Follow a Couple’s Epic Sailing Adventure in Search of the World’s Rarest Bear
In this excerpt from new book Uncharted, empty nesters journey deep into B.C.’s coastal wilderness in hopes of seeing the spirit bear
“Just look for something yellow,” Marven Robinson says when we finally take off in search of the spirit bear. We’re speeding past British Columbia’s massive, uninhabited Princess Royal Island in his aluminum fishing skiff. “The bears sometimes come down here to feed.”
I look and look. Each white-yellow patch along the rocky shore turns out to be something else: a cedar stump, a weathered log, a boulder. But my husband, Jeff, and I are finally here – here in the epicenter of B.C.’s Great Bear Rainforest! – home of the legendary Kermode bear (or spirit bear), one of the rarest animals in the world.
I smile. This is what I’ve been hoping for. If we didn’t understand just how wild and remote and storm battered this stretch of the Pacific Northwest Coast was when we first left on this epic sailing journey weeks ago, we do now, flying across the water with Gitga’at First Nation wildlife guide Marven Robinson in his small boat, cold fresh air streaming off the Pacific.
We’re here in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, part of the planet’s last large expanse of coastal temperate rainforest, looking for a revered creature: what the Gitga’at call mooksgm’ol, a white black bear. Neither albino nor polar bear, the spirit bear is a white variant of the black bear born with a double-recessive gene causing white fur. It is rare – more rare than the giant panda (current estimates are 200 to 400 in existence; with wild pandas just over 1800). And it’s found almost exclusively in the Great Bear Rainforest on two rugged, densely forested islands – Princess Royal Island and Gil Island.
Seeking an empty-nest adventure, my husband and I had set out by sailboat weeks earlier from our home near Seattle, about 500 nautical miles south. Our only goal? To point ourselves north toward the white bear and these two remote islands in hopes of glimpsing something rare and beautiful. We also hoped to learn more from Marven, sometimes called the “spirit bear whisperer,” about the rich history and culture of the Gitga’at people. The Gitga’at, who live in the close-knit fishing village of Hartley Bay, a boat ride away, are one of 14 bands that make up the Tshimshian people of B.C.’s northwest coast. They’ve lived alongside these bears, an important symbol in Gitga’at culture – keeping their exact location secret to protect them – for thousands of years.