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Journey of the Spirit Bear

Although the Journey of the Spirit Bear is complete, I'm leaving these pages in their original state, to give perspective on the journey as it was planned. To view the outcome of the trek, view the Blog or the Tracking Page. A full trip report and album is coming soon.

In July 2009, Mike MacFerrin, Cory Lindsay and Karl Schmitt will venture into the heart of the most intact and remote temperate rainforests on earth. The nothern coast of British Columbia encompasses 7,700 square miles of labyrinthine fjords and ancient woods known collectively as the "Great Bear Rainforest". Princess Royal Island, at 869 square miles, is the largest island on BC's northern coast, and among the most remote and rugged on earth. The island has no permanent residents, no maintained roads, no trails, and some of the thickest, most biologically productive coastal rainforests on the planet. Few people visit Princess Royal, and those who do rarely venture far from shore. For three weeks, the Journey of the Spirit Bear will cross the trackless interior of Princess Royal Island, traversing routes that have rarely been seen by humans. Entirely self-supported, traveling by foot and packraft, the team will likely not encounter another human until reaching the Village of Klemtu three weeks later (on Swindle Island to the south).

The following provides a good introduction to the journey, and the magnitude of the task at hand:

Spirit Bear with Cub Although the island is uninhabited, its residents are famous. Princess Royal and nearby islands are home of the legendary Kermode (or "Spirit") Bear, a genetically unique strain of black bear with all-white (or yellow) fur. They are found nowhere else on earth, and only a few hundred are estimated to exist. Approximately one in ten black bears on Princess Royal have this stark trait... a reminder of a land once blanketed by glaciers. The Spirit Bear shares these coastal rainforests with a rich web of life: unique populations of coastal black wolves, grizzly bears, black bears, wolverines, mosquitoes (the alpha predator of any rainforest), deer, otters, beavers, eagles, falcons, and rivers teeming with the migrations of salmon during fall spawns. The fjords surrounding Princess Royal churn with whales, dolphins, otters and sea lions. Traces of Tsimshiam tribes, who once lived on the shores of Princess Royal, have all but vanished. Butedale, a former mill town on the northeast shore, has been abandoned for nearly 40 years; its buildings lay crumbling on wet rocks. The fringe valleys of Princess Royal have been scarred by industrial logging, but the deep interior of the island lays untouched and largely unexplored. Quite simply, it's a land forgotton by man.

The GOALS of the trek are simple:

    Spirit Bear Journey
  • Cross Princess Royal Island entirely self-supported. It's a feat rarely accomplished. From the time we depart in the middle of Whale Channel until we step into the native village of Klemtu on nearby Swindle Island, the team is reliant only upon their skills and determination to survive. There will be little chance of passing other travelers on the island.

  • Document what's there. Speed is not the goal. Bushwhacking deep into untraveled old-growth valleys will give the team a truly unique view of a land few have ever known in such depth. They will rely upon patience and photography to tell the story to those who cannot undergo such a journey for themselves.

  • Make the case for preservation. Select segments of the Great Bear Rainforest have been set aside with limited restrictions to logging and resource extraction. Most have not. Teaming up with ecologists and preservation teams intimately familiar with the Great Bear Rainforest, the Spirit Bear team hopes to shed some light on this truly unique ecosystem. Read The Reason For the Journey for more about the threats to the Great Bear Rainforest, and why we feel a small team of trekkers actually can make a difference.

The CHALLENGES of the trip are more involved. Here's a bit of what the Spirit Bear Team is up against:

Temperate Rainforest

  • Untrailed wilderness. The old-growth woods of a temperate rainforest hold double the biomass of their tropical rainforest counterparts. Anyone who's spent time traveling away from trails in such terrain knows the challenges that entails. Over the course of three weeks, the Spirit Bear Team will lose a lot of skin and test their gear like a tissue in a blender. It is impossible to say where we'll camp until we get there. Navigation through such terrain is equal parts art and grit.

  • Weeks without resupply. The gear for such a journey focuses upon lightweight options with a preference for durable, time-tested designs. We cannot skimp on calories on such a trip, and three weeks of food adds up quickly in any pack. Loads will be heavy, and the terrain will be fierce. We must choose our routes carefully to avoid unnecessary risk of injuries.

  • Amphibious travel. When originally planning this trip, an experienced local trekker with good intentions once told me "As it stands right now, the only attempts to cross PRI are pure legend. It's not a backpacking trip." He was right. The entire geography of Princess Royal island is cleaved with impassable ridges, extended lakes and deep fjords, making a purely overland trip unfeasible over any large distance. Those traveling by boat (kayakers, canoeists) can get marginally further, but routes are limited to a selection of lakes & inlets accessible only from the ocean or by short portages. To traverse the most remote areas on the interior of Princess Royal Island, the Spirit Bear Team must rely upon rafts made from extremely durable lightweight materials... small enough to fit in a backpack, tough enough to handle a rainforest. Such gear has only become available in recent years, making our route a truly unique and untried experience.

  • Wildlife. Nature needn't be scary to the prepared, but no matter how much time you spend in the woods, it's fascinating to realize that--on that island--the bears outnumber you 1000 to 1. Sleeping in the backyard of brown bears, black bears, wolves, mountain lions, wolverines, killer whales and mosquitoes, the team is lucky to remain in the top 10 of the food chain. Securing food will be a vital consideration on such a journey... losing all our sustenance on day 3 of 21 would be a devastating setback.


N. Scott Momaday


The Journey of the Spirit Bear is proud to have the support of its sponsors. All the journey's sponsors can be found in the Gear Section:

Spirit Bear photos provided with permission by KlemtuTourism.com