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*.
Map showing the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia
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.
Underwater movie showing Salmon
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”. 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.
Sunbeams through the rain forest.
In 20 minutes we arrive at our destination. 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.
River Runs Through it
A few minutes later 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.
Queen & Cubs at Falls
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 than 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.
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. 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!”
Bear on the Beach
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.
Spirit Bear on the Beach
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. 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.
Minutes and then hours go by with no 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.
Portrait of Queen
The sun was coming out now and burning off some of the moisture. 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.
Old & New
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.
Video showing Spirit bear and cubs feeding in a stream.
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. 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. We had barely set up, when 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. 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.
The Queen Sleeps
Deb & Sydney - Team Nikon
Fallen Log Infra Red
We waited 6 more hours before seeing bears again. 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.
Formidable Black Bear
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.
Great Bear Rainforest Pano
For our last day we returned to the falls again. Much to my relief the weather had improved substantially, but it is a double-edged sword. Sunny skies above means mottled lighting below, a most difficult condition for shooting black and white bears. We find the Queen fishing at the falls, her cubs safely treed a short distance away. It is another opportunity for me to try to perfect getting a shot with silky water and the bear in focus. Since this requires shooting at 1/10 second or slower I must wait for her to stand still, something a bear seldom does while constantly scanning the white water for a perspective catch. It is a matter of luck and good timing (and many, many failures) before a good result is achieved.
The huge black male has appeared on the scene. He is now between the Queen and the forest where her cubs are treed. Immediately, she runs in front of him, putting herself in severe danger. She is dwarfed by this ominous dark shape, almost twice her size and I fear terribly for her and the cubs. As she crosses in front of him he attacks. She is pinned between him and a large fallen tree, but defiantly returns the attack. The entanglement is ferocious but brief and after whatever was exchanged, again in a language to which I have no conception, they part and go separate ways. The Queen returns to her cubs and the forest.
Video of Bears fishing in a stream
With mid-day upon us, the bears keep to their usual routine, retreat and leave us for a lunch break. After several hours with no bears, we become complacent and less attentive, chatting amongst ourselves of the days’ events. Then, with ghost-like stealth, the Queen apparates just metres away and behind the person I am chatting to. We quickly regain our composure, faces pressed into our cameras as if at her beck and call.
Two more black bears join in the entourage and they are all just metres away. I do not know which way to shoot, as so many splendid portraits are within my grasp. I have found the perfect location -except for one small detail. I find that I am perched upon a pile of dead and decaying fish and the unpleasant and constantly present stench is somehow amplified to a degree that I must breathe through my mouth and resist the urge to vomit. For those of you that think the life of a nature photographer is somehow romantic, please rejoice in the moment with me, as I fight to keep my lunch down, scratching the many now-infected bug bites, whilst standing in mud-covered rain gear overtop of rotting fish parts.
Not to diminish the incredible smorgasbord of photo ops before me… I took full advantage until the inevitable and unpredictable rhythms of black and Spirit Bear habits soon had them slip away again into their forest lairs. It was time for me to leave as well.
Our final shoot with the Spirit Bears was almost poetic. We arrived at the landing beach just as the ‘golden hour’ of setting sun had cast a warm glow over the cove. A male bear, having just finished his tideline foray, walked along the rocky shore. He paused to look back over his shoulder, and as we bid him farewell, the rim lighting caused his coat to glow.
Bear on Beach
I was happy that I managed to negotiate the challenging bear trails and slippery river beds without a fall during the whole trip. On the morning of our last day, we spent time in the village photographing the local people and scenery. It was a foggy morning (my favourite) and I walked out along the float plane pier and down to the dock. I carefully edged my way down the ramp and when I hit the bottom both feet slipped out from under me and I found myself flat on my butt, camera still in hand. I looked up from my involuntary sitting position and noticed the sun coming through the fog and a nice composition of fish nets and ropes in the foreground. I spent the next 20 minutes shooting from this position and being thankful for it. Ah, the romantic life of the nature photographer!
(From Wikipedia) Coastal temperate rainforests are characterized by their proximity to both ocean and mountains. Abundant rainfall results when the atmospheric flow of moist air off the ocean collides with mountain ranges. The size of the Great Bear Rainforest is roughly 32,000 km2 (12,000 sq mi). The Great Bear Rainforest extends from the Discovery Islands in the south to the BC-Alaska boundary in the north. It includes all offshore islands within this range except Vancouver Island and the archipelago of Haida Gwaii. Its northern end reaches up Portland Canal to the vicinity of Stewart. To the south it includes Prince Rupert, most of Douglas Channel, half of Hawkesbury Island, and part of Gardner Canal. Kitimat is outside the region, to the east. Farther south, the region includes all of the coast west and south of the Fiordland Conservancy, Kitlope Heritage Conservancy Protected Area, Tweedsmuir North and Tweedsmuir South Provincial Parks—which includes Dean Channel, Burke Channel, Rivers Inlet, and the communities of Bella Bella, Bella Coola, and Hagensborg. The southern end of the region includes Knight Inlet but not Bute Inlet.