Thursday, 20 January 2022


As you walk through British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest your footfalls are muffled by lush undergrowth, a crush of salal, fallen needles and wood debris that make up this rich, fertile soil. 

This is not a place to escape the world, but to enter it more deeply.  

This is sacred ground, hallowed ground — though one could say that for every place on Earth — this feels different somehow, older, deeper. 

This is a forest that whispers secrets for those with ears to hear — in the language of the trees, streams and hidden within every bit of underbrush, every perfectly formed Deer fern (Struthiopteris spicant) and Western sword fern, (Polystichum muntum) as you gently bushwhack your way through — honouring a leave no trace ethos.

In this temperate rainforest live some of the oldest and largest stands of timber on the planet. As you explore deeper, each breath you take is filled with moist air mingled with the smells of decaying vegetation and fresh growth, new rain and the deep earthy musk of fungi busily at work on the forest floor. The forest itself has a leave no trace mentality in part. 

Every visible bit of life is a mix of old and new, the fungi breaking down the plant and animal remains, repurposing their life-giving nutrients. It is because of this that we find so few fossils within a rainforest. They are here but not in the way we might think to look for them, at least not with our eyes in the macro-world. Their lineage lives on at the micro-level, bits and pieces embedded within the trees, animals and soil — they form this regions' goût de terroir, the essence of an abiding woodland sphere.

The animals that call this forest home live amidst multistoried canopies of Sitka spruce (Picea stichensis), western red cedar (Thuja plicata), western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), amabilis fir (Abies amabilis) and Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) — each of these pillars of the forest are woven together by salal, lichen and a rich mycorrhizal network beneath the ground. The trees here talk to one another using these fungal networks that connect individual trees and plants together to help transfer water, carbon, nitrogen, nutrients and minerals from the earth to needle and leaf.

You are walking through time, each footfall retracing history and those that have come before you, both human and animal. 

British Columbia's Spirit Bears

Deep in this ancient forest where moss overflows every surface and wilderness abounds, British Columbia's Spirit Bear — Ursus americanus kermodei — reigns supreme. 

Spirit Bears are a subspecies of American Black Bear that lives in the Central and North Coast regions of British Columbia, Canada. And as we've learned, they are not always black. They come in red, rust, brown and cinnamon. And a few of their number are a lovely cream tinged white that make them look like they have been dusted with honey. 

There are roughly 650,000 black bears of all colours roaming our forests, swamps and streams — meaning there is a good chance of running into them if you spend any amount of time in the wild. Full-grown, they can run 48 kilometres (30 miles)  an hour and smell food up to 32 kilometres (20 miles) away.

With their excellent hearing, black bears usually know you are near well before you realize the same and generally take care to avoid you. While most spend their days in the wilds of our province far from the hum and thrum of civilization, those that come in contact with humans often tend to want to check our garbage and hiking supplies for tasty snacks — hey, a free meal is a free meal.    

In British Columbia, we share our province with nearly half of all black bears and grizzly bears that reside in Canada. Both bear families descend from a common ancestor, Ursavus, a bear-dog the size of a raccoon who lived more than 20 million years ago. Seems an implausible lineage given the size of their very large descendants.

These intelligent, long-lived mammals (up to 28 years) hold a special place within our culture and in First Nation mythology in particular — celebrated in art, dance and song. 

In the Language of the Kwakwaka'wakw

In the Kwak'wala language of the Kwakiutl or Kwakwaka'wakw First Nations of the Pacific Northwest, the word for black bear is t̕ła'yi. I will ask the word for Spirit Bears as I do not know it.

These beautiful Brown Bears are not brown at all, as you have seen, but pale. Not albino but lacking in pigment. Their colouring stems from a recessive mutant gene — meaning that if they receive two copies it triggers a single, nonsynonymous nucleotide substitution that halts all melanin production. Think of it as turning off the tap that gives these bears their colour. 

Pale but not colourless, they have pigmented eyes and skin but no colour in their fur. These gentle giants are the Official Provincial Mammal of British Columbia and for good reason. Their distinctive coats make them the perfect ambassador for our province.  

Spirit Bears live in the Great Bear Rainforest on British Columbia's north and central coast alongside the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation who call the Kermode moskgm’ol or white bear. The Kitasoo/Xai’xais have a legend that tells of Goo-wee, Raven making one in every ten black bears white to remind us of the time glaciers blanketed the land then slowly retreated — and their thaw giving rise to the bounty we harvest today.   

Visiting British Columbia's Great Bears

If you are interested in viewing British Columbia's Great Bears, do check out Indigenous Tourism BC's wonderfully informative website and the culturally-rich wildlife experiences on offer. You will discover travel ideas and resources to plan your next soul-powered adventure. To learn more about British Columbia's Great Bears and the continuing legacy of First Nation stewardship, visit: 

Indigenous Tourism BC:

Great Bear Lodge has been offering tours to view the majestic animals of the Pacific Northwest. They keep both the guests and the animals' comfort and protection in mind. I highly recommend their hospitality and expertise. To see their offerings, visit: