Land of the Spirit Bear
From Cape Caution to Hartley Bay stretches one of the planet’s last great wild places: the Great Bear Rainforest. Here, fjords snake through mountains that rise from the sea, waterfalls cascading down their shoulders. To the west, thousands of islands break the Pacific’s swell, and create protected channels that run through the world’s largest expanse of coastal temperate rainforest.
Healthy, wild populations of grizzly bears, coastal wolves, black bears and the rare white spirit bear have lived here, with humans, for millennia. In the ocean, baleen and toothed whales as well as millions of seabirds feed on the abundant fish and krill in the cold, green coastal sea.
This is a rugged and beautiful place. It is also a place where humans have thrived for a thousand generations. Coastal culture of the present is rooted in ancient lineages, and in many communities you can learn about it. Though few and far between, small coastal communities dot the map from south to north.
A place for explorers
As you round Cape Caution, you enter a less-travelled world, with only scattered human settlements and marine lodges. Before you stretch long, protected channels, dozens of fjords, hundreds of uninhabited islands, the occasional coastal community and the realm of the mysterious spirit bear. You will frequently feel as if you are the only boat for hundreds of miles.
Most explorers in the Great Bear choose to visit a mix of the fjords, the outer islands, and the few settlements. Below we list the regions of the Great Bear Rainforest that you may choose to explore. There are many protected areas in the region. Please visit our BC Marine Parks link for information on protected areas.
Perhaps the best way to explore this region is via an Adventure Tour Charter. A charter will introduce you to the ecology, inhabitants and the navigational challenges of very remote places.
Routes and Regions
If you start your trip in southern BC, you need to allow a couple of weeks’ travel north to reach Cape Caution, then round it to enter this region. Depending on the size of your boat, each region will require over a week, minimum, to explore, likely several weeks.
Cape Caution, Outer Islands and Hakai Recreation Area
This is the wild west coast. Here you can pick your way between reefs to find a spectacular sandy beach all to yourself. In settled weather, you can explore from island to island. Check the kelp beds for the rare sea otter, which is recolonizing the area.
If you feel like a little civilization along with your sandy beach, pull into Pruth Bay on Calvert Island. Its protected anchorage ends at the Hakai Research Institute’s dock, from which you can walk a well-marked path through the forest to a beach where surf crashes. At the end of the beach is a well-marked hiking trail that leads to a viewpoint or to another beach.
Heading north up Fitzhugh Sound, expect to view at least one humpback whale. On a good day, dozens.
Burke Channel, North Bentnick Arm and Bella Coola
Northeast of Fitzhugh Sound, a long channel cuts east into the mountains. At the end of the channel is the Nuxalk community of Bella Coola. If you are heading north from Cape Caution, this may be the first fjord you explore. Along the way to Bella Coola, you may encounter whales and dolphins, see bears in the estuaries, soak in a natural hot spring on the edge of a meadow, and visit an amazing historical artefact: In 1793, Alexander MacKenzie crossed what was then called Rupertsland and reached the Pacific Ocean here. He left his name carved In a rock above the sea. At Bella Coola there are many services for boaters at the marina, as well as guided wildlife and fishing day-trips from town.
Bella Bella, Fjordland, Klemtu
Bella Bella, a town of 1,000, on Campbell Island, is the regional centre of the Heiltsuk First Nation. There are a few services in town, water and fuel at the government dock, and more services, including moorage, in neighbouring Shearwater (on Denny Island). From here, you can strike out toward the spectacular Fjordland region, where granite mountains rise along each side of narrow channels. Waterfalls are many here but anchorages are few, so plan carefully. Southwest of Fjordland is the Kitasoo-XaiXais village of Klemtu. There are services and water here and this welcoming village has a spectacular big-house, with carved house poles, a painted screen, and fire pit. Inquire at the tourism dock about hiring a local guide for a tour of the big-house. It is well worth it.
Princess Royal Channel, Bishop Bay Hot Springs, Hartley Bay and Whale Channel
This waterway is part of the main inside passage route. Much of the time, its western shore is Princess Royal Island, famous for its spirit bears. The spirit bear is a rare white variety of the black bear. In this region of the Great Bear Rainforest, anywhere from 1 in 50 to 1 in 10 bears may be a creamy white colour. Occasionally one is spotted on the mainland side, but most are seen on the islands, where they have less competition from the larger grizzly bears. Watch the shoreline and creek mouths for bears.
There are several anchorages in inlets along this route with spectacular vista of snow-capped mountains with forested flanks that fall to creeks, meadows or mudflats and then to the sea. Anchoring here is tricky. Just north of Princess Royal, up Ursula Channel, is a tiny park that demarks a natural hot spring called Bishop Bay. West of Bishop Bay is the welcoming community of Hartley Bay. There are water and services here. For a fee, you can hire a bear guide to take you on a day trip in the region.
Main image at top of page: Spirit Bear with breakfast, credit Spirit Bear Lodge