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

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.

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.

The salmon-rich rivers provide a classic bear staple.

What’s in Paul Nicklen’s bag?

As an assignment photographer working in extreme and remote locations, Paul Nicklen’s first priority is to keep his gear functioning. Water, dirt, air, moisture and extreme temperatures all affect a camera’s performance. The first job is to get the shot—and that means that sometimes both photographer and camera sit out in the elements for extended periods of time. Although every effort should be made to keep gear out of the rain, in a place like the Great Bear Rainforest, more often than not, that’s impossible. So how does Nicklen protect his delicate gear? Here are a few tips to help:

1 If the shot demands that you spend a long period of time waiting under the rain, a large umbrella can be a lifesaver.
2 Make sure that your camera bags have built-in rain protection.
3 A large waterproof shell that covers your head and upper body also can shield your gear in a pinch.
4 A waterproof camouflage tarp can be used to build an ephemeral shelter for yourself and your gear if you’ll be in one place for a while.
5 Purchase a rain cover for your camera. Buy one that allows you to keep the gear dry without obstructing the controls.
6 Carry multiple dry terry cloths in Ziploc® bags to wipe cameras down and clean lenses as they become wet.
7 Disassemble, wipe dry and air out your equipment every night. Zoom your lenses all the way out to dry them in case there’s moisture inside the barrel.
8 Be careful when changing batteries and memory cards in the field so that you don’t introduce moisture to the inside of the camera.
9 Protect yourself, too. A good pair of waterproof boots with excellent traction and a warm hat that keeps your head dry are essential for preserving valuable body heat.

Both the Spirit Bear and the Gitga’at people have been living and dying in the Great Bear Rainforest for countless generations, and their entire existence is tied to a clean, healthy coastline where they can find the foods that sustain them, both physically and spiritually.

No one should have the right to take that home away and forever change their futures. As long as there are Gitga’at here, there’s hope for a future with no oil tankers in northern British Columbia, and Paul Nicklen and I stand proudly with them to protect this ancient land.

Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen were part of a 10-photographer iLCP team that documented the beauty of and the threats to the Great Bear Rainforest. The results of the RAVE expedition are featured in the documentary film SPOIL, produced by EP Films. Nicklen’s work was featured in the August 2011 issue of National Geographic. Images from the expedition are traveling across Canada in an iLCP/Pacific Wild exhibit designed to raise awareness on the proposed pipeline. Learn more at