We are four days into a cruise through the fjords, bays and sea channels of the Great Bear Rainforest and nobody aboard the tall ship, Maple Leaf, has seen what they really came for.
The Victoria-based adventure yacht, skippered by owner Kevin Smith, has drifted beside humpback whales, slipped into sheltered coves to let us scramble up salmon streams, dropped anchor off beaches laced with wolf tracks and launched Zodiacs to put us so close to sea lions that we choke on their pungent stink. Thousands of kilograms of fish processed through tonnes of sea mammal does not have a pleasant odour. You will have to trust me on this, or you could ask the woman from Alberta who, with remarkable dignity, has just barfed over the side as the inflatable boat lifts and falls on a Pacific swell.
Yes, we have seen a lot, halfway through our cruise along the fabled Central Coast of British Columbia, north of Vancouver Island and south of the Alaska Panhandle, which has become world famous for its wildlife and its vast swath of temperate rain forest. It is here that film crews from the BBC, National Geographic and others come when they want to capture dramatic images of the great bears of the Pacific Northwest.
But despite the impressive array of binoculars that the nine passengers have been using to sweep the darkly forested shoreline, and despite the hours we have spent watching pink salmon thrash about on their spawning beds, we have not yet caught sight of a single bear.
We have not seen any grizzlies, nor any common black bears. And we have definitely not seen Ursus americanus kermodei, the rare subspecies of black bear with a recessive gene that gives it a coat as white as a polar bear's.
As the Maple Leaf pulled out of Bella Bella on the first day of the cruise, Smith asked his guests – three from Canada, two from the United States, two from Australia and two from Curaçao – what they most wanted to see.
All had come to experience deep nature in the 6.4-million hectare wilderness of the Great Bear Rainforest, a largely road-less tract of forest that sweeps up B.C.'s mainland coast. But everyone also really wanted to see bears – especially the white Kermode. For reasons not understood, about one in 10 of the area's black bears are born with white fur, a trait that emerges only when both parents have the recessive gene. About 400 Spirit Bears, as they are also called, are thought to inhabit the region – the only place in the world where they are found. It is believed that the population is stable, but it is also small. Some researchers estimate there could be as few as 100, or as many as 500, but no one seems to have hard numbers. One thing is sure – they are elusive.
Smith did not promise that we would see Spirit Bears. But he did say that in 11 years at the helm of Maple Leaf Adventures he had never failed to find bears of one colour or another. Of course, he added, they are wild, unpredictable animals and we might not be lucky.
As we sailed into the rain forest, we saw the fins of blue sharks cutting the tranquil surface, we saw Dall's porpoises, which played under the bowsprit, we saw seals, sea lions, eagles and flocks of seabirds. And high on a boggy mountainside, on one of our frequent shore excursions, we heard a pack of wolves howling in the forest below.
But bears remained elusive.
One day on a walk we found some scat.
"Well, we are definitely getting closer," passenger Bob Douat said with a thick, Texas drawl as he peered at the droppings.
Every day aboard the Maple Leaf, a meticulously maintained 108-year-old schooner, was an adventure. And nights were too, with most passengers sleeping in a common cabin, bunks separated by curtains, waiting their turns to use two small washrooms.
"Did you know about the sleeping arrangements?" asked a surprised Jan Bink, a retired Dutch businessman who, with his partner, Antje, has explored the world from their home on Curaçao. "I have friends who would have walked away when they saw those small quarters."
He was glad he had not. The shared quarters only added to the spirit of camaraderie and adventure. We were definitely in this together, although two women did retreat to sleep separately in the ship's wheelhouse.
As Smith navigated north he provided commentary on the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines project, which would bring Alberta oil sands bitumen to the B.C. port of Kitimat to be loaded onto huge tankers. The project, now the subject of a review by a federal government panel, is controversial because it would generate a dramatic increase in oil-tanker traffic through the narrow inlets on the Central Coast. First Nations and environmental groups are aligned against it, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said opening an energy corridor to the West Coast is of national importance.
Not in Smith's opinion. Based on his years of experience sailing the West Coast, he believes the risk of an oil spill in these sensitive waters is just too high. "These are dangerous waters," he said, showing on a chart how we had thread past hidden reefs. "Can you imagine a tanker making a 90-degree turn here? It is just madness."
While his main concern is the damage that would be done if a tanker spilled oil here, he and others also worry that an increase in shipping traffic would harm the large whale population. When we encountered a group of humpback whales, Smith threw a hydrophone over the side. It was so sensitive you could hear raindrops on the sea surface and the eerie calls of whales echoing far below. Later, the hydrophone went over when a tug was passing in the distance, and a mechanical roar replaced the spiritual song of the whales. The point was made: Whale song and tanker traffic won't be a good mix.
One night we went ashore under a full moon to bathe in thermal hot springs sheltered by a wooden hut. Fishing-net floats, lit by flickering candle lanterns, hung from the ceiling.
All of this was magical and beautiful – but by the evening of the fourth day tensions were building.
"We want a bear," Jan said bluntly at dinner when the captain came to give us the next day's travel plan.
Smith took a deep breath and smiled. "Don't worry," he said. But we did, even though the next day we were to meet a special bear guide from the Gitga'at community of Hartley Bay.
In the morning, Chris Stewart, 24, jumped off a small power boat and ran up the forest path to greet us. He was dressed in brown neoprene chest waders, Nike shoes rather than wading boots and a designer ball cap turned back on his head. He assured us we had come to the right place, at the right time, and led us to a small platform perched over a stream. Salmon sloshed in the shallows.
"The bears feed day and night," Stewart said. "They only leave to nap, but sometimes they nap for six hours."
We settled in for a long wait. But within an hour a small black bear came out of the forest, its head swinging from side to side. It pulled a fish from the water and delicately ate the brains and eggs.
After the black bear wandered off, Stewart told us he is still hoping for a Spirit Bear. When he was younger, he said, his grandfather warned him never to tell anyone where he had seen a white bear, for fear hunters might shoot it. Now bear hunting is banned throughout most of the rain forest – and native guides happily lead tourists to the animals they once were afraid to talk about.
As Stewart talked about the reverence his people have for the white bears, Bob suddenly interrupted with an exhaled whisper: "Spirit Bear!"
Just upstream was the fabled Kermode. We gasped as the white bear delicately stepped from stone to stone, perching like a circus bear on a high rock, before lumbering into the stream to drag out a salmon. It came so close we could see blood stains on its cheek.
Bears are bears. But the incongruent beauty of the Spirit Bear is breathtaking. When a huge black bear emerged from the forest downstream, it was almost ignored. There is no doubt who is the star of the Great Bear Rainforest.
After the Kermode moved off people put down their cameras and smiled at each other in amazement.
"You have just witnessed the rarest bear on Earth," Smith said. This comment gets him high fives from some of his guests.
After that, things got a little ridiculous. Black bears seemed to be wandering out of the woods all over the place – eight in total – and the Spirit Bear returned.
"It just doesn't get any better," Smith said. "I know I'm supposed to be, 'Oh, it's always like this.' But it just isn't. So how are you guys feeling now?"
"Beautiful," replied Kathy Little, who with her partner, Doug Spencer, had travelled all the way from Australia for such a day.
"In Holland, if something is the very best, we say it's top," Jan said, noting it down in his diary. "Spirit Bear. It's very rare to see. It's top!"
A day later the Maple Leaf pulled into the estuary of the Mussel River, under a giant, granite cliff flecked with white mountain goats. On the flats beside the river, a mother grizzly was teaching her two cubs how to scavenge salmon carcasses.
We went ashore, huddled together for safety. The rain beat down, but nobody seemed to notice. Black bears and grizzlies were all around us, upstream and down, on both sides of the river. They showed no signs of aggression or fear. Terns wheeled in a feeding frenzy over the water, eagles glowered down from riverside perches and salmon swam and died in the shallows. It was primal, astounding and profoundly moving.
When we left, the bears didn't even look up.
IF YOU GO
Most nature cruises in the Great Bear Rainforest leave from Bella Bella, a small town on B.C.'s Central Coast.
Bella Bella can be reached by a two-hour flight from Vancouver with Pacific Coastal Airlines, or by a seven-hour boat ride with BC Ferries, departing from Port Hardy on Vancouver Island.
Maple Leaf Adventures 2013 and 2014 trips run from April through October, and range from $2,630 a person to $5,870 plus tax. Prices include all accommodations, cruising, shore trips, wildlife guiding, meals, beverages (including wine and beer), and use of gear including kayaks. For sailing dates and information visit mapleleafadventures.com or call 1-888-599-5323.
Other small ships offering sailings include: Bella Coola Yacht Charters (sailbellacoola.com), Ocean Adventures (oceanadventures.bc.ca), Bluewater Adventures (bluewateradventures.ca) and Mothership Adventures (mothershipadventures.com).
Mark Hume is a Vancouver-based national correspondent for The Globe and Mail who often writes about B.C. environmental issues. He travelled courtesy of Maple Leaf Adventures. The company did not review or approve this article.