Kermode or Spirit Bears (Ursus americanus kermodei) is a subspecies of the North American black bear. They live in the central and north coast of British Columbia, Canada. Approximately 1/10th of the population has white or cream-coloured coats. This colouring is due to recessive alleles. They are not albinos and are no more related to polar bears or the ‘blonde’ brown bears of Alaska than other members of their species. It is estimated that there are around 400 individuals that it is said to owe their survival to the protection given to them by the First Nations who have never hunted them and never spoke of them to fur trappers.
We stayed at the Spirit Bear Lodge in September 2013. The lodge is located in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, BC, Canada, in the community of Klemtu the home of the Kitasoo people on Swindle Island. The Lodge is a community-based ecotourism venture owned and operated by the Kitasoo / Xaixais First Nation.
The ancient Great Bear Rainforest is one of the largest tracts of temperate rainforest left in the world (2 million hectares), and is home to thousands of species of plants, birds and animals. In this forest stand 1,000-year-old cedar trees and 90-metre tall Sitka spruce trees. Rich salmon streams weave through valley bottoms that provide food for magnificent creatures such as orcas, humpback whales, eagles, coastal wolves, black bears, brown (grizzly) bears, and the rare Kermode (Spirit) bear.
The community can be accessed via float plane, BC ferry (limited weekly service) or via arranged transportation provided by the lodge. We arranged our stay and transportation to the lodge via the manager of Spirit Bear Lodge and flew from Vancouver to Bella Bella and then onwards via a boat ride to Klemtu.
The lodge offers packages that include all transportation from and back to Vancouver, a one night board only stay in Shearwater (a short water taxi ride from Bella Bella) and full board basis stay at the Spirit Bear Lodge (SBL). The standard packages on offer start from a minimum of 3 nights up to 7 nights, all include one night at Shearwater (so a 3 night package includes 2 nights at the Spirit Bear Lodge). We did the SBL 6 package.
We started our adventure with a flight from Vancouver with Pacific Coastal Airlines; the flight stopped briefly to drop off & collect new passengers and refuel at Port Hardy and then flew on to Bella Bella. The total flight time was approximately 2 hours (including the stop). It was an overcast day but we could still see the beauty of the islands and coastline.
Once at Bella Bella we were transferred via a mini-van provided by star taxis (transfer cost included in SBL package) which took us the 5 minute ride to the water taxi dock. We had just missed the hourly taxi by 15 minutes, so we had to wait 45 minutes for the next one. The water taxi dock had a roof, but on a cool day you certainly need your layers to keep you warm while you wait.
The cost of the 25 minute water taxi ride was again included in the SBL package and we were taken to the Shearwater Resort for our one night stay. Upon check-in to the Fishermens Inn we were momentarily horrified to find that we had adjoining facilities with the room next to us, however, it was confirmed that these rooms were not occupied and that the facilities were private for all SBL guests.
The room was small and had one queen bed with a separate shower room & toilet and a sink in the bedroom itself. It was clean, tidy and basic, perfectly fine for a one night stay.
The community of Shearwater has one restaurant the Fishermen’s Bar & Grill, fortunately is had an extensive menu and provided hearty portions of reasonable quality food at a reasonable price. We had our dinner & breakfast here (not included in the SBL package).
After breakfast, at 8.00am, our boat transfer to Klemtu arrived and we boarded it for our two hour ride. It was a slightly choppy journey, so depending on the weather the ride can be as short as 90 minutes or a lot longer if the captain needs to slow down for swells or take a route that is less direct. It was pouring with rain during our journey and our bags were outside the cabin, vaguely under a tarpaulin.
We arrived at the SBL shortly after 11am and were given a traditional First Nation welcome, asked to sign a waiver form, given a souvenir drinking thermos mug and received a welcome talk. We were given 30 minutes to get ourselves ready, grab some sandwiches to take out with us and grab ourselves some waterproofs and boots.
This was when I found that our luggage had gotten very wet during the boat ride and we had to use our 30 minutes to empty our bags and hang the majority of our clothes out to dry them. The head housekeeper did offer to tumble dry them for us while we were out that afternoon, but we decided it would be better to allow them to dry naturally. Fortunately all our camera gear, laptop etc were in our hand luggage which was inside the cabin with us! I recommend that you put items that you don’t want to get wet either in your hand luggage or bag them in large zip-lock bags or dry bags… this way should it be raining on your boat journey you will avoid this problem.
The accommodations were really nice and far from basic, each room had private facilities with a shower over a bath, there was always a good supply of hot water and you also had a good quality hairdryer! The king sized bed was really comfortable and the room was large enough to spread out our gear and still have lots of space around it. All rooms face the water, so there are no ‘bad’ views. The main dining area has large windows facing out to the water and meals morning and evening meals were eaten at the large tables, which allowed us to chat with our new found friends easily.
Be aware that it can rain a lot in the Great Bear Rainforest (the clue is in the name ‘rain’ forest). On the previous few weeks to our arrival the region had been suffering from a drought and had not had very much rain, clear sunny days can make for beautiful pictures… but to see the bears you need rain to fill the streams to make the salmon ‘run’. The salmon attracts the bears from the berries into the open where we can then see them… so although rainy days sound bad they are actually very good for bear viewing.
The SBL provide waterproofs and boots so that you don’t have to get your own kit dirty or damaged. They had all sorts of sizes… I have very small feet (UK size 2) so I took my own boots, but if you have average size feet they should have a pair to fit you. I used their waterproofs over my own to give me extra layers, and with all the bear trail hiking and sitting in the wet, I’m glad I did. I only got wet once and that was when the water levels went over my boots and I lifted my leg to get into a Zodiac boat, the water ran back along my leg to my backside!
On the first afternoon we went out to the only platform viewing area in the Kitasoo / Xaixais First Nation territory. This platform was constructed in 2012 to protect the trail that was being slowly damaged by the numbers of visitors using it. I believe it was a good spirit bear viewing site during the 2012 season and this is why it had more than the usual number of visitors. You can read about what this day brought in our full trip report here.
That evening we returned to the lodge just after 6pm, which was roughly the time we returned to the lodge most evenings. This gave a very short window to change/freshen up for dinner… it was always go go go from dawn to dusk!
Breakfast & dinners were provided buffet style with starters for dinner served at 6:30pm and main dinner at 7pm. All meals, snacks, beer, wine and soft drinks are included in the package. Breakfast was served at 6.45am and lunch was made to order sandwiches or wraps (you filled in a request sheet the day before for the next day’s lunch) be warned you have to carry your lunch in your own backpack, so the more you request the more you have to carry!
Each day started with breakfast and then out in the boats by 8am for a full day out until the return to the lodge late afternoon. There were no toilet facilities on any of the boats and comfort breaks had to be taken over the side of the boat or behind a rock or tree whilst on land.
A decisions on the day’s activities were normally made the previous night with the lodge manager, he would talk through the next day’s suggested options, but as most people wanted to see bears and only bears, the main focus for each day’s trip was to find either grizzly or black bears.
The 2013 bear viewing season had been one of the toughest up and down the Great Bear Rainforest coast, this was thought to be due to the dry summer and the plentiful berry crops. The bears hadn’t yet decided to start the salmon eating frenzy. Bear sightings had required harder ‘work’ involving trail hiking… we certainly had to work much harder for our bear viewing sightings at SBL than any other place we had seen bears!
Each day’s trips sort to maximise our bear viewing opportunities whilst balancing the protection of their environment. Two or three groups would set off in different directions to look for the bears. It gave the experience an exploratory feel as there was never any certainty that you would see a bear. This made the viewings we did achieve much more rewarding, helped us better appreciate the environment they live in and how easy it is for them to stay hidden from us!
On our next two full days we visited locations where there was a chance to see black and grizzly bears. We were fortunate enough to see two grizzly bears and coastal wolves at these sites and you can read more about these days here and here.
On our third full day we were given our best chance at seeing a Kermode bear. There hadn’t been any confirmed sightings of the white bear in the Kitasoo / Xaixais First Nation territory for the last couple of weeks. The Kitasoo / Xaixais have a reciprocal arrangement with their neighbours, Gitga’at, to enter each other’s territories. The Giga’at does not have grizzly bears on their islands but as a result they have a higher density of Kermode bears. There had been regular sightings of two white bears and we spent our third full day here in the hope of being privileged enough to see one.
When that magical moment came it was incredibly emotional… in our research before we committed to this trip we knew there was every chance that we would not see a white bear. We had read many reviews on trip advisor, blogs and articles where people had not been fortunate enough to see one, so we knew how lucky we were. Not only was there a white bear before us, the rain had stopped and the sun came out, we were very blessed indeed! You can read more about this day, which also rewarded us with seeing two black Kermode bears up close too, here.
Along with the bear sightings there are opportunities to experience the ancient culture of the Kitasoo / Xaixais First Nation people you are given an opportunity to visit the community’s ‘Big House’ and listen to the stories of the people. Also, if your stay at the lodge is long enough you can visit some cultural sites to see petroglyphs and pictographs.
Is Spirit Bear Lodge right for you?
The staff were some of the kindest, friendliest, most attentive group of people we have had the pleasure of being guests of. We felt as though we were part of their family throughout our stay (of course without the arguments and no chores ;))
The guides were knowledgeable and clearly passionate about the environment and the animals.
If you are interested in seeing black & grizzly bears there are much less costly and more accessible places to view them, places that can practically (depending on the time of year) guarantee you sightings. However, if you want a chance to see the elusive Kermode white bear then we whole heartedly recommend this lodge.
Spirit Bear Lodge website: http://www.spiritbear.com/
Viewing from: Mostly on foot, but also in boats & platforms
Group size: 6 to 12
Time Viewing: All day
Clothing provided: Waterproofs & boots
Best time of year: September/early October
Other wildlife: Humpback whales, Orcas, wolves