Kim Brown Seely

In this excerpt from new book Uncharted, empty nesters journey deep into B.C.’s coastal wilderness in hopes of seeing the spirit bear

Kim Brown Seely  – September 16, 2019 | Updated September 24, 2019

“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.  

Marven dropped us off on the shore of Princess Royal with a handheld radio and a canister of bear spray.  

“Ever use one of these?” he asked, handing over the spray as we scrambled out onto the mudflats.  He raked the bristly hair atop his head.  Marven was in his mid-forties, with a handsome face, a direct gaze, a thatch of black hair.  “Only use it if the bear is five feet or less from you, and if his ears are back,” he said, then shrugged in a fatalistic way.  “If his ears are forward, he’s just checking you out.”

Yikes! I thought. 

It was a raucous scene:  squadrons of while gulls shot past, wave after wave of them, followed by lines of frantic, electrified terns.  We watched salmon leaping, bald eagles soaring, herons squawking.  The Great Bear Rainforest is sanctuary to a stunning diversity of wildlife, nourished by one of the most productive oceans on the planet.  There were more birds than I’d ever seen in a single place, canyon walls reverberating with crazed caws and cries.  

“Are you guys ready?” Marven asked, plunging into the forest.  “The bears have been gorging themselves here for the past few weeks.” Hearts beating, we trailed him toward the head of a copper-colored creek.  We crept through thickets of thick spongy moss, over fungus-wrapped trunks edged with devil’s club, and past thousand-year-old cedars, trying not to snap any twigs.  Fortunately, the forest floor was clotted with leaves that dampened our step. There was so much moss cloaking the branches it looked like there’d been a green blizzard.  The leaves sucked at our boots.  We found a log buried in a bed of wet ferns and crouched down on the bank, waiting for bears.

Seeing bears is all about waiting, I was learning. And quiet.  We hunkered down while rain slid down the branches and leaves, plumping the mosses.  We poured coffee from Marven’s thermos.  Adjusted our Gore-Tex.  Sat and waited some more.  

“Spirit bears are shy,” Marven said, leaning in close.  He smelled like pine needles and mint.  “They could be right here and we wouldn’t even know.” 

We made ourselves still. Slanted late-afternoon light haunted the centuries-old forest.  Everything felt verdant and ancient.  We waited and waited. Rust-and cinnamon-brown leaves shuttled downriver.  Everything seemed to be flowing into the river, except the fish, which were going back up it.  In the river salmon were packed so close fin to gill it seemed like you could almost walk across their backs.

Sight quickly loses its supremacy, I realized, in dense forest.  Hearing, however, is honed.  The silence is rich.  Even the slightest rustle grew audible, and soon it was as if we could hear for miles and miles, every sound clear and distinct.  I heard the tiny splashes and sucks of the river, ravens, leaves falling, stones turning, fish jumping… sitting side by side I heard everything, the river muttering in a language that lifted through stones, air, and sky on its way to the sea.

None of us said a word for a long time.  The creek hummed with the sound of fish jumping and river stones jostling and spruce needles dripping.  A gang of ravens went by croaking and cawing and flying so low I could hear the shhh-shhh-shhh sound of their wings.  My joints started to ache and my foot was falling asleep, and it hadn’t even been an hour.  

“Listen,” Marven whispered, his head slightly cocked as he caught my gaze intently.  “We never spoke of mooksgm’ol – the white bear.  My grandmother, Helen, tells the story of Raven.  How Raven made one in every ten black bears white to remind people of a time when the world was all snow and ice, so people would be thankful for the lush and bountiful land of today.  Many of our people believe mooksgm’ol holds supernatural powers – that the white bear is a special creature left to remind us of that earlier time when everything was covered by glaciers…”

“You mean like an ice age?” I said, thinking how fragile this forest felt.  How perhaps the challenge of our modern times is to hold two things in our hearts at once:  the beauty of our planet and the threat of what we stand to lose.  

“Yup…” Marven nodded gravely, his voice trailing off.

That’s when we saw the bear ambling up the river.  The bear was midsize, lovely, but it wasn’t  a white bear—it was another hungry black bear, Ursus americanus.  It pawed at a pile of dead salmon it had stashed on the riverbank.  Our quest to see the spirit bear, I realized, was just beginning.  

Read more of Kim Brown Seely’s amazing adventure sailing the Pacific Northwest with her husband in Uncharted: A Couple’s Epic Empty-Nest Adventure Sailing from One Life to Another.