Tracking the Spirit Bear, the white bear that's really black
PRINCESS ROYAL ISLAND, British Columbia, Canada - The boat dropped us off at the back of Cameron Cove and we sloshed in knee boots across the marshy estuary to the mouth of a small stream with black-bottomed pools. The black on the bottoms was spawning salmon, which exploded into a watery frenzy as we approached, perhaps fearing we were hungry bears.
Noisy gulls and silent bald eagles were everywhere, cashing in on the half-eaten bodies of salmon that littered the gravel stream bank and the grassy marsh.
"The ones with the heads eaten off are from wolves," said Jeremy, a young member of the Gitga'at, a First Nations tribe that inhabits this remote area along the west coast of northern British Columbia. "Bears eat the bellies, going for the eggs."
The gulls and the eagles take care of the rest.
Avoiding mounds of bear scat the color of blueberries, we followed the stream back into the forest, where moss and ferns covered the floor beneath the canopy of cedar and spruce. From positions on the spongy moss high up on the creek bank, we sat and waited.
The only sounds were the splash of the moribund salmon struggling to get upstream, and the calls of a raven that perched overhead and went through its entire repertoire, including one cry that imitated perfectly the sobs of a frightened child.
An hour passed, and then "psssst." Bruce Reece, our senior guide, pointed behind me, about 50 feet downstream, to where a young black bear had walked noiselessly from the woods and stood staring into the stream. Suddenly, it belly-flopped into the water, coming up with a flapping salmon in its jaws. The bear ambled back into the woods to dine in private, without even a backward glance at its human admirers.
Our camera clicks recorded the visit, but we were after a different quarry.
The legendary Kermode bear, a cream-colored genetic abnormality that is really a black bear, is found only on these islands in British Columbia. Studies have determined the color phase is the product of a unique double-recessive gene in both parents. The genetic combination is found particularly on Princess Royal Island, where about one in 10 bears is born white. The white bears were named in honor of Francis Kermode, a Canadian zoologist who researched the phenomenon in the early 1900s.
The First Nations peoples call it the "Spirit Bear," and hold the rare white wonder in high esteem.
A Tsimshian legend says the bears harken back to the Ice Age: "The whole world was white with ice and snow when Raven came from heaven to make it green. To remember the old whiteness, he went among the black bears making every tenth one white. By Raven's decree, the white bears will inhabit these lands in peace forever."
While Canada stills allows trophy hunting of grizzlies and black bears, Kermode bears are off limits and, as a result, show little fear of people. September, when they visit the spawning streams, is the prime month to see them.
Five of us - four women and me - had flown in by floatplane to this rugged area of pristine river valleys surrounded by forests and favored by Pacific salmon. Most other visitors are after the fish, and spend their days casting lines into the streams, lakes and ocean.
But we were after the Kermode. We dedicated our four-day stay at King Pacific Lodge to seeing one of the great white bears.
Reece is an expert at finding them, but warned: "It's tough when you expect to see something right away. You've got to put your time in."
After arriving at Vancouver in the southwest corner of Canada, we boarded a commuter plane for a 90-minute flight north to Bella Bella, where we then transferred to a six-passenger Beaver floatplane. Before closing the cockpit door, an assistant gave our pilot, Dean, a vote of confidence.
"Did you take your medication this morning?" he asked. "I think I remembered," replied Dean.
Logging is king in British Columbia, and the mountains below were blotched with new and recovering clearcuts. Occasionally, a raft of logs would move along the water. The farther north we flew, the fewer the cuts, until the forest appeared intact as we approached our goal, Princess Royal Island.
The island is the ancestral territory of the Gitga'at Nation, and Rosewood Hotels & Resorts pays a fee to float in a barge each May, then remove it after the salmon-spawning season in September. The barge holds King Pacific Lodge, the quintessential experience for those who want to get away from it all, in luxury. After seeing nothing below but woods and water for 30 minutes, the floatplane suddenly veered down to the lodge's home in a sheltered harbor. The nearest town, Hartley Bay, was 22 miles to the north.
The lodge has a spa and 17 guest rooms. I was in a "wilderness view" room, the cheapest at $3,700 for three nights, and $7,650 for seven, which included round-trip airfare from Vancouver. Also included was an open bar, wines paired with dinner and gourmet meals, courtesy of chef Maxim Ridorossi. Lunch was served on the sun deck, weather permitting. Dinner offered a choice of two entrees; one night was seared spring salmon or roasted venison loin. The recreation room had a shuffleboard table and dinner often was followed by a boisterous tournament.
The lodge has a fleet of kayaks, aluminum cabin cruisers with twin 115-horsepowered Mercury engines and a helicopter for its guests to venture out into the wild. It's an extra charge to fly to the hiking and fishing sites on the mainland. Or you can hang around the lodge and do your wildlife viewing in upscale comfort.
At breakfast my first morning, I sat in the dining room with a spinach-and-sablefish omelet while watching a family of six river otters at the water's edge outside. Mom and Pop hunted for food, while the four youngsters wrestled on the shore. A bald eagle sat in the snag overhead, a fixture at the same perch throughout our stay. We set up a spotting scope on the bird, and I half-expected to see a "Made in China" label on its tail.
The area of B.C.'s west coast from the northern tip of Vancouver Island to the Alaskan Panhandle is now known as the Great Bear Rainforest because it is a grizzly stronghold in the world's largest remaining tract of temperate rain forest. Ian McAllister, the young man who gave it that name in a 1998 book called "The Great Bear Rainforest - Canada's Forgotten Coast," sailed in on his trimaran to spend time with us at the lodge.
Another special guest was Paul Paquet, an author and university researcher who is an internationally recognized authority on bears and wolves. The two accompanied us on a couple of our Kermode searches and, when the forays to Cameron Cove turned up only black bears, suggested another spot, Gribbell Island.
"This island has more Spirit Bears than any other place in the world," McAllister said as we unloaded from two boats and started a short hike to viewing stands built by the Gitga'at along a stream. "There's lots of old growth forest and the spawning draws them in to the rivers."
But McAllister, Paquet and Reece, our guide, all were shocked when we walked back up the river valley on their first visit of the season and found no fish to attract the bears. We waited most of the morning, then gave up. Reece and McAllister both said it was the first time they ever had seen the valley with no spawning salmon in September.
Said Reece: "Maybe the fishermen with a seine boat caught all the ones that were supposed to come up here. Wiped out the whole creek."
McAllister said he had noticed declining salmon in other traditional spawning rivers. "It's throughout the system," he said. "The water's been 5 degrees warmer this year than it usually is. Some people say the fish may be deeper. I don't know."
The day was not a total loss. On our boat ride home, we came upon two humpback whales feeding along the coast line. For 45 minutes, we tagged along. The whales would surface, spout spray into the air, then roll towards the deep with a roar and a wave of the tail. We scanned the surface for a whale-sized circle of bubbles and aimed our telephoto lenses into the middle. Seconds later, a whale would burst head-first and mouth open through the circle. Click, click, click.
I asked where we were and was given a map of the area. Appropriately, we were in Whale Channel.
I skipped the morning search for the Kermode on the fourth day, hoping it might change the others' luck. After lunch, we all went back out and, again, photographed black bears, including the largest male we had seen. He boldly crossed the stream to our side, and circled us with head up and nostrils twitching.
"Man, he must be 500 pounds, about 20 feet away," I whispered to Reece, the bearer of our only can of pepper spray.
"Well, more than 300 pounds and 50 feet away," he whispered back.
The lodge said it has never had an incident involving a guest and black bears, which concentrate their attention on the fish. The guides make sure you respect their space. Black bears are wild and unpredictable animals, but don't have the nasty reputation of grizzlies. The two don't share territories, so we never saw grizzlies. However, other guests who went heli-fishing and -hiking on the mainland did report grizzly sightings.
The fifth morning was our day of departure, our last chance before the floatplane arrived that afternoon. McAllister and Paquet had suggested we start earlier, so we left the lodge at 7 a.m. and were at Cameron Cove as the sun came over the mountain. The boat let us off at the estuary and we started slogging silently across the marsh. Reece, our leader, turned with a "psssst," and grinned.
Above the grasses was a large white head.
The Kermode hunting intently in the stream was cream-colored, with a reddish tint on its shoulders. The bear disappeared into the woods, but soon returned, crossed the stream, chased a pair of ranting ravens and walked to a pool. It splashed through the water, nabbed a salmon and went back into the woods. Minutes later it was back out, standing to scratch its back on a tree trunk, then pulling down two pawfuls of spruce branches to scrub its head and face.
The bear stood and stared at us twice, but we soon found out it was looking behind us at a mother black bear feeding with three furry cubs. She carried a salmon into the field where we were standing; the cubs followed. They disappeared into the tall grass, but each took turns sticking up its head to check us out.
"It reminds me of that game where the heads pop up and you bat them back down," Reece said.
Finding the Spirit Bear at the 11th hour of our trip was a storybook ending. We headed back to civilization knowing fairy tales do come true.
IF YOU GO:
WHAT TO READ: "The Great Bear Rainforest, Canada's Forgotten Coast" by Ian McAllister and Karen McAllister (Harbour Publishing, 144 pages, $19.80) The address for ordering is P.O. Box 219, Madeira Park. B.C., VON 2H0 Canada. The e-mail is [email protected]
HOW TO HELP: The Raincoast Conservation Society is seeking to protect the Great Bear Rainforest, and the bears, wolves and other animals that live there. To make a tax-exempt charitable donation visit www.raincoast.org. The office in Victoria is at 1-250-655-1229 and [email protected] The Sierra Club of British Columbia also is active in protecting the coastal environment and is at 1-250-386-5255. The club's e-mail is [email protected] and the website is www.sierraclub.ca/bc.
KING PACIFIC LODGE: Call 1-888-592-5464, visit www.kingpacificlodge.com or e-mail [email protected] Reservations can be made through 1-888-767-3966 or at www.rosewoodhotels.com. The trout season begins in the spring and continues until the end of July. The middle of July marks the beginning of salmon fly-fishing season. The peak season for salmon is from mid-July until lodge closing in late September. Besides fishing, the lodge offers hiking, kayaking, wildlife viewing and cultural programs. There are additional charges for using the helicopter for sight-seeing, bear viewing, fishing, hiking and kayaking. The full-service spa offers body wraps, massages and signature experiences using local ingredients. Rooms for a three-night stay run from $3,700 to $9,450, per person. Seven-night rates are $7,650 to $21,000 for the Princess Royal Suite.