Bears: One of the most beautiful, mysterious and feared creatures on earth. Highly intelligent and curious, they command respect wherever they roam. The Kermode Bear, otherwise known as the Spirit Bear moves through the dark, dripping landscape of the Great Bear Rainforest with such elusive elegance, it does indeed seem like an apparition.
First Nations legend tells us that Raven (the great creator) bestowed the bear with a white coat, deigning it to be ‘pure’. Some scientists say the white gene is a recessive mutation that goes back to the Ice Age, where white may have been the common colour of camouflage for a bear in glacial habitat.
The Great Bear Rainforest is one of the largest remaining tracts of unspoiled temperate rainforest left in the world. White fur occurs in only one of every 40 to 100 black bears on the British Columbia mainland coast, but the trait is especially pronounced on certain islands in the Great Bear Rainforest*. The island I am about to visit holds a high percentage of nearly one third white bears possibly because of the lack of grizzlies, the senior and more dominant ursine cousin.
The Spirit Bear walks in a pristine wilderness, the tenuous existence of which is constantly threatened by logging, pipelines, oil spills and poachers. The salmon that form a vital link to their survival are also on the precipice of having their unique life cycle disturbed by humankind. In an effort to preserve this ecological wonderland, certain First Nations and Conservation groups have bought up as many of the ‘hunting leases’ as possible in a large area of Rainforest where they now allow the Spirit Bears to be hunted only by those of us whose intrepid nature and endless patience will allow us to shoot with our cameras not our guns.
My own adventure began with two domestic flights to Prince Rupert, BC, followed by a 3.5 hour ride on a small First Nations ferry. From there I was deposited on the pier of a village, accessible only by boat or bush plane, where wooden boardwalks instead of roads link the tiny community. The town residents are of the Gitga’at band and the first sign I see is the local slogan “SAY NO TO TANKERS”. I am given a room in a tribal community house and 30 minutes to change into my hip waders and rain gear, prepare my camera pack and a light lunch. I pause briefly to look at myself in the mirror (geared up with GoPro strapped to my forehead) and laugh. “I used to make fun at people that look like this!” Within the hour my Gitga’at guide Marvin is whisking me across the strait in his aluminum skiff towards the rocky shores of an island where he knows the Spirit Bear will be. He knows this bear, its habits and temperament, and he is confident from his recent scouting that we will have a Spirit Bear encounter.
Getting off the boat and onto shore is the first challenge. As the boat kicks and bucks in the choppy ocean I must climb around the cabin on the narrow gunnel, crawl out to the bow and then time my jump to shore, doing my best not to misstep and fall on the jagged, barnacle encrusted rocks. I hold my breath as the backpack containing $20K plus in camera gear is handed out of the bow hatch. Once I am safely ashore my guide takes the boat out to the middle of the cove, throws the anchor, then launches his red kayak and paddles back over.
Warnings are given about the hike in. We are on a bear trail. Bears have the right of way – this is their home. If one happens to be asleep on the trail we must wait and not disturb it. The trail is slippery – do not step on any roots or you will fall. My last experience hiking in the Ancient Forest on Vancouver Island produced two very bad falls, one through a rotten log and one on the slippery rocks of Botanical Beach resulting in the barnacles tearing great holes in my waders. Hence the many patches of Shoo-Goo on my pants. It is always about ‘save the camera gear’ and bruise the body. And so one of my goals is to get through my five-day expedition with no serious wipe-outs.
The big boulders of the rocky shore transition to seaweed covered stones, themselves a challenge to keeping upright. My backpack is heavy and amplifies any small loss of balance. I am using my tripod as a hiking pole and this helps. At the mouth of the river, we find the bear trail which runs more or less parallel to it and enter the dark forest domain. As the name would imply the Great Bear Rainforest is at all times at the least damp and at most utterly saturated. Today is warmly humid which encourages the biting insects to attack in full force. I pull my bug-net over my face and proceed through the low green canopy of cedar, hemlock and yew. After a short distance along the muddy trail the unpleasant aroma of rotting fish wafts over me and stays.
The narrow trail is a roller coaster of slippery banks and fallen trees. Nothing is done to ‘improve’ the trail for humans, as this goes against nature. At times I must toss my gear up a slope and then climb on all fours (we call this 4-wheel drive), pulling myself up with tree roots. The down slopes are even harder to find a foothold so the best method is to sit down on my butt and slide through the mud feet first. With every new log obstacle it seems apparent that ‘nature’ has strategically place the log just a little too low to crawl under with a backpack, and a little too high for short-legged humans to navigate with any grace.
Small creeks are crossed and even here a few salmon struggle with their upstream spawning journey. As the hike continues, I try to pause briefly to take in the amazing flora, but quickly bring my focus back to placing my feet in the safest places. When we reach our destination, a butt-slide down the river bank brings us to a widening in the river. To my left is a series of waterfalls and the dark pools below it are dark red and teeming with salmon. The shore is strewn with half-eaten fish.
Now we wait. I get a chance to take in the incredible variety of plant-life. The low hanging branches of old growth trees are ornamented with delicate mosses. Shafts of light illuminate small patches of ferns, devil’s club and salmon berries. The continuous roar of the river drowns out any subtle sounds, aside from the occasional voice of the stellar jay and raven.
My guide smiles and points down stream. Amid the hanging branches a small patch of ivory coloured fur can be seen. She is making her way towards us, slowly, taking salmon carcasses from the quieter pools under the river banks and roots. Heart racing, I try to be patient. Finally she steps out into the open river and her two black cubs toddle after her. It is my first Spirit Bear, and she is known as ‘the Queen’. Her beauty is mesmerizing, and I almost forget to shoot.
There is no fear in me, only awe and respect. I can see she is comfortable with me and the other odd two-legged creatures that are terrible at fishing and make strange clicking sounds as the bears pass. The ursine family walks past us on the south bank and in a language that is discernable only to bears, she instructs her cubs to stay close and she takes her fishing skills to the falls. I quickly discover that this is the most challenging light that I have ever shot in. Between the darkness of the forest, and shafts of light coming through, it was almost impossible to expose properly to get detail in both the black and white bears at the same time.
Within a few moments a large black male bear appears on the scene. Her distain for him is obvious as she pins her ears in warning, and a reluctance to share her favourite fishing spot. As the alpha female of the river, she garners much respect, and soon he grudgingly creeps off into the forest. As the afternoon wears on she continues to gorge on salmon, choosing only the female fish that are full of roe, and discarding the others. The cubs scavenge dead fish while they wait for mom to provide a fresher meal. The larger cub, more independent that his sibling, romps around the shoreline, while the other more timid cub shadows her mother. She tries to nurse several times and mother bear finally cuffs her aside in a gesture of tough love. She would nurse when the time was right.
Eventually she got her wish and ‘the Queen’ crawled up the south bank and laid on her back allowing the cubs to nurse. We could just see a little through the thick brush, as they all laid down for a nap. A satisfying ending to our first day in the Great Bear Rainforest.