Princess Royal Island is located amongst the isolated inlets and islands of Canada’s forgotten coast, in the heart of the world famous Great Bear Rainforest. This is an extremely remote area of British Columbia, 520 kilometers north of Vancouver and 200 kilometers south of Prince Rupert, accessible only by boat or air. Aside from the Tsimshiam, who once inhabited a coastal village on the island but now no longer live here, almost no people have entered the inland rainforest of Princess Royal Island.
Princess Royal Island is best known as being home to the legendary white Kermode Bear, Spirit Bear of the North Coast of British Columbia. These magnificent bears are not found anywhere else in the entire world.
The Kermode bear (Ursus americanus “kermodei”) is a beautiful white bear that is only found in the rain forests of the north coast of British Columbia. The Kermode bear is not an albino, nor is it a polar bear, but rather a pale colour form of the black bear. There is a unique double recessive gene required by both parents in order to produce a white bear. While black bears are predominantly black, they also come in shades of brown, blonde, cinnamon, auburn, smoky grey, and white. Black bears may have offspring and siblings of varying colours.
The Kermode Bear was named in the early 1900s in honour of Francis Kermode, a zoologist with the British Columbia Provincial Museum at the time, who conducted the first studies into the origins of the white bear. First Nation legend states that their creator, the Raven, created the white bear as a reminder of the last ice age, and decreed that these bears would live in peace and harmony forever. As a result of isolation and being undisturbed for thousands of years, the bears here have no instinctive fear of people. The bears appear quite mellow and gentle toward humans, offering humankind a unique insight into truly wild bears.
Spirit bears are found predominantly on Princess Royal Island, Gribbell Island, and along the shores of Douglas Channel, but the bear’s range extends across an area of approximately 7.2 million hectares, bounded by the communities of Prince Rupert and Stewart to the north, Hazelton to the east, and Terrace, Kitimat, and Bella Coola to the south. Kermode bears have also been spotted as far inland as Liard River Hot Springs.
Hunting of Kermode Bears in B.C. is banned, but because black bears can produce white offspring, there is a strong case for protection of all black bears within the kermode’s known range. While the bears are protected from hunting, there is still no sign of protection of their dwindling habitat from logging. Conservationists are calling for the creation of Spirit Bear Park, an area of pristine rainforests incorporating Princess Royal Island, where about ten percent of the bears are white. The Spirit Bear Wilderness Conservancy Proposal calls for protection of Princess Royal Island, Pooley Island, and the adjacent watersheds, Carter, Green, Yule, Khutze, and the Aaltanhash, which combine to make up the proposed 248,000-hectare wilderness area, the last large area of intact temperate rainforest in the world.
The island has a diverse habitat, ranging from sandy beaches, lowland old-growth rainforest, subalpine parklands, and alpine tundra; all interspersed with fiords, estuaries, and lakes. Princess Royal’s geographical centerpiece is a 60-km long fiord, the Laredo Inlet, which nearly bisects the southern two thirds of the island. This long, protected anchorage offers spectacular scenery and an estuary at the Bay of Plenty. Many of Princess Royal’s salmon spawning streams and lakes drain into Laredo Inlet, providing essential nutrients for the island’s inhabitants. The long shoreline has significant salt marshes, kelp beds, and other habitat for aquatic life.
BC’s coastal temperate rainforests are characterized by some of the oldest and largest trees on earth, the most common of which are Sitka spruce, red cedar, western hemlock, amabilis and Douglas fir. Trees can tower up to 300 feet and grow for more than 1,500 years. The biological abundance of BC’s coastal rainforests are the result of over 10,000 years of evolution, which began when the glaciers of the Pleistocene Epoch melted. These coastal forests have evolved to their biological splendour because natural disturbances, such as fires, happen infrequently, and are usually small in scale.
The rain forest of the central coast of British Columbia is under extreme pressure from logging companies that have set their unscrupulously greedy eyes on these diminishing rain forests, and the centuries-old trees that are so critical to wildlife and the ecosystem of the area. Interfor (Vancouver based International Forest Products) is actively engaged in clearcutting, blasting and road building on Princess Royal Island, as evidenced by aerial photographs taken by Greenpeace in February 2001. This evidence contradicts Interfor’s continued assurance to the public to the contrary. The Raincoast Conservation Society is one of the many organizations working to save this part of British Columbia’s heritage.
There is a scheduled commercial service to Vancouver International Airport, with a flying time of 90 minutes between Prince Rupert and Vancouver. There are float plane, helicopter, ferry and water taxi services between Prince Rupert and most of the smaller communities throughout the region.
Paddlers can disembark from BC Ferries at Klemtu on Swindle Island, the ferry’s most northerly port of call. From Klemtu, it’s possible to paddle to Princess Royal Island, 7.5 km (12 km) farther north. Keep your fingers crossed for a sighting of a white spirit bear, but you’d be very lucky to spot one of these gorgeous blonds. The gaping fjords and inlets around Swindle and Princess Royal Islands are stunning, but be warned that campsites in this area are few and small, and by midsummer, most have a meagre water supply.
Paddlers here should be experienced and self-sufficient. Besides sea fog, strong currents represent a potential hazard. Crossings or exposed coasts can be dicey (with surf landings). High tides may make camping difficult, so try to schedule your trip for between full moons. Periodically strong outflow and inflow winds can be a problem in the steep-sided fjords.
Sightseeing trips in the area include a 5-day/4-night circumnavigation of Princess Royal Island. This adventure includes the opportunity to view a wide variety of wildlife, including whales and marine life, as well as deer, wolves, eagles, black bears, and of course, the Spirit Bear. Departures are from Bella Bella and Denny Island (Shearwater) on the British Columbia Coast, accessible by ferry or air.
Other wildlife on Princess Royal Island includes a large population of black bears, grizzly bears, deer, wolves and foxes, and nesting populations of golden eagles, bald eagles, and the endangered marbled murrelet. Marine life around the island includes abundant salmon, elephant seals, orcas and porpoises.