The forecast for drizzle today was right on the money. With the rain came strong wind, which made our crossing of the strait quite rough and Marvin warns us that it may not be safe to make a landing. It has happened before. He has thoughtfully brought along two other guides to assist if a landing is attempted. We arrive at the landing area and Marvin thinks it is borderline, but doable. He skilfully navigates the boat into the safest notch in the rocks and his assistant Chris jumps out in his wetsuit and tries to control the bow of the boat for our departure. I went first, before anyone could change their mind. I only hoped that by departure time the sea would be kinder to us. Thoughts of being stranded on an island overnight that is full of black and spirit bears fly through my head, and I think about my rain poncho that supposedly can convert into a tent.
We all disembark without incident and quickly form a line for passing the gear across the rocks. I have taken to carrying my backup camera in a fanny pack, so am able to capture the others during the scramble. The male spirit bear is still feeding below the tideline at the river’s mouth. He is a cautious bear so we keep our distance. I am struck by the way his form gives scale to the surrounding landscape.
The same trek, over the same terrain as the last few days, seems like a routine now. Parts of the trail that seemed difficult the first day are now done as a matter of fact, and on to the next obstacle without hesitation. I am at the head of the group, with only Marvin in front of me. Today I will be first to choose my shooting location. We pass several bears between the trail and the river, and it seems that the cooler temperature is more to their liking. A rustle in the bush above us, and Marvin stops, raising his hand to indicate we all should stop and be quiet. The Queen is watching us. She is 20 feet above and looking down on us. I could swear she was smiling. Then she disappears again.
With the weather in question Marvin chooses to take us to the falls, as there is easy shelter close by where we can find dry ground beneath the old growth forest canopy. We had barely set up, when on cue, the Queen appeared. She had treed the cubs farther back on the trail and decided to join us at the river. She had been following us. My impression was that she was as curious about us as we were of her. She nonchalantly walked around and among us, across her favourite log, did a body shake, half-heartedly pawed for some salmon and then headed back down stream. She looked back as if to say “Are you coming?” We waited a few moments and then Marvin motioned for us to follow. As we rounded the bend in the river, there was the Queen stretched out on the riverbank lounging underneath the cub’s tree. I thought of a lounging Cleopatra who was accepting visitors.
At times like this it is easy to imagine the bear as a soft, kind creature and it is easy to forget the other side of their nature. As we leave the sleeping queen Marvin gives us another warning. Just around the next bend is a dead black bear. As we walk past the carcass, slumped over a rock in the river, we are told that the Queen had chased it down and killed it a few days ago.
The light drizzle is getting stronger so we move on to our next shooting spot. Just then the skies open up and we retreat to the shelter of the overhanging old growth. Towels, rain ponchos, and plastic covers come out. We do our best to protect the gear and ourselves, but there is no stopping the 100% humidity from permeating it all. We are socked in and can only wait it out.
Even though there were no bears, and the conditions thoroughly unpleasant, I tried to use the time productively taking videos of raindrops in shallow pools and water dripping from the forest canopy. I took out my B&W Infrared camera and shot intimate forest landscapes, even though the light was not conducive. It is times like these when you are pushed to experiment that you sometimes learn the most.
Out of boredom we make up a little competition to see who can get the best shot of a stellar jay in flight, an almost impossible task given the low drizzly light and lightning fast speed of the unpredictable birds. We take thousands of shots with little to show for it, but it helps to pass the time. The wind picks up and pelts the rain even harder and we retreat back to the cave-like forest overhang. I wonder about Marvin’s small boat anchored in the cove, and hope all is well.
Six long hours later the bears were back. The first to emerge was the young black female. She meandered upstream fishing along the way. She stopped about 5 metres from me – staring. Then she turned and walked towards me, stopped, huffed at me and proceeded upstream. Some things never change.
The light improved incrementally and the Queen returned with cubs in tow. She ignored us completely and went about the business of snorkelling for roe. The female cub stuck close to her mother, both with their faces submerged and licking eggs from the river bottom. We are jolted out of the peaceful scene when the Queen grabs her cub by the neck and growling, thrusts her under the water. The soaked cub pops up a few seconds later looking very submissive. The snorkelling resumes as before. I do not completely understand the upbringing of cubs, but learning respect is definitely part of it and I am left wondering about the nuances of bear communication.
Marvin whistles to direct our attention upstream. A huge black male is approaching and his authoritative presence changes the energy around us. The Queen ushers her cubs efficiently across the river and up a tree. She lingers momentarily at the base to confirm his approach and then climbs the tree herself, moving the cubs even higher into the tree top. Even as the alpha female, she will give ground to this massive male.
Before reaching us, he diverts his path into the forest and disappears. We all (bears and humans alike) breathe a sigh of relief. Queen and cubs stay treed for quite a while, and it is clear they want to be sure this enormous male is well clear before they come down. Eventually, the spirit bear brings her cubs back to ground and they too disappear into the forest.
With evening drawing close, the weather is finally clearing. We receive word that earlier this afternoon a guide has fallen into the water while trying to help someone onboard during rough conditions. It is the first time this has happened. He has the dubious distinction of being the only person (on a Spirit Bear trip) to hit the drink in this most undignified fashion. His ego and camera gear suffered, but he was not hurt. It was his last day of guiding after many years in the Great Bear Rainforest and one I am sure he will never forget.
The decision is made to head back to the beach to try our luck there and get a reprieve from our saturated environment. After being muddy and cold all day it was indeed a treat to emerge from the confines of the rainforest. Though I was raised on the west coast, my tolerance for dark and damp only goes so far, and I am relieved to step out of it and into the sunlight streaking through broken clouds. The welcome rays warm my face and chase off the damp chill from my bones. I find a sunny spot on the rocks to sit, peel off my rain gear, and open my camera bag to air out my gear. The respite is short-lived, however, as the crepuscular rays of the setting sun over the ocean provide another photographic gem.