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
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.
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.
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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