Onboard the Gitga’at Spirit by 7am, our small group heads out across the bay for our second day of adventure. It is mostly overcast, and a soft pink hue trims the clouds as the sky begins to lighten. Riding with us today is a 3-person video crew working on an eco-film on the life cycle of salmon in six locations around the globe. The director/producer explains that it is part real footage and part animation and the film has already been pitched and accepted by Regal Entertainment for mass market.
As we cross the strait, the chatter is one of great anticipation, but we are reminded that not every day will have a spirit bear sighting. This only increases our level of excitement. About a half kilometer from shore Marvin proclaims “Bear on the beach!”
A mad scramble ensues as everyone dives for their camera bags, some of which are inaccessible in the bow storage area. The videographer leaps atop of the boats cabin for a bird’s eye view of the bear and begins filming. Luckily my pack is in the port side closet and I grab my 200-400mm lens – but it is a useless endeavour. Trying to shoot hand-held with this heavy gear on a boat bobbing in the ocean is impossible. No amount of VR (Vibration Reduction) can compensate for this. Instead, I choose to just watch and enjoy. It is a young male Spirit Bear. He is taking advantage of the low tide to taste the newly exposed and delicious barnacles. Because the tide is low and the jagged rocks are very near the water’s surface, Marvin cannot safely bring the boat any closer. Grudgingly we decide it is best to steer away and get on with the day’s trek.
We are on the same trail as yesterday but heavy rains during the night have made the slippery trail even more treacherous. By the time we arrive at our shooting location, I am covered in mud. Marvin chooses a spot for us just downstream from the falls where the bear trail runs right along the creek bank. Three other photographers in our group pounce on the optimum shooting spots and I stand there trying to choose the best spot of what is left over. I am quietly chastising myself for being too polite, but at the same time I know that the bears can come from anywhere, and quietly accept the last spot. I am the furthest downstream and my view to the right is obstructed to the right by a large fallen tree, but I tell myself it will be okay.
I struggle with my gear into an awkward position on the riverbank. I slither down into the stream and soon all the mud is washed away as I plant myself in three feet of water. The salmon scatter away from me, as I momentarily disturb their journey, but soon my legs become just another obstacle that they swim around. I can feel their lithe bodies brush against me. I organize my tripod with two legs on the bank and third leg in the stream. My pack is open and balanced on a root ledge, accessible if I might need to switch lenses. I pull out my miniature GoPro and mount it on the lens hood so that I can video at the same time as I am taking photos. I am ready, let the bears come.
By now it is 9am, but it is still quite dark. The cloud cover is heavy and the air is laden with moisture. I take some practice shots to see how high I can press my ISO (film speed) to compensate for the lack of light, but the results are poor. I am shooting with the Nikon D4 which is great in low light, but still there is nothing that can be done to improve the situation until the sky clears out a little. So again I wait. A young black female bear appears from around the bend. She looks my way, and walks towards me. I look at the guide for reassurance and he nods that this bear is ok. She comes about 3 meters from me, huffs in a derisive fashion, turns and leaves. Small but feisty – I like that! I had the feeling perhaps I was standing in one of her favourite fishing spots and she was not amused.
Minutes and then hours go by with no more bears, but the light improves as the morning passes. My body is getting stiff and cold, so I decide to move. Unhooking my camera and lens, I leave the tripod to hold my spot, crawl up the bank on all fours and peer over the fallen tree. I am face to face with the Queen. She stops in mid-step and looks at me as her cubs come up from behind and stop too. We stare at each other for a few seconds, though it seems like much longer.
By now the others have noticed that I am shooting, but I am wedged between the tree and the river bank, and there is no room for anyone else. I am secretly chuckling, as I think “who has the best spot now?” The Queen nonchalantly steps down into the stream and the cubs follow, mimicking her every move. She crosses the stream, stopping occasionally to snorkel for fish eggs. The cubs splash along behind playfully until they reach the other side and then disappear into the forest. I turn around from my perch and realize that the rest of the group are log jammed on the trail trying to see what I had seen. They look disappointed. I smile, shrug and slide back in to my spot in the stream, no longer stiff or cold.
The adrenaline rush has made me hungry. I wolf down a sandwich and a Cliff Bar while thumbing through my LCD screen at the morning’s images. The sun was coming out now and burning off some of the moisture. The warmth is welcome and I begin to relax. I chat quietly with a friend next to me and take shots of the sun on the foliage across the stream from us. The play of sun and shadow, old growth against new, is suddenly fascinating. As the moments pass the light changes, revealing new micro landscapes amid the layers of green. The raindrops glistened from every leaf, needle and mossy strand like the most precious jewels on earth.
Entranced in our micro-world we are slow to notice the large dark form in the shadows. Two eyes open, and a brown nose is raised to sniff the air. A black bear has been sleeping there the whole time. She half sits up, and then lies back down again and watches us. It feels like she is staring right into my lens. I signal to the others who are within earshot of my whistle and point towards the bear. Gradually she arises from her slumber and steps out of the shadows, peers around the tree looking upstream and then down. A few steps further and a shaft of light illuminates her outline and her breath is caught in swirls of mist around her face. She inhales the scents on the air, and then retreats back to her resting place.
Someone else whistles and our attention is redirected up stream. A large male spirit bear has emerged from the forest and is heading our way. He is not interested in fish. He sniffs with his nose high in the air as he walks, as if some other more urgent matter is at hand. He is directly across from me now and he stops. He is less than 20 feet from the black female, but he cannot see her. He sniffs the air again and takes two very slow steps in her direction. Instantly the black female charges from her bed taking the Spirit Bear by surprise. Lightning fast, she is upon him in a few strides and he bolts downstream and out of sight. Her charge is brief but effective. She returns to the nursery tree and signals to her two black cubs that it is now safe to come down from the tree. The cubs eye us curiously but are not frightened. After all they have been watching us for hours from their treetop sanctuary. They are probably heading off for an evening meal and a nice sleep in their bear beds. Sounds like a good idea to me.