They don’t get caught up in life’s trivial things like we do. They’re all about survival, nurturing their young, teaching them to take care of themselves, that’s it. They live a simple life.” 

And this week, so do we, biding our time among fjords and estuaries and islands. At 15.8 million acres, Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest is the largest coastal temperate rain forest in the world, alive with 1,000-year-old Western red ­cedars, 800-foot waterfalls, a scattering of First Nations communities who’ve lived here for 14,000 years, and more wildlife than annual visitors. It’s accessible only by boat, floatplane, or helicopter. Beyond the usual black bears and grizzlies, it’s also home to the spirit bear—an ­extremely rare white-furred creature found almost exclusively on a few ­islands 100 miles south of the Alaska border.

The night before, our first aboard the Maple Leaf, all eight of us squeezed thigh to thigh around the galley’s mahogany table, drinking wine and dining on almond-encrusted coho salmon as the ship’s captain, Greg, asked us to share our “wildlife expectations.” Apart from a penchant for nature photography and zip-off pants, this motley crew—ranging in age from 32 to 82, from Seattle to Switzerland to both coasts of Canada—has little in common other than a desire to commune with bears.

It seems that these enthusiastic people I’m with for the next 192 hours or so want to see them all day. Every day. Up close. A pack of coastal wolves, they all agree, would be super cool too.

They’re certainly in the right place. In 2016, legislation was ­finally passed to protect 85 percent of this forest from logging. And on November 30 of last year—thanks to the work of conservationists and the indigenous First ­Nations communities—the province of British Columbia banned trophy hunting of grizzly bears here. The First Nations had already declared a ban on trophy hunting back in 2012 in their traditional rain forest lands, and our captain explains that means more bears. Lots of bears.

Plus, they’re less skittish than they used to be, now that they’ve learned people aren’t out to kill them. “Bear-­watching has been better than ever!” beams Captain Greg, his blond curls spilling out of a faded cap that reads “Small Ship, Big Adventure.” Expectedly ruddy, with a genuine perma-grin, capable hands, and a calm, confident demeanor, he is the kind of guy I want to be with if—when?—I do see a bear.

Khutze Inlet
A shore boat at Khutze Inlet

The Great Bear Rainforest isn’t exactly on the honeymoon circuit. And with a bunk room for eight, two small “heads” (shipspeak for toilets), and no more than three showers per person—all week—neither is the Maple Leaf. It is, however, one of the most beautiful old wooden boats you’ve ever seen. The 1904 schooner once hauled halibut before it was spiffed up for ecotourism. It’s the kind of ship you’d find inside a bottle, a masterpiece of Douglas fir and yellow cedar. Wi-Fi? Nope. But there are two walking ­Wikipedias on board (Captain Greg and a naturalist namedBrandon) who know everything there is to know about the creatures up here.

There’s also a hardworking crew ready to hoist sails and pour coffee and replenish TP as needed. A talented chef cooks five meals a day from scratch, including two breakfasts (7 a.m., granola, muffins; 9 a.m., frittatas, french toast); steamy bowls of lentil stew or beef chili for lunch; two hardy midday snacks; and a three-course supper. There’s no casino, no lounge show, no midnight buffet. Bedtime follows soon after dessert. It’s up-anchor by 6 a.m., after all.

The cabin is tighter quarters than a freshman dorm room, with as much privacy as a rock band’s tour bus. Only a curtain separates each of the four double bunks, which means, despite the provided earplugs, you get to know the nighttime noises of people you’ve just met. I learn that Marc, a hulk of a man, snores like Fred Flintstone. And that Carol calls out in her sleep. And that Doug and Jean, a sweet, ­silver-haired couple who have been married for 56 years, whisper to each other in French ­before kissing good night.

Still, this trip is supposed to be about ­observing wildlife, not fellow passengers. We just have to be ­patient, the captain reminds ­everyone. This is nature, not a zoo.

I had always assumed that everyone—other than the guy profiled in Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary Grizzly Man—was afraid that a 900-pound carnivore might maul them to death. When I booked this trip, I kind of hoped we’d see them from, like, the deck of our boat, with really good binoculars. Not exactly what the Maple Leaf has in mind. We would be landing on terra firma, walking along the shore and sometimes into the dense woods. Be quiet, we were told. Walk slowly as a group—no straggling behind! We look bigger together than we do alone, Captain Greg explained. All food stays back on the boat, of course.

After that brief training, I felt (sort of) prepared to meet a towering bruin on its home turf. But it turns out that wildlife isn’t something you can summon On Demand. Here in the Great Bear, wait times, I find, are on a scale of hours and days, not mere seconds.

When not cruising the inlets on a futile hunt for bears, we roam aimlessly around the ship, from the wheelhouse to the galley to our beds, as we wait—for the rain to stop, for a whale to breach, for the anchor to drop, for the sugar cookies to come out of the oven. 

As we make our way farther north to Mussel Bay, the rain does stop for a spell, and I start to realize that maybe just hanging around waiting—for something, anything, to happen—isn’t so bad. Not when you’re cruising through serene waters, gazing up at granite walls carved out by glaciers 12,000 years ago, and bald eagles presiding from treetops, and waterfalls cascading into the sea. There’s also not a single boat, let alone another sign of civilization, in sight. 

Humpback Whales
Humpback whales

Just before supper on Day Three, we give it another go. We climb down the wooden steps and pile into the inflatable boat the ship totes around for shore excursions. We zoom out to the estuary, where we crouch in our boots and wait on the grassy, wet bank. We listen silently and look, hoping to hear the crack of a tree branch or spy movement in the brush. Nothing. And then there they are. Not one—but freaking four—grizzlies wander down to the water.

I whisper oh my God and inch closer to Captain Greg. They’re only cubs, but they’re massive, ambling on all fours through the shallow water, searching for supper. My visit happens to fall in September, prime salmon time, so they find it, no problem. They prowl the shoreline—then pounce, tearing into the pink flesh of the belly as blood and guts plop back into the water. Then they go back for more. 

Somehow two hours pass, and at some point I start to relax. A little. I’m captivated. You can’t really get bored watching bears, because, you know, you’ve got to stay alert. They eat and wade through the waist-deep water, inching closer to our side of the bank until we’re standing less than 20 feet from them, snapping photos like paparazzi. And yet they barely register our existence. Apparently all they want is fish. Phew.

The next afternoon, we head back to the shore and quietly clamber out as Captain Greg points to a big brown furry mound on a grassy slope: four bears napping—a mama and her three cubs. We sit on the bank in our supposedly rainproof pants, watching the family sleep for almost an hour.

My butt is damp, my hands are cold, and I’m ready to head back to the boat for a glass of wine. But Captain Greg is engrossed. He has no idea what’s about to happen, but he’s well-versed in the ways of nature and knows what we eventually come to learn: that if you wait long enough, something will happen.

And something does. All of a sudden, the mama’s mammoth body starts to move. She lumbers onto her back, nipples up, torso outstretched like a limo, and props herself on her elbows. Her three cubs nuzzle close. At first it looks like they’re just cuddling, until we realize, wait, no—they’re suckling. It hits us that we are sitting in the mud in the middle of nowhere, watching a mother grizzly nurse her cubs! Even Captain Greg is gawking at our good luck. Despite a decade observing bears, this is a first for him too. We’re mesmerized, even a little embarrassed to ­witness such an intimate and primal moment.

But like any forthright feminist, mama doesn’t mind. This is what we do, she seems to say. The cubs pull off, milk dripping from their snouts, and look right at us before they saunter off into the trees.

What if we’d bailed before the bears woke up? Proof, people, that patience pays off.

In the days that follow, we cruise up Princess Royal Channel alongside breaching whales, playful dolphins, barking sea ­lions, and swimming deer (I know, right?). We scatter ourselves around the deck, reading, journaling, talking, not talking, leaping up whenever Brandon spies a whale spouting in the distance—and we wait, cameras poised, ready to capture the perfect whale tail. Or two. “It’s a double breach!” squeals Sara, a self-­proclaimed whale fanatic, in her thick Swiss-German accent. Once the whale action subsides, we resume our lazy positions and watch the screensaver-worthy landscape roll by.

In between kayaking around estuaries, soaking in hidden hot springs, jumping off the bowsprit into B.C.’s ice-cold sea, and barbecuing pork loin over a sunset bonfire on a deserted beach, we zip around in the inflatable boats in search of bears. We find them almost too easily now: bears chasing fish. Bears chomping fish. Bears sloshing through a marsh. Brother bears wrestling like little boys. Bears standing on their hind legs, arms around each other, like two best friends posing for a picture.

On day five, we unload at Gribbell Island, home to the sacred spirit bear—or at least a handful of the only 300 or so estimated to be in existence. We follow a man named Garnet, of the Gitga’at Nation, to a small wooden platform tucked in the trees, a few feet above a rocky river. Along the way, chef Tom picks angel wing mushrooms to cook up later for dinner.

“My last group waited 11 hours,” warns Captain Greg. “We can stay as long as it takes.” It’s 7:30 a.m. We could be here until dinnertime, he says, and still never see one. Bring it on, I say to myself. 

We peer upriver. We peer downriver. Then upriver again. Then downriver again. Kingfishers flutter above. Salmon flutter below. A jet black bear wanders by and bats at some breakfast. A good three hours pass before we spy him: a ginormous, cream-colored marshmallow slowly making his way upriver. A spirit bear. Not just any spirit bear, apparently, but “Big Boss,” as dubbed by Garnet.

Steller Sea Lions
Steller sea lions

As he gets closer, I wonder if he knows he’s an anomaly. The fringe benefit of his rare mutation: During the daytime, salmon can’t see white bears as well as they can black or browns. That probably explains his healthy bulk. I wonder if he knows we’ve been waiting all morning for him, all week for him. Heck, Carol’s been waiting her whole life for a glimpse of him. He has no sense of his celebrity. He eats his lunch, then moseys upriver. 

Spirit bear–sighting box checked, we could easily leave, head back to the boat. But why? We know better by now. We wait.

And indeed, a few hours later, Big Boss comes back. He sees a black bear fishing on his turf, and he isn’t happy. Next thing we know, it’s a full-on bear fight—right beneath our feet. The white bear charges over the mossy rocks, like a Mack truck on the loose, ramming the black bear from behind—and slamming him so hard we can hear their bodies crash above the rushing river. They huff and grunt and push and shove, water splashing, until eventually, true to his nickname, Big Boss triumphs.

It’s like the National Geographic Channel come to life, and in a matter of minutes, the show’s over as quickly as it began. Apparently, an Imax crew has been hanging around here for weeks hoping to catch this kind of action, boasts Captain Greg. And we just happen to see it in the flesh—after a mere five-hour wait.

Toward the end of the trip, I decide to skip the morning safari and take a kayak out for a solo morning paddle instead. After a week of close quarters, I need some alone time.

A little later, I notice my fellow passengers still sitting in the inflatable boat across the way, staring at a spit of land. They’ve been motionless for at least a half-hour. Curious, I eventually move toward them—and then I hear it too: the howling of wolves. It’s haunting. And humbling. 

Back at the ship, at second breakfast, the rest of the party is giddy—they actually saw the coastal wolf! A rare sighting, rarer than even the spirit bear. Brandon feels elated after a lifetime spent looking. Marc gives our captain a big hug. And me? I feel like I missed out. I was impatient, and I paddled away too soon.

But then I realize: Aren’t we always missing something? Wolves and whales, bears and birds, all living their lives in the wilderness while—a world away—we live ours? Besides, as they were waiting for the wolf, I was kayaking peacefully beneath Bonaparte seagulls, past mossy islands and sea lions that kept popping up from ­below. Tomorrow, I’ll say good-bye to Big Boss and ship-side sunsets. I will be heading back to Wi-Fi and Netflix and Thai food I can order through an app for quick delivery.

At the tiny airport in Bella Bella, I take a seat in the one-room terminal and wait. “Flight’s been delayed,” the man next to me says. I look at the unstaffed counter selling nothing but coffee. At the two fishermen chatting in their plastic chairs. At the little boy slumped beside his mom. I try my best to be in the moment, to be the wilderness sage I’ve become, but almost immediately I reach for my iPhone. I just have to send my family photos of Big Boss and the whales and the waterfalls and the wrestling brothers and the nursing cubs—knowing full well that pictures won’t do them justice.

Getting Here

A trip to the Great Bear Rainforest aboard the Maple Leaf ($3,450 U.S. for 7 nights in spring, $5,250 U.S. for 8 nights in fall; begins and disembarks in ­Bella Bella, B.C., a short flight from Vancouver. The cost includes meals, wine and beer, accommodations, gum boots, and guiding. Between April and July, grizzlies and black bears are often in view. Trips to see spirit bears only take place in September and October, and they ­often sell out months in advance—so if you want to see one of the 300 or so spirit bears on planet Earth, and watch grizzlies munching on fish during the autumn salmon runs, it’s best to lock in a trip soon. Maple Leaf Adventures also runs a gorgeous restored tugboat called the MV Swell, and this season has added a third boat to its fleet: the ­Cascadia, a luxury catamaran.

If you’re going on this epic wildlife adventure, be sure to pick up a copy of author Rachel Levin’s new book, LOOK BIG: And Other Tips for Surviving for Animal Encounters of All Kinds.

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