I'm often captivated (and occasionally confounded) by the varying interests of the people I meet. We commit ourselves to every mission imaginable - and a few missions so “out there” that they’re impossible to imagine. (Of course, what’s considered “out there” varies greatly from person-to-person; what one thinks outrageous makes perfect sense to another.)
So when Sheila and I booked a voyage on the Delphinus with intentions of photographing one of the mysterious and rare Spirit Bears roaming the wilderness of The Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia, a few of our friends questioned our mission.
- “You’re doing whaaaaat?” - one of the easiest questions to answer.
- “Why would you do that?” – required a longer explanation.
- “You’re insane.” – required no response.
Mission success depends on many things. Being in the right place at the right time helps. So does being prepared when the anticipated moment arrives. So does resolve. Resolve (commitment, determination or whatever you choose to call it) means you’re willing to pay the price to gain the prize. People resolute in the pursuit of their dreams, know their cause is worth its cost, so they pay what’s necessary.
Ronn Patterson (Captain of the Delphinus) spent the last few decades on a mission of his own, using his boat as a platform for eco-tourism and education. Ronn is a naturalist by profession, a marine biologist by training, a student of whales by practice, a professional photographer by habit, a teacher by inclination, and a writer by requirement. He is brilliant and his floating classroom gives those on board an up-close and personal look at some of the most interesting (and important) ecosystems in the world.
Ronn wanted to see a Spirit Bear too.
We left the Delphinus and joined Marven Robinson (a First Nation Elder we’d hired to help us find a Spirit Bear). We got in his boat, the “Gitgat’at Spirit,” for a speedy 90 minute cruise to the far side of Princess Royal Island. (The “Gitgat’at Spirit” has two 250-horse Honda engines on the back, so when I say, “cruise,” I mean, “cruise.”)
Prior to boarding Marven’s boat, we spoke with a photographer who’d recently hired First Nation Guides to find Kermode (Ursus americanus kermodei) and spent ten days in-a-row, all-day-every-day in the Rainforest trying to see one. She never saw one of the rare white Black bears. That news was sobering, but Marven was the man who guided a National Geographic Magazine research crew to photograph a Spirit Bear a couple of years ago, so we were guessing, “Even though there may be only a few hundred Spirit Bears alive in the world, if anyone can find one of these white Black bears, it’s Marven.” We guessed right.
Somewhere along Princess Royal Island shoreline, Marven brought the “Gitgat’at Spirit” to the water's edge. We got off the boat and headed into the Rainforest.
Marven eventually told us to "sit down and stay put" while he went on alone “to find a bear.” He vanished and we sat. We waited. In a forest of Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlock and Yellow-Cedar and we sat near this trail (which Marven identified as a "Spirit Bear trail") and waited a while longer.
I’m not sure exactly how long we waited silently near the salmon stream we’d hiked along as we left the basin, but when I least expected it (out of nowhere) Marven appeared. He held his finger up in front of his lips and made no sound as he formed the word “bear” with his mouth. He motioned to follow, so we followed and he led us to a seven-year-old male.
In the trackless maze of The Great Bear Rainforest, he found a Spirit Bear.
Our first day with the Spirit Bear was one of the most amazing days of my life.
I took some pictures.
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As we hiked the stream we noticed Pink Salmon were fighting the currents to swim upstream and spawn. Though predation takes many out of the gene-pool before they make it to their journey's end, enough fish escape the bears to establish the next generation of salmon. They're easy pickings for the bears and I crouched beside the stream as this Kermode bear went fishing.
Marven got us so close to this bear that Sheila took its picture with her iPhone!
These bears are not albinos. They're not related to Polar bears. They're not "Blond-Phase" Brown bears. They are white North American Black bears. The phenomenon, known as Kermodism, is triggered by a recessive mutation at the MC1R gene, the same gene associated with red hair and fair skin in humans. To be born white, a bear must inherit the mutation from both parents. The parents themselves don't have to be white, but both need to carry the recessive gene for the double-recessive mutation to occur. That hardly ever happens. These bears are rare indeed.
The Gitga'at and Kitasoo/Xai'xais people never spoke of the white bears. As a consequence fur traders and trappers didn't know they existed. Spirit Bears probably owe their survival to the tight-lipped First Nation people who considered them sacred and refused to hunt them.
It's impossible to describe the nimble grace of a 400 pound bear. They move with incredible agility, speed and power. Reseachers believe their light color gives Spirit Bears a "fishing advantage" and during daylight hours they catch 30% more salmon than dark Black bears.
For several minutes this big bear stood beside the stream and ate the leaves of the Lyngby Sedge. Bears eat lots of vegetation and while this guy was grazing I stood nearby trying to take his picture.
Sheila and I saw Spirit bears. We even got some pictures.
Isaiah 11:7 - Cow and bear will graze the same pasture.