• Photo: Kevin J. Smith/Maple Leaf Adventures

MIST HANGS OVER MOSS-SHROUDED old growth where eagles perch, their enormous nests strewn with bones like ogres’ dens. Shiny harbour seals bob up from the water, staring curiously at us, their faces like Labrador pups. Dead salmon, having recently spawned, are draped over rocks like silver stoles, slung from river-nudging branches like laundry or floating belly-up downstream, their mission accomplished.

“Sex and death,” says the first mate on the Maple Leaf, the 92-foot schooner that has taken me and eight other passengers on a nine-day journey into one of the last great wildernesses, a remote expanse of British Columbia coastline that stretches all the way to Alaska. “Better than HBO.”

Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic

It is spawning season in the Great Bear Rainforest, an archipelago of thousands of islands and webbed fiords roughly the size of Lake Ontario. Known only, in the poetry of industrial discourse, as the Mid-Coast Timber Supply Area until environmentalists brought it to international attention in the 1990s, the Great Bear is the world’s largest intact coastal temperate rain forest, one of the last inhabitable regions of the planet that, on satellite images, still turns black at night.

Our journey had begun in the coastal First Nations fishing village of Bella Bella. The sun had just broken through the roiling clouds when Kevin Smith, the red-bearded owner of Maple Leaf Adventures and captain of the Maple Leaf — British Columbia’s oldest tall ship — greeted us on the dock. The Gore-Tex-clad passengers who clambered up and over the mahogany railing were all adventurous professionals, Canadian and American, nearly unanimous in their mission: to glimpse the most famous resident of this rain forest — the white kermode, or spirit bear. “It’s the rarest bear on the planet,” said Smith, a former park ranger and geographer — rarer than China’s panda bears. And it’s famously elusive.

Striking out into the wilderness, I inhaled air filtered by millions of conifers — 1,000-year-old red cedar, western hemlock, Sitka spruce. A humpback whale raced along the coastline, thumping its enormous tail. Four caramel-coloured sea lions cavorted in the waters near shore. That night, a storm hit, lashing our vessel. Secure in my bunk in the wheelhouse, I dreamt of looking for a place I could not find. As dawn forced its way through the morning mist, I awoke to discover that we had anchored in a protected bay next to the rusted hull of a century-old shipwreck. A reminder that for every island we pass, more lurk just below the surface.

AFTER BREAKFAST, primed with steaming mugs of fair-trade organic coffee, we board two inflatable Zodiacs and zip into Mussel Inlet, where we immediately see signs of what our onboard naturalist, Alison Watt, calls the “divine, spectacularly mortal salmon,” a line from Canadian poet Don McKay. In Bella Bella, the fishing boats sit idle, hard hit by the decline in salmon stocks. Out here, where the unruly Pacific laps up against the mouths of rivers, some of these spectacularly mortal beings still live out their primordial drama, growing snouts and fangs in a Jekyll-to-Hyde transformation as they fight their way to a redemptive death.

This place, explains Watt, should really be called the Great Salmon Rainforest. Salmon are the foundational species that supports bears, wolves, minks, eagles, ravens, all the way down to what she calls the “non-charismatic microfauna,” a sly comment that exposes how obsessed we humans are with the big and beautiful animals when the tiny and ignored are just as essential. None matter more, though, than the salmon that have journeyed to spawn and then die in the rivers where they were born. Carried deep into the woods by all manner of creatures, their bodies fertilize the soil with nitrogen, creating growth bursts in trees, which in turn protect the rivers and the salmon from runoff.

One snouted beast on the river’s edge has had his juicy eye plucked out by an eagle or a raven or one of the thousands of dovelike mew gulls that breed in Alaska and pause here on their migration south. Others, half gutted, indicate the presence of bears.

As we trudge through the sedges in rain gear, a black grizzly rears up from the shoreline, its cavernous mouth chewing silverweed root, its back a great muscular hump. A ways off, a tawny-coloured grizzly mother and her nearly weaned cub are sharing a salmon.

As wilderness disappears, so do the grizzlies, but that is not the only risk to their survival. In a month or two, says our captain, bear viewing will turn to the licensed bear hunt. This grizzly mother and cub, part of a declining population that has already disappeared from 99 percent of its habitat in the United States and most of southern British Columbia, will be seen through a rifle scope rather than a camera lens.

For now, they barrel awkwardly into the water for a fresh catch.

THERE ARE SALMON ENOUGH for us too: wild coho, line-caught in these waters, prepared by our excellent chef. At night, we dine below deck, wedged around a mahogany table, sharing Okanagan Pinot Blanc, organic Argentine red and any words we know for rain. Books on seafaring, First Nations mythology and the region’s flora and fauna fill the built-in shelves around us. Above, a skylight opens onto the deck.

Our conversations drift invariably toward the world’s problems, issues forced upon us by the immediacy of a wilderness that has become, to most of humanity, something ancient, mythic, falling away, recalled mainly through the prism of Saturday-afternoon nature documentaries (Japanese and BBC film crews are in the area). Sandy, an epidemiologist and amateur photographer from Toronto, decided to take her vacation in the rain forest because of a “fear that this is disappearing.” Though I grew up next to the second- and third-growth woodlands of southern British Columbia, I was unaware that there are still places like this, where hundreds of dolphins race our ship over the course of half an hour one morning, leaping and diving like synchronized swimmers. It occurs to me that I have become an urbanite, as transformed in my vision of the world as the world itself has been transformed by my culture’s vision for it.

We are about as far off the grid as is possible in the modern world. Our only bathing takes place at natural hot springs, our only communication is with the creatures we encounter, and every attempt is made to minimize our impact on a place threatened from all sides by the reality from which we’ve come: logging, mining, big-game sport hunting, salmon farming and mounting pressure to permit oil and gas exploration, as well as rising tanker traffic as the North melts. Even with a groundbreaking 2006 agreement between conservation groups, industry, First Nations, local communities and government, less than 30 percent of the Great Bear Rainforest is protected, and even that is open to hunting.

This is naturalist Watt’s fourth trip to the rain forest, and she has yet to see a spirit bear. Even if we don’t, she has already begun to chronicle some of the dozens of other species we see on our excursions into one of the most biologically productive forests left on Earth. In a mist-covered estuary one morning, we count 100 eagles perched like sentinels on the tops of ancient trees. Rounding a bend in the river, we come upon a lone white swan. That afternoon, two Dall’s porpoises — the world’s second fastest-swimming mammal (after the blue whale) — chase the ship below my perch on the bowsprit. Reaching down, I can almost touch their silvery skin.

MARVIN ROBINSON, a 39-year-old Gitga’at from Hartley Bay, is the resident “bear guy” on Gribble Island, his band’s ancestral territory and one of the only places in the world where spirit bears are found. Originally thought to be albinos, these bears are the product of a double recessive gene, such that local black bears, on occasion, produce startlingly white cubs.

Standing in waterproof rain pants and a baseball cap to address us, Robinson explains the bear-viewing rules. “Stay in a group. Don’t run. Your instincts trigger the bears,” he warns, solemnly scanning the group, “to hunt you.” Point taken.

Walking single file through a forest of alders, we arrive at the creek where the Gitga’at have built viewing platforms designed to safeguard bear feeding patterns. Dozens of pink salmon are jostling one another on their way upstream. “It’s been 10 years since they logged this island,” says Robinson, “and the salmon are just starting to come back.” A ferret-like pine marten tugs a salmon its own size into the woods, while another steals up a dead tree to raid a bird nest.

A black bear emerges from the forest and ambles down to the creek. Pausing to fix us with a glance, it paws up a salmon.

We sit, cameras ready, watching and being watched. Suddenly, another bear appears from the brush 100 metres downstream.

Looking like a polar bear that has taken a wrong turn south, the spirit bear wades into the creek. I look at Jo, a veteran police officer from Ottawa. She has tears in her eyes.

The bear pauses to sniff the air. “He smells some hairless twolegs,” whispers Captain Smith.

For the next hour, the world’s rarest bear sorts through the salmon buffet spread upon the creekside in search of caviar, casually ducking its head beneath the waters to better see the parade yet to spawn.

Back at his boat, Robinson describes the many threats to the spirit bear’s survival. Though it’s illegal to hunt the white bear, it’s perfectly legal to hunt its sisters and brothers, and “any black bear shot on this island is probably taking a recessive gene for a white bear.” Rumours have been circulating that a kermode was shot. If so, Robinson thinks a suitable punishment can be found in the ancient aboriginal tradition of burying a slave in the ground beneath a new totem pole. As he speaks, a barge carrying a forest’s worth of logs passes through the waters behind him.

THE FIRST NATIONS VILLAGE of Klemtu was a fishing community until the salmon downturn several years ago. There, we meet Francis Robinson, a 70-year-old elder of the 400 Kitasoo/Xai’xais peoples who live in Klemtu (half of whom are Robinsons). Maple Leaf Adventures and a couple of other small-scale ecotour operators have signed protocol agreements with Klemtu, paying to be in its territorial waters (the funds sponsor a watchman program to halt bear poaching) and inviting the Kitasoo/Xai’xais to communicate and interpret their culture to guests. It’s part of a drive to change the local economy from resource extraction to conservation while honouring local traditions.

At his village’s stunning new cedar longhouse, its magnificent totem poles standing sentry, Robinson relates the story of the spirit bear. It was the raven who created the world, he says. When he created the bears, he made one in every 10 white in order to remind the world of the ice age. Shortly after the longhouse was built in 2002, says Robinson, a spirit bear swam over to it. “Our chief was not surprised. He said it was just one of our relatives coming to visit.”

Walking back to the Maple Leaf, accompanied by a stray dog that looks half wolf, we pass a boat delivering a load of farmed salmon to the Klemtu processing plant. The longhouse, the most spectacular in the Great Bear Rainforest, was financed by donations from fish farms and other organizations. “Human industry is the largest-scale experiment we’ve ever done,” says Smith. “Protected areas are our only controls. They will be our blueprints for future generations to put the world back together again.” At the mouth of the river, I see a wild chum leaping high into the air.