Found only in the wildlife-rich re­mote is­lands of Bri­tish Columbia, spirit bears have long been revered by First Na­tions peo­ples. We visit in search of the elu­sive ur­sine

Wanderlust Travel Magazine (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS LYN HUGHES

How a search for Bri­tish Columbia’s elu­sive spirit bear be­came a jour­ney into Canada’s wild green heart

The os­prey took off from a cedar tree and soared above, framed against a bril­liant blue sky, its white un­der­parts gleam­ing in the sun. My legs were braced, steady­ing me against the boat’s mo­tion, as I watched the beau­ti­ful rap­tor through my binoc­u­lars.

A whoosh­ing noise next to the boat made me jump, and I looked down to see that two or­cas – killer whales – had sur­faced right be­side us. It was one of those ex­tra­or­di­nary mo­ments when time both stands still and races by.

There was just time to be im­pressed by their size and power be­fore they de­scended again un­der the waves. There were half a dozen of us on the back of the boat, and we were all equally stunned. “Did any­one get a photo?” I asked. No, we had all been as sur­prised as each other by the close en­counter.

The pair sur­faced again fur­ther away. We also spot­ted a third orca that was clearly part of the lit­tle group but not trav­el­ling as closely to them. Our boat was fol­low­ing the coast­line south, and the or­cas were trav­el­ling in the same di­rec­tion, al­beit slalom­ing across our path – some­times sur­fac­ing on one side, some­times an­other; some­times rel­a­tively close, some­times sev­eral hun­dred me­tres away. We each took hun­dreds of photos of bits of dor­sal fin peep­ing above the waves as the or­cas shal­low-dived.

“They are hunt­ing for fish,” said our guide, Brady. “Or any­thing else they come across, such as seals or por­poises.” As if on cue, a large salmon leapt out of the wa­ter. The orca were cir­cling in pur­suit of the fish so we stopped, turned the engine off and Brady low­ered a hy­drophone into the wa­ter, but there wasn’t much to be heard. “They will be tran­sients,” said Brady. “If they were res­i­dents they would be a fam­ily group and com­mu­ni­cat­ing with each other all the time. But these guys are hunt­ing and not re­ally com­mu­ni­cat­ing with each other.”

Of­ten de­scribed as the wolves of the sea, or­cas are di­vided into three eco­types: res­i­dents who stay in an area in fam­ily groups and eat fish; tran­sients who travel and hunt over a large range and are more op­por­tunis­tic about what they eat; and off­shore orca who live far out to sea and have been lit­tle stud­ied.

We started the engine again and car­ried on at the same speed as the or­cas. Even­tu­ally, around an hour af­ter we had first en­coun­tered them, an­other boat came up be­hind us, be­long­ing to some peo­ple from the lo­cal com­mu­nity, and we re­luc­tantly left the crea­tures be­hind.

“We have been get­ting great orca sight­ings this year,” said Brady. “But this was one of the most mag­i­cal orca ex­pe­ri­ences I have ever had.” Only the evening be­fore, back at our lodge,

‘“We’ve had great orca sight­ings this year. But that was one of the most mag­i­cal I have ever had”’

we had heard from a re­searcher that or­cas have the largest brain rel­a­tive to body weight of any an­i­mal on Earth, that they are highly so­cial and have em­pa­thy, and that they are the only an­i­mals other than us who go through the menopause.

As­sis­tant guide David turned to me. “Our peo­ple are all one of four clans: Raven, Wolf, Ea­gle or Black­fish (orca). I am a Black­fish. So that was very spe­cial for me.” David is one of the lo­cal Ki­ta­soo and Xai’xais First Na­tions who have lived in this area for thou­sands of years. Al­though two distinct indige­nous groups, they have come to­gether, with most of the pop­u­la­tion liv­ing in Klemtu, a re­mote vil­lage based on one of the mul­ti­tude of is­lands that pock­mark this stretch of the Bri­tish Columbia coast.

Twenty years ago, re­al­is­ing that their peo­ple needed al­ter­na­tive ways of mak­ing a liv­ing, two of the com­mu­nity de­cided that tourism could be the an­swer. They live in the heart of the Great Bear Rain­for­est, part of the world’s largest tem­per­ate rain­for­est, with a greater biomass even than the Ama­zon jun­gle. Their ini­tial idea de­vel­oped into eco­tourism, and then into Spirit Bear Lodge, a pi­o­neer­ing ecolodge owned by the com­mu­nity.

What brings many of the guests here is the pos­si­bil­ity of see­ing the re­gion’s most fa­mous res­i­dent, the rare spirit bear, a white-furred ge­netic vari­ant of the black bear of which only a few hun­dred ex­ist. I have longed to see one, ever since I first heard whis­pers about them many years ago.

Hence, I had ar­rived at the lodge in a state of ex­cite­ment the pre­vi­ous af­ter­noon, but man­ager John Czornobaj soon dashed my ex­pec­ta­tions of spot­ting a spirit bear. He ges­tured to the warm sun­shine out­side: “This heat­wave is very un­usual. The hot weather and no rain means ev­ery­thing has been turned on its head. The salmon can’t get in the rivers yet, and it’s an ex­cep­tional berry year, too, so no need for the bears to come to the rivers. Even in a nor­mal sea­son your chance of see­ing one would have been no more than 50%, but this year, spot­ting them is very dif­fi­cult.”

John pre­dicted that I would nev­er­the­less en­joy the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing here. “You don’t get to see wilder­ness like this any more. This is the crown jewel of the Great Bear Rain­for­est. It is pro­tected and will stay that way. The deep con­nec­tion to land that the peo­ple have here is very spe­cial; it has lasted thou­sands of years. They have sto­ries con­nected to each place in the ter­ri­tory, which go back to a time when magic still ex­isted. It’s a re­ally au­then­tic cul­ture. They live and feel it.”

Later, news came in that a lo­cal per­son had spot­ted a white bear that very day at a cer­tain in­let, and so John sug­gested that I should join some guests who would be go­ing there the next day. We clam­bered into the boat af­ter break­fast, all will­ing that this would be a lucky day. Brady in­tro­duced our cap­tain as Char­lie Ma­son, hered­i­tary chief of the Ki­ta­soo. It was Char­lie who, along with Dou­glas Neasloss, chief coun­cil­lor for the Na­tion, in­sti­gated tourism and the lodge.

A heavy mist hung over the wa­ter and cur­tained the forested hill­sides as we chugged past a pod of por­poises and through a chan­nel, be­fore even­tu­ally emerg­ing on the coast. Around 90 min­utes af­ter leav­ing the lodge, we pulled into an in­let. Char­lie an­chored the boat and we trans­ferred into a cou­ple

‘“The deep con­nec­tion to land that peo­ple have here is spe­cial; it has lasted thou­sands of years”’

of Zo­di­acs, one fol­low­ing the shore on one side of the bay, ours tak­ing the other side.

Hav­ing spot­ted noth­ing, we turned back to an area where a creek fed into the bay, turned off the engine and bobbed about. It was a pretty spot, and the creek had a small set of falls. Brady ex­plained that above the falls was a la­goon that pro­vided ideal con­di­tions for sock­eye salmon. When there has been rain, and when the tide is high, the wa­ter rises to sub­merge the falls and the salmon swim up the creek.

The wa­ter was crys­tal clear, and a school of 20 salmon passed un­der our Zo­diac. David ex­plained that the com­mu­nity had al­ready com­pleted its fish­ing for the sea­son as they had caught enough salmon for the win­ter. “We prac­tice con­ser­va­tion. We got taught by our el­ders not to mis­treat the land and the wa­ter. Oth­er­wise, one day we will run out of food.”

For sev­eral hours – in­ter­rupted only by a break back on the main boat – we floated in the bright sun­shine, the tem­per­a­ture in the early 20s, a gen­tle breeze blow­ing. The sole sound was the run­ning wa­ter of the falls, punc­tu­ated by the oc­ca­sional keen­ing of a bald ea­gle and the splash of jump­ing salmon. But we even­tu­ally had to ad­mit de­feat on the white bear front, and re­joined the boat. But it was as we left the bay that na­ture de­cided to present us with a mag­i­cal black­fish en­counter.

Bear­ing up

The next day we re­joined Char­lie and Brady but took a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. We spent time in an en­chanted for­est, rev­el­ling in the pro­found si­lence, the an­cient trees, the rich smells. We walked a trail in sin­gle file, our steps muf­fled, and emerged at a spot where two creeks con­verged. Eight bald ea­gles took off from the sur­round­ing trees but then re­turned to their perches where they watched for salmon. We sat on logs in a state of reverie, next to old hem­lock trees cov­ered in lichen. Then, re­turn­ing to the boat, we found a tuft of spirit bear fur on a bush next to the trail.

At our next stop it was tufts of griz­zly fur that were in ev­i­dence. In a beau­ti­ful river val­ley we took to the Zo­di­acs and pulled up at a ‘stomp’ trail used by griz­zlies to visit a ‘rub­bing tree’. We walked to the side of the well-worn path, cov­ered in bear tracks, as Brady ex­plained that in breed­ing sea­son the bears would come here to rub against the spruce tree, leav­ing their scent. “It’s like the Tin­der of the bear world.”

We still hadn’t seen an ac­tual bear, whether white, black or brown. But one of my fel­low guests, who like me was leav­ing in the morn­ing, mused that she had still en­joyed her stay. “Sit­ting in that boat yes­ter­day in per­fect si­lence – it was the clos­est to a med­i­ta­tive ex­pe­ri­ence I have ever had. I don’t know how I ex­plain that to fam­ily and friends but it was very spe­cial.”

My fi­nal morn­ing dawned, and there was a buzz in the air be­cause dark clouds cloaked the sky, and the tem­per­a­ture was no­tice­ably cooler. I was dis­ap­pointed to be leav­ing, but was promised we’d be look­ing for wildlife on the way to the lit­tle air­port at Bella Bella. This time our as­sis­tant guide was Troy and he in­tro­duced him­self as a Raven. He ex­plained how the clan al­ways fol­lows the mother’s side, and so his mother is a Raven too, while his dad is a Wolf. He ad­mit­ted to a strong affin­ity with Ravens and that he “talks” to them us­ing the same call.

⊳ What three days ear­lier may have seemed a slightly sur­real con­ver­sa­tion to be hav­ing, now seemed com­pletely nat­u­ral.

Set­ting off, we headed into a fjord, moody clouds blan­ket­ing the tops of the cliffs. The boat sud­denly slowed down as a hump­back whale had been spot­ted. I went out onto the back deck in time to see it do a shal­low dive. “It’s been un­der a long…” I started to say but was in­ter­rupted by a whoosh­ing sound, and the whale sur­faced right by the boat, let­ting out a huge ex­ha­la­tion as it did so. We laughed in ex­hil­a­ra­tion, but then had to cover our faces as its rank-smelling breath en­veloped us.

Car­ry­ing on fur­ther up the fjord, we an­chored the boat at its end and took the Zo­di­acs to a spit of sand. Clams scat­tered the ground as we walked in sin­gle file along the beach, across tidal flats and onto an area of sedge grass. A griz­zly had re­cently been spot­ted here, and so Brady was hop­ing we might get a sight­ing. We headed for a cou­ple of bushy small trees and hun­kered down, try­ing to merge into them.

Troy re­vealed that he was the grand­son of Char­lie, the chief, and that Char­lie’s mother came from this bay. It was beau­ti­ful but more for­bid­ding than some of the other places we had been, and surely suf­fered cold win­ters and strong winds. The diet of Troy’s great-grand­mother would have been fish, crab, berries and seals.

He then told us the cre­ation myth of his peo­ple. A raven was the cre­ator, and it was look­ing for a suit­able place to cre­ate hu­man life. This spot had red cedar and sitka trees, and it had fish, clams and mus­sels. The raven landed and beat his wings twice. One wing fell and was the first man, the sec­ond wing fell off and was the first woman.

We had a hushed con­ver­sa­tion about leav­ing for the air­port, and started to shift when a flicker of move­ment caught our at­ten­tion. We could see glimpses of a griz­zly bear run­ning, mostly hid­den by the long grass. It stopped and teased us with sight­ings of its ears, head and back as it slowly made its way along a shal­low gully. Ev­ery now and then it put its head up and looked to­wards us, clearly aware of our pres­ence.

It re­ally was time for us to leave, but then the bear strolled out onto the tidal flats. She was still a good dis­tance away but, as she emerged, we re­alised why she had been so cau­tious of us. Fol­low­ing her were two cubs, around 12 to 18 months old. Un­like mum, they were un­con­cerned and hap­pily wres­tled and played.

We sat mo­tion­less and in si­lence. The mother kept check­ing on us, sniff­ing the air. Even­tu­ally, they turned away and dis­ap­peared back out of sight, the long sedge grass and for­est be­hind swal­low­ing all trace of them.

Spirit Bear Lodge’s man­ager, John, had told me how com­ing to the lodge had been a life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for him. With my too brief visit, I couldn’t claim that, and I had ul­ti­mately failed in my quest to see the white bears my­self. Yet I re­alised that I nev­er­the­less felt en­riched. Oh, and that I had just ex­pe­ri­enced the best air­port trans­fer ever.

‘Af­ter laugh­ing, we had to cover our faces as the whale’s rank-smelling breath en­veloped us’

Pro­tected par­adise Since 2016, 85% of the vast Great Bear Rain­for­est has been safe­guarded from in­dus­trial log­ging

Whale of a time A hump­back breaches the wa­ters;(be­low) Char­lie Ma­son, hered­i­tary chief of the Ki­ta­soo

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