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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Spirit Bear

Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen journey to the Great Bear Rainforest in Canada to find the Spirit Bear of the Gitga’at People

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The magnificent Spirit Bear, or Kermode bear, exists because of a rare genetic mutation. It's a white black bear. There are only a few hundred in the wild, and very few people, other than the local Gitga'at people, have seen one.

Fewer than 500—that's the number of Spirit Bears that exist in the entire world. A shy creature, until recently considered mythical, and one that very few people outside of this area had ever even seen, the Spirit Bear is a "white" black bear. The first time I heard it described, I didn't quite get it, but when I saw one for the first time, the seeming contradiction became clear. The Spirit Bear, also known as the Kermode bear, has a genetic mutation that's carried by a few black bears in this area and nowhere else. Every once in a while—and given the right genetic roll of the dice—a black mother will give birth to a cub of pure-white fur, or vice versa. It's quite a treat to see two cubs of different colors born in the same litter. These aren't albino bears; they're white black bears—Oreo-cookie bears.

Seen from the air, this rugged region of British Columbia, Canada, features an intricate network of fjords, islands and snowcapped peaks.
Paul Nicklen and I are hoping to catch a glimpse into the secret life of the Spirit Bear, and to do so we begin our assignment with a series of flights over the Great Bear Rainforest, located between the Pacific Ocean and the Coast Mountain Range on the west coast of British Columbia, the home of this rare creature. Veteran LightHawk volunteer pilot Steven Garman flies us over the jagged, snow-covered peaks along the coast so we can photograph the vast network of channels, islands and fjords that gives this landscape its rugged, almost unreachable character. As we spin and twist onboard his Cessna 185, the vastness and remoteness of the Great Bear Rainforest becomes apparent. Open windows let the chilly air rush in; with cameras firing and the unbroken forest below us, I realize that not only is the home of the secretive Spirit Bear in the middle of nowhere, but it's also huge and inaccessible. I wonder how we'll ever find such a rare creature in such a vast forest, but I keep my worries to myself.

After a week of working from the air, we decide that the best plan is for Paul to spend another week working on overflights, while I find my way to Kyel, a seasonal fishing camp that's so remote and so small, it doesn't ever appear on a map. Paul was there last year, and that's how he met Marven Robinson, a handsome young Gitga'at man who's known throughout this land for being the best Spirit Bear guide. The Gitga'at revere the Spirit Bear as one of their totem animals. First, I must travel to the small coastal town of Hartley Bay to find Marven and to get a glimpse into the life of the Gitga'at First Nation.

A well-placed camera trap captured this bear up-close.
Fewer than 200 Gitga'at people live in Hartley Bay. Few outsiders come here, except to refuel their boats and stretch tired sea legs. The Gitga'at are a very friendly and welcoming people, but they value their privacy, and strangers are seldom seen roaming the handsome boardwalks that crisscross the tiny village. Most homes have a view to the bay, and if you sit quietly by a window, you can see the constant comings and goings of all the fishing boats. The Gitga'at people are a coastal First Nation, and as such, their very existence is tied to the sea.

Being a "sea people," the Gitga'at depend on the ocean for the majority of their food: halibut, either fried, baked or turned into a "wok," thinly sliced and then either dried or smoked. For all Gitga'at, however, the harvest time, a precious few weeks during spring and autumn, is a joyful season of family time spent gathering seaweed, berries and other fascinating foods, like cockles and lady slippers.

As the chartered Cessna I've hired to take me to Kyel lands on floats over a rough sea, I spot the fishing boat, captained by Marven, that has appeared out of nowhere to pick me up. Marven takes me to Kyel, and I'm placed in the care and household of Anetta Robinson, his mother. Anetta runs a tight household, and her many children, nieces and nephews are constantly busy with all the tasks involved in fishing, fixing gear and preparing food. Loads of halibut, salmon and octopus are brought in every day to be sliced, smoked or pickled. Every so often, the men bring in a seal or a sea lion, a catch that's much valued and appreciated by all as it renders fat and meat to feed the community during the winter. There are no more than seven or eight houses in Kyel, and there are more than 100 people there. As many as 15 people sleep in each house every night. I'm given a top bunk in the corner. Every evening I stay up, listening to the Gitga'at as they play cards, smoke and talk late into the night.


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