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story and photos by Jad Davenport

Secr e∏s of
A quest to witness the elusive “spirit bear” amid the streams and conifers
∏he For es∏
uncovers the natural history, native lore and beauty of Princess Royal Island

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alaska

C ana da

“It’s him,”
Pa c if ic Oc e an

Marven whispers, Princess


Royal

“and he’s coming


Island

right toward us.”


A yellow September mist haunts the centuries-old Sitka
Plan your trip, p. 103

Zoologists call it the Kermode bear; to them it’s an evolu-


spruce forest and muffles the slosh of something big moving tionary enigma. But to the Gitga’at, a Tsimshian people who
down the creek. Nearby a raven croaks a throaty kraaack. In have hunted and fished this green labyrinth since the last ice
Gitga’at mythology, Raven is both Creator and Trickster. age, Moksgm’ol, which means white bear, is a sacred and revered
Marven Robinson, a Gitga’at bear guide in his late 30s, wipes symbol. Around winter fires in cedar longhouses as far back as
a brown Canucks baseball hat off his crew cut and crouches anyone can remember, the Gitga’at have passed down a legend
beside the copper-colored creek on British Columbia’s Princess that connects the spirit bear to their own distant past.
Royal Island. The splashing melts into the pool-ball snick of river “How do you know it’s him?” So far the only bears we’ve seen
stones jostling beneath heavy paws. Marven leans into me; I were a mother black bear and her two roly-poly cubs harassing
can smell the mint tea on his breath. “Listen,” he says quietly. coho salmon struggling upstream for the autumn spawn.
“These animals have an extra special sense, and they can sense “Raven told me,” Marven whispers back.
fear. So even if it walks right by us, don’t move.” He belongs to the Raven Clan, and I’m impressed he can
I nod and fumble with my Nikon camera, not wanting to interpret Raven’s cry. Then I remember the day we met at
miss one of the rarest animals in the world, a snow-white the King Pacific Lodge, a floating five-star resort moored
bear that is rarer even than the giant panda of China. off Princess Royal Island. Marven stood expressionless on

Five-star amenities, Northwest-style — floatplane docks, abundant wildlife, hikes in the emerald maze of cedar and Sitka spruce.

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the dock beside his aluminum cabin cruiser. It would be a display in the zoo’s monkey house, with tragic consequences.
10-minute ride over to Cameron Cove, he said, and from But that autumn Hornaday was hoping to discover new
there we would make our way up an estuary where he had seen mammal species, and he struck gold while flipping through
a spirit bear last year. But he nodded at the cat paws raking locally collected pelts at a fur dealership. “The hair is all white,
the bay and pulled down his faded cap against the light rain. down to the roots,” he wrote of a specimen. “Its skin is like
“This is not a good day to find spirit bears,” he muttered. that of a long-furred and particularly handsome polar bear.”
I couldn’t help taking the bait, of course. “Why?” Yet a polar bear would have had to trek 2,300 miles from
“Because the rain washes off all the white paint.” He the Bering Sea. Finding one here would be akin to bump-
chuckled to himself the whole ride to Cameron Cove. ing into a camel at the North Pole. On January 10, 1905,
Raven isn’t the only trickster in the forest this morning, after five years of examining only skins and skulls, and rul-
it turns out. A bear ambles into view, but it’s another hungry ing out albinism and “freaks of nature,” Hornaday proudly
black bear. Ursus americanus is a striking creature, but also the announced “a hitherto unknown species of white bear.” He
most common bear in North America, found in almost every named the species Ursus kermodei, the Kermode bear, in
state from Florida to Alaska. As it blinks at us with hazel honor of a provincial museum curator.
eyes and shuffles by so close I could stroke its rich blue-black I think about Hornaday’s new species early one morning
fur, I realize my quest to see the spirit bear is just beginning. when the squeaky blow of a humpback whale wakes me. Only

Splashes and snorts explode almost beneath me.


I’m surrounded by big, shiny heads with plum-size eyes.
A Steller sea lion bull is as long and loud as a Harley.
My journey to the King Pacific Lodge two days earlier a handful of people have ever seen a live spirit bear. There
was buoyed with hope by a spectacular flight north from are none in captivity, and no one knows the exact population,
Vancouver Island, first by chartered jet and then in a seaplane. though it is perhaps as few as 100. They hibernate half the
I rode shotgun with the pilot, lulled by the hum of the propel- year and spend the rest alone in remote valleys, clawing logs
lers and the warm midday sun. The North Pacific stretched for grubs and digging up sedges. The best time to spot them
to the west; the 11,000-foot Coast Mountains to the east is during the salmon spawn, when they come down to feast
oozed glaciers, born when woolly mammoths roamed the on the banquet. Even so, any such sightings are extremely
continent. And filling the windscreen, the narrow maze of rare, but it’s a perfect morning to patrol the shore of Barnard
ragged islands and shadowed valleys seemed to go on forever. Harbour by kayak. On very rare occasions, I’m told, the bears
The pilot slalomed around the thunderheads and barely have been seen foraging in the tidal pools.
crested alpine ridges still quilted with last winter’s snow. By Dan, a fishing guide, helps me launch a kayak and warns
the time we splashed down at Princess Royal Island, I felt I me about the gang of mischievous sea lions playing with the
had passed over the edge of the world. whales. “They really like the yellow kayak,” he says.
Seven months a year, this Maui-size island is completely I unzip a perfect crease across the obsidian bay, and as I
uninhabited. But every spring the 17-room King Pacific drift into the fingered shadows of some bright green cedars,
Lodge is towed 100 miles south from Prince Rupert. From my thoughts turn back to Hornaday and his white bear. How
May to October some guests indulge in fly-fishing and heli- could it have remained unknown to scientists for so long?
hiking. Others just curl up on an overstuffed leather sofa The answer lies just off my bow, a wall of weathered gran-
in the great room and sip warm Morita sake. But everyone, ite boulders draped in mustard seaweed and crowned with
including me, revels in raw Pacific Northwest wilderness. a driftwood barricade. Breach that, and the real wilderness
Into this wilderness on a blustery November afternoon in begins, uphill miles of arm-slashing devil’s club thorns and
1900 strode William T. Hornaday, a stout man with pouty sunless forest. You could hide tyrannosauruses in there.
eyes and a fat walrus beard. Revered as an enlightened found- Splashes and snorts suddenly explode almost beneath me.
ing father of wildlife conservation, the director of the Bronx I’m surrounded by big, shiny heads with plum-size eyes. A
Zoo also had a darker, carnival side that would manifest itself Steller sea lion bull is as long and loud as a Harley Davidson
six years later in a shameful zoo exhibit all but forgotten today. and weighs four times as much. I know what they’re debating:
In 1906 he put a Congolese pygmy named Ota Benga on Flip the guy? Or just make him paddle really, really fast?

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Late hours at the King Pacific Lodge bring first-class service, Dungeness crab salad and the slow-dying glow of northern twilight.

Then a mother humpback whale and her calf rise like a and the temperature doesn’t fall below 38 degrees. Before
pair of Trident submarines in a whoosh of fishy vapor. The the advent of the circular saw, this rainforest — half again as
sea lions howl with pleasure and porpoise off to taunt them. productive as a tropical rainforest — stretched in an unbro-
I breathe again and let the blood drain back to my knuckles. ken 2,000-mile arc from San Francisco Bay to Kodiak Island.
Back at the lodge a posse of disappointed Texans returns Near Cameron Cove I discovered a rotting, moss-slicked Sitka
with Marven from a bear-watching excursion. “No spirit spruce stump big enough for me to pitch a tent on. Unbridled
bears, only a couple of black bears,” they grumble over crab by climate, it could have grown taller than the Statue of Liberty.
legs and champagne. Will they go out again? No, they’re only A battle between environmentalists and loggers over these
up for four days. Most will spend the rest of their time fish- trees culminated in the creation of the 25,000-square-mile
ing for halibut or looking for grizzlies on the mainland. Great Bear Rainforest. It’s not a national park — logging will
But the next day I join Marven and several new guests on continue in two-thirds of the rainforest — but it’s a reprieve.
a boat trip 17 miles north to the bear blinds at Gribbell Island. We arrive at the stilted viewing platform overlooking the
As the island looms into view under a slate sky, however, I real- river just as the skies open up. Despite the logging on Gribbell
ize large swaths of its forest cover are chipped away. Island, a few spirit bears remain here. The sweet aroma of wet
The scars are even more visible as we hike up the over- leaves and the pungent odor of decaying fish fill the valley. We
grown logging road. The wreckage of the lumber business, spread out under the shelter’s tarp and settle in to wait.
an industry that once wrote one out of every 10 Canadian Hours tick by to the gentle patter of raindrops. Now and
paychecks, abounds. Rusting spools of cable wigged with then a lithe pine marten scampers across a fallen log. Sven
ferns peek out beside the two-track, and some of the second- the German snores on a bench while Gail from Texas frowns
growth alders are so thin I can shake them with my hands. over a Sudoku book. Marven just stares at the tree line. And
Steam rises from our bodies as we make our way along a for the next six hours, until we finally pack up our cameras
riverbank. Even though it’s autumn and we’re at nearly 53 and disappointments, I am left alone with my thoughts.
degrees north latitude, our sweat condenses easily in the I think about Ota, the 22-year-old pygmy. Hornaday
moist air. The gentle rain tickles through the forest, and I made a sign for the zoo’s monkey house that announced,
wipe drops from my face, though this is barely a mist com- “Exhibited each afternoon during September.” There was
pared to the 16 feet of moisture the forest receives every year. an uproar about Ota, but not before tens of thousands of
The warm, humid air has been both a blessing and a curse visitors purchased tickets and gawked at another version of
to this land. Unlike their leafy deciduous cousins, conifers can themselves behind those bars. Ota was eventually released,
grow year-round as long as they receive plenty of moisture but he always pined for the Congo. Then on one spring

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afternoon, he went into the woods, placed a stolen pistol
“Raven the Creator came from heaven,” against his heart and returned home the only way he could.

Helen tells me, “and dressed the mountains in Hornaday remained unapologetic about the incident. He
saw an order in the world that didn’t exist, one based on
green forests and filled the rivers with salmon.” something as superficial as color. He was wrong about Ota,
and he was also wrong about the Kermode bear. It wasn’t a
new species after all. In 1928 a taxonomist reclassified it as
merely a rare color phase of the black bear.
But a big question is, what makes them white?
The official explanation is “a single nucleotide replace-
ment in the melanocortin 1 receptor gene (Mc1r),” which
leads to an amino acid substitution from tyrosine to cysteine
at codon 298. In other words, it’s a recessive gene, just like
the one that might have given you red hair or that lets you
roll your tongue. Biologists estimate that roughly 10 percent
of the black bears on Princess Royal Island are Kermode
bears. There must be an evolutionary reason these genes
survive only here. But scientists don’t know what it is.
The Gitga’at, however, know exactly why the bears are
white. In the strict etiquette of oral tradition among the
Pacific Northwest tribes, only the person who owns the
spirit bear’s story can tell it. And that person, Marven says,
is Helen Clifton, wife of the late hereditary chief.
I arrive by boat at Hartley Bay, an isolated village of 180
people and 20 boats. Here the mail comes by floatplane,
and the nearest town is more than three hours away by ferry.
There are no roads to town, just weathered wooden board-
walks that bounce and groan as I walk past the starched-
white exterior of the Emmanuel United Church.
I’m lucky to find the bright-eyed 82-year-old Helen at home.
“We usually move up the channel to the old village site for two
to three weeks of smoking and drying coho,” she says when
she welcomes me. “But this year there’s been so much rain.”
The walls inside her cedar-plank home are checker-
boarded with framed photographs of her family; Tsimshian
masks hang from the exposed beams. She gazes out the
­living-room window at the waters of the Douglas Passage.
“The government just protected this spirit bear rainforest,
and now they want to open this route to supertankers full of
oil,” she says as she shakes her head at the situation. “How
can they do that? Just think if one sank.”
Marven had spoken with Helen and let her know I was
interested in the story of the spirit bear. And for the next hour,
without any prompting, she closes her brown eyes and lets sto-
ries of her youth drift among the sunbeams in the room. She
remembers as a child collecting seaweed down at the old camp,
how the tide would go out forever, how the bears and the
people shared the salmon at the fall camp and never fought.
Long ago the Gitga’at ate salted black bear meat. “Once
a bear is stripped down from its fur,” she says, “the carcass
looks so human, it gives you a funny feeling.” But they never
The wild Great Bear Rainforest encompasses 25,000 square miles of glacial fjords, evergreen ridges and granite peaks. hunted the spirit bear. They are our brothers, she tells me.

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It’s toward the end of our visit that the legend of trudge through muddy bogs until we reach the quiet pools
Moksgm’ol weaves its way into her stories, so gently that I full of resting salmon. Shafts of cathedral light pierce the
have to piece it together from fragments. canopy. An hour drifts by. Marven sips tea. I mark the time
“Long ago the world was dark and cold. Raven the Creator by the progress of a shiny slug creeping up a mossy stump,
came from heaven and dressed the mountains in green for- and close my eyes and listen to the creak of trees.
ests and filled the rivers with salmon. Raven brought the fire We both sit up at the sound of splashing.
for the sun and the moon and the stars. Then, to remind the The same mother black bear and her cubs emerge around
people of the frozen world that came before, Raven touched the bend downstream. But I spot a flash of white paws beneath
the black bears and turned every 10th one white. a fallen log upstream, and then a shaggy white bear, his broad
“It is a special bear,” she says as dust motes dance in the head sweeping back and forth like a metronome, appears.
sunlight. “It’s a reminder to us that the world changes.” The two adult bears face off for a moment. They sniff one
The world is still changing around the spirit bear. another and then simply pass each other in peace.
White bears have been protected from hunters since “They must be siblings,” Marven whispers.
1925, but black bears are not protected. And there’s no This time I know he isn’t pulling my leg. Any black bear
way to see the genetic makeup of a bear through a tele- on Princess Royal Island can be the sister, brother, son,
scopic site. Conservationists also worry that as log- daughter, mother or father of a white bear. Black and white
ging pushes mainland black bears out of their territories, means nothing to bears. Any bear might have the recessive
they may migrate to Princess Royal and Gribbell islands, gene; any might carry Raven’s touch. The truth, of course, is
diluting the Kermode gene pool to the point of oblivion. that every bear on Princess Royal Island is a spirit bear.
Before I leave, Helen walks me down to the commu- The spirit bear plunges into the deep pool and rises with
nity longhouse where ceremonies and dances are still held. a silver salmon in its jaws. Spray sparkles like diamonds as he
Behind a carved Raven house post, there is a cedar screen shakes his head. I am kneeling behind a damp log, so close I can
painted in bold red and black form lines representing the four hear the slap of the salmon’s tail against his muzzle and smell
Tsimshian clans: killer whale, eagle, wolf and raven. And at his wet-dog fur. He looks at Marven and
the very center is one unique to the Gitga’at — the spirit bear. me with a hint of curiosity and perhaps
I now know the secret of the spirit bear, but I haven’t a little pride. Then he climbs up the islands.com/bear
given up my quest to see one. Marven and I return early one bank and vanishes in a swish of leaves, �� follow jad's route
watch his video
morning to Cameron Cove and clamber over mossy logs and a fleeting reminder of ancient snows. ^ � book your trip

Gitga’at matriarch Helen Clifton shares the legend of forests and seasons behind the evolutionary enigma of the spirit bear.

78 Ap r i l/ M a y 2 0 0 9 isl a n d s . c om 79

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