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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 Gitga'at people are inextricably tied to the sea. They depend upon the ocean to provide most of their food. Here, halibut is sliced thinly, then dried.
I hear them whispering their concerns over a proposed pipeline that will transport dirty oil from the Alberta Tar Sands to the coast. The First Nations and the environmental community are gearing up to battle with massive oil corporations determined to create an oil superhighway to the coast. Once the pipeline reaches the coast, the oil will be shipped to markets in China; enormous megatankers will be brought in to carry it through the intricate maze of small channels and fjords we saw from the air. It isn't difficult to envision that given these treacherous waters, it's only a matter of time before an accident happens and oil is spilled into the pristine waters. I can imagine how scary it must be to have the threat of your entire livelihood taken away so easily.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, people never would have dreamed of putting energy needs over food security. In today's carbon era, however, that doesn't seem to be a problem for governments and corporations alike. What's the big deal in sacrificing the livelihoods, traditions and sustenance of entire indigenous communities when the rest of us won't accept paying the full ecological price at the pump? Do we even make the connections between the landscapes lost, species imperiled and indigenous people stripped of life and home and ancestral ways of life to accommodate our bad energy habits? Paul and I believe that as a civilized society, we're failing to make those critical connections, but photography can help us better understand the links between causes of environmental degradation and the full consequences paid through the entire life cycle of "energy production."

I spend 10 magical days in Kyel, and just when I'm beginning to get my Gitga'at groove, I'm once again joined by Paul, who has concluded the aerial portion of this expedition and is ready for us to venture into the land of the Spirit Bear. Everything in the Great Bear Rainforest is wet, not surprisingly. The incessant rain that falls day in and day out isn't a mild drizzle; it's a cold, miserable deluge that soaks everything. I miss the warm stove in Anetta's house. Within minutes, we're completely soaked, and for the next 10 days, everything we own, including camera equipment, is in a constant state of dripping. Paul carries the bulk of the equipment, and I follow him quietly as we make our way upstream, walking on the riverbed and keeping an eye out for bears, wolves and cougars.

Paul knows this stream well. It's a sacred waterway for the Gitga'at, but Marven has made an exception and has given us permission to work here. Paul leads me to a series of small waterfalls, and we set up a blind to wait for the bears to come. Sitting still and completely quiet on a thick bed of wet moss for over eight hours day after day isn't my idea of fun, but as Paul has told me many times, we must conquer boredom and fatigue to get the shot. Several black bears come to the stream to gorge themselves on the hundreds of salmon that gather at the foot of the waterfalls, waiting for their chance to leap into the next leg of the stream. No white bears come. Marven explains that it might be because this year the berries are growing thick up on the hills, and the bears, flush with sweet fruit, are taking their time to come down to the streams, where they will fish for salmon and fatten themselves in preparation for the coming winter.

After a few days of tedious and unsuccessful waiting, I have to leave the Great Bear Rainforest and leave Paul to finish the work alone. I get his sad reports every few days: no Spirit Bears.

A few weeks later, I'm in Vancouver waiting for Paul's floatplane to arrive. We've had no communication for several weeks, and I'm not sure of what to expect, but when I see his happy smile as he comes off the plane, I know he has found them. When he shows me the images, it becomes clear that not only did he find a Spirit Bear, he got to spend a whole day following the bear through the forest. "This was Marven's gift to me," he tells me. When Marven showed him the bear, Paul was told Marven had known him since he was a cub, and he told Paul, "Stay close to him, and you will get your pictures." Following that advice, Paul was able to create a photographic essay of a rare and elusive animal that has seldom been seen. The images are intimate and poetic; they reveal the secret trails that the Spirit Bear travels, and like the Gitga'at did for me, the bear offered Paul a glimpse into a magical world very much in danger of changing forever.


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