Encounters with Ghosts in the Great Bear Rainforest
It’s early October and autumn has seemingly arrived overnight in the Great Bear Rainforest. It’s a brisk morning, still dark and there’s frost underfoot, clinging to the labyrinth of boardwalks that connect the dwellings in the small Gitga’at First Nation community of Hartley Bay. The ‘street’ lights appear suspended in a dense morning fog that has silently flowed down a river valley to the coastline where Hartley Bay is situated.
At this early hour the town is silent, a striking contrast to the noisy environments experienced in the various forms of transport it takes to get here. One must first fly or ferry to the remote British Columbian city of Prince Rupert, before catching the weekly 4-hour ferry to Hartley Bay, generally heavily laden with supplies for the isolated community. The silence is compounded by the fact that there are no cars in Hartley Bay, the network of boardwalks would not allow two to pass side-by-side. Locals commute by an impressive array of ATVs, or on foot, my chosen method this morning as I carefully slide my boots along the icy boardwalks towards the boat harbour.
Our guide, Hartley Bay resident Marven Robinson, is already at the town docks which his boat Gitga’at Spirit fuelled up for the day’s journey. Marven is a renowned guide and bear whisperer, who has been sharing the Gitga’at Nation’s unique white bears with outsiders for twenty-two years. With quiet anticipation our group of ecologists, naturalists and photographers board his vessel and shortly afterwards we are making our way out of the harbour as the first rays of sunlight penetrate the thick fog. With the community in our wake two Humpback whales surface close to the shoreline, their blows creating rainbows in the morning light.
It’s common for it to rain here every day throughout October and I’m prepared, complete with wet weather gear for both myself and camera. However my visit has coincided with an unusual run of fine weather and we are not to see a single raindrop for the duration of our visit in the rainforest.
Within an hour we are ashore an island, making our way along a riverside bear trail in a dense old-growth rainforest, passing both over and underneath fallen trees. We pass close-by a black bear actively fishing in the river, which is running low due to the lack of rain and in which we can clearly see numerous Pink Salmon slowly navigating their way upstream. It is late in the season and these salmon are in their final throws of life, their lack of strength at this life stage combined with the low-flow of the river makes them relatively easy pickings for the island’s wildlife.
We reach a stretch of river known to be popular with the island’s bears. It appears vacant for now but we are surrounded by signs of bear activity, including traces of fur, piles of scat and numerous half-eaten fish carcasses deposited along the river bed and into the surrounding forest. We unpack our camera equipment, pick a good vantage point along the riverbank and settle in for what generally defines most wildlife photography experiences, the art of patience.
The white, black bear I am hoping to view and photograph goes by several names. Most commonly they are known as the Spirit bear, a romantic alternate to the Kermode Bear, named after Frank Kermode, a former director of the Royal BC Museum. Ursus americanus kermodei is the latin name. To the Gitga’at First Nation they are known as Moksgm’ol, the Ghost Bear. These are a subspecies of American black bear, which have white fur when they carry a double-recessive gene unique to their subspecies. It is estimated that fewer than 400 Spirit/Kermode/Ghost bears are currently in existence.
I ask Marven if there is a local mythology explaining the significance of Moksgm’ol. “The creator, the Raven,” he explains, “asked the Black bear to make one-in-ten cubs white, to serve as a reminder of when the world was covered in ice.” He tells me his Grandmother used to point out that a Black bear would be no good on the ice. “And if you look closely at some photographs”, he adds, “look at the feet. The toes of the white bear are longer than the Black bears. There are more genetic differences than simply the white fur.”
During the morning I watch the brilliantly blue Steller’s Jays feeding on salmon roe recently deposited in the gravel river bed. The Jays are joined by a Mew Gull with the same idea. Several Black bears visit the river’s edge to fish and a Pine marten skirts along the riverbank collecting bits of salmon carcass left over from the bears. Watching the salmon carcass’s being distributed into the surrounding forest, the complete circle of life is visible. The wildlife, reliant on the surrounding ecosystem for survival, are actively feeding the forest with nutrients sourced from the salmon. I keep myself busy photographing the birds and martens while enjoying the warmth of the morning sun that occasionally manages to pierce the dense canopy overhead.
Early in the afternoon a Spirit Bear appears on the far bank of the river, no more than ten-metres away from my position. The bear looks around slowly and sniffs the air, appearing slightly hesitant as it surveys the river scene ahead. Marven is speaking quietly explaining that this is an old bear known to him called Ma’a (Grandmother), due to her having raised at least three sets of cubs. She is not quite white, but more vanilla in appearance with darkish rings around her eyes. Ma’a appears to recognise Marven’s voice, immediately dropping her guard and ever so slowly makes her way to the river’s edge.
All bears fish in different ways with varying amounts of energy exertion and success. It is immediately evident that Ma’a one of the passive, patient hunters. Completely still, except for her constantly swivelling head, she watches and waits for the perfect opportunity to collect her fish. After nearly twenty minutes of focus she does just that, and quietly eats her fish just metres from where I sit experiencing a wave of emotions.
Before beginning this journey I had secretly hoped to get a glimpse of a Spirit bear in my week’s visit to the rainforest, even from a distance, but I hadn’t ever imagined I would share a moment such as this. You may imagine my surprise then, when a second Spirit bear appeared from the forest behind Ma’a and joined her in the riverbed. This was Warrior, a younger bear and likely an offspring of Ma’a due to their apparent comfort being in close proximity of each other. She is beyond striking in appearance, with completely white fur and a large diagonal scar on her nose to which her name was derived from.
Warrior, a slightly more energetic fisherman than Ma’a, continues to fish and feed for hours, often picking up carcasses left behind from other bears when unsuccessful at catching her own. Various Black bears come and go during the afternoon but the two Spirit bears are never far away.
Over the next three days I spent several hours with these two rare and beautiful animals, observing, learning, filming and photographing. Late in the final day of my journey, I was watching Warrior at a distance downstream in a dark area of the forest, when she walked into a narrow beam of afternoon sunshine streaming in from a low angle. Against the darkness Warrior was illuminated in an intense warm light that spread throughout her magnificent white coat. With the harsh contrast she appeared suspended in complete darkness and I became overwhelmed in emotion. Through a viewfinder filled with flowing tears I took several photographs before she exited the ray of light and disappeared into the forest.
Moksgm’ol had made an appearance.
View additional photography here, or watch a short video below
Speechless | Great Bear Rainforest
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