The Spirit of B.C.'s Mid-Coast

White Spirit bear on rock in stream
Only after the Last Tree has been cut down,
Only after the Last River has been poisoned,
Only after the Last Fish has been caught,
Only then will you find that Money Cannot be Eaten.
Cree Prophecy

There is a spirit that moves through the rainforest of British Colombia's mid-coast. I have seen it. Merging with the morning mist, a white anti-shadow moving against the current of streams, receding back into thick foliage. Here. Then gone. Then here again. Spirit bear.

As with other elusive creatures, he goes by many names: spirit bear, white bear, kermode bear, and moksgm'ol by the local Tsimshian natives. By scientific classification he is a black bear - ursus americanus - with a double recessive gene, making this black bear a white bear, but not an albino. Only the mating of a male and female black bear that both carry this gene will produce a white bear. Both the bear's parents can be black, as can be its siblings, as can be its offspring. He is a semantic contradiction. He is a genetic celebration of uniqueness. He is something to see.

I have flown, on a series of successively smaller planes, to see the spirit bear. My final touchdown will be on the waters of the Inside Passage, 35 minutes by float plane from Bella Bella, almost halfway between Vancouver and the Alaskan border. Only here, on BC's mid-coast are these bears to be found. They have only been seen as far north as the Nass Valley and as far south as the Kwatna River in Burke Channel near Bella Coola. It is estimated that only one in seven black bears on Princess Royal Island, the heart of spirit bear country, is white. It is believed Princess Royal's isolation has concentrated the characteristic. Out of a population of about 130 black bears, estimates suggest there are between nine and 20 white bears.

The sky is unseasonably clear and sunny for the start of storm season. Our single-engine Otter float plane flies low, allowing us a clear view of the undulating coast and numerous islands of the Inside Passage. Marine traffic is quiet. With the summer gone, gone too are the numerous pleasure craft and larger tour ships that move through the relative safety of the Passage. In contrast, beyond the western edge of the barrier of coastal islands that form the Passage lie the dangerous shallow waters of Hecate Strait, known for its mammoth waves and, across the strait at Cape St. James, the highest recorded winds in Canada. Now, below, the only vessel seen is a tug dragging two barges, one piled high with raw logs, the other with what appears to be trimmed logs or planks. Fragmenting the luxurious green of the temperate rainforest below are the dire, brown clearcuts that have produced shiploads of similar logs.

Reverie is broken as the pilot begins our descent for a gentle landing on a remote bay on the east shore of Princess Royal, the fourth largest island on Canada's West Coast. Photographer Mike Beedell and I, along with seven others, are greeted by Tom Ellison, a tall, rugged man in a sleeveless red plaid shirt. Tom stands in the inflatable zodiac with the confidence of decades on the water as he shuttles us from the plane to the Ocean Light II, his 20-metre ketch. Our group includes a rancher, a professor, an animal shelter volunteer, a physiotherapist, a retired opthamologist, a jewellery designer and several photographers. This is the typical mixed-bag clientele that Tom, his partner Jen Broom and their 20-month-old daughter Sarah, welcome on to their sailboat throughout the summer. For the next seven days the yacht will be our floating base camp from which we will explore the heart of Princess Royal, its salmon creeks. If we are lucky we'll see a bit of its spirit.

Late in the afternoon of our first day we arrive at one of the many streams spilling into the ocean. The stream should now be thick with spawning salmon. Instead, a lack of coastal rain has left the stream too shallow for the fish to navigate. Tom says the creek is running at only one-tenth its volume for this time of year, although one good rain would be enough to send the fish upstream. We have only a couple of hours until sunset but are eager to use every minute of light looking for bears.

This is the rainforest at its finest and final stage of life: old growth. Trees here are hundreds - in some cases, thousands - of years old, some germinating when Vikings were landing on our East Coast. Fir, hemlock, spruce and cedar, trees that played a critical role in the evolution of the native coastal peoples. In particular cedar, which provided shelter, clothing, tools, transportation and medicine, was so integral as to evoke this homage by late Haida artist Bill Reid:

Oh, the cedar tree! If mankind in his infancy had prayed for the perfect substance for all materials and aesthetic needs, an indulgent god could have provided nothing better.

In life and in death these trees also provide sustenance and shelter for other plants and animals. While alive, they are a base for epiphytes, plants such as lichens, mosses and ferns that live on the surface of other plants. In old age, their insides dry and hollow out, providing cozy winter dens for bears. Dead and decaying, the snags and fallen trees serve as nurse logs to new trees and smaller plants that take root in the rot. Layer upon layer. Green upon green. These old-growth temperate rainforests are among the most massive ecosystems on earth, more full of life than even their tropical counterparts.

We split into two groups; some of us head upstream along a bear path through the dense underbrush. The rest remain at the mouth of the creek. We set up the cameras and spotting scope on an outcrop and wait for an hour. Two black bears come to the stream to fish, but the light is dropping, dimming our view. Reluctantly, we make our way back downstream and wait by the mouth for the zodiac to return. I lean against the trunk of a fallen tree, my mind wandering from bears to bush, wondering about this rainforest and its inhabitants.

I'm snapped out of my thoughts by a hefty black bear who emerges four metres away. He is as surprised to see me as I am him. There are a few moments of eye contact while we both weigh our next move. I'm the first to call 'uncle'; I duck behind the log, hoping that a metre of wood will protect me from 150 kilograms of muscle.

My response is automatic and triggered not by personal experience but by a widespread belief that all bears at all times are not just potentially dangerous but naturally belligerent. But apart from his initial curiosity of me, right here, right now, this guy would rather eat than fight. Its autumn and salmon is the only dish on his meal plan.

With no more effort than reaching for the canned version off the shelf, he dips his head into the eddy, pulls out a substantial two kilo pink and disappears back into the forest.

That night, gathered around Ocean Light's galley table, our conversation turns to the white bear and efforts to protect it. Eleven years ago a similar conversation snowballed into a proposal for the conservancy of the spirit bear and its habitat. After a week of looking for the kermode, bear biologists Wayne McCrory and Erica Mallam, leading forces behind the Valhalla Wilderness Society (VWS), Bart Robinson, former editor of Equinox Magazine, and Tom, a former forester, considered the bears' future. It looked grim. A number of forestry licences had been granted for the area and the four conservationists felt it wouldn't be long before the logging companies started cutting. That night, they drew the first lines on a map forming the provisional boundary of what would become the Spirit Bear Conservancy Proposal.

Now, after years of field research and studies and discussions with the Kitasoo people, traditional inhabitants of the area, VWS - the main champions of the cause - has presented a more or less final report and proposal to the BC government. Native requests and a review of the proposal by a panel of scientists early this year will add the final touches.

The current proposal seeks to protect an area of 300,000 hectares that includes the southern two-thirds of Princess Royal Island, numerous smaller islands and a chunk of the mainland on the opposite side of the Passage from Princess Royal. Biologist Wayne McCrory says this is the most outstanding of the areas currently queuing for government protection in terms of size, biodiversity, and, of course, the white bear. It also includes over 60 watersheds that provide critical spawning grounds to five species of salmon. Supporters of the proposal stress the urgency of protecting the area.

Some believe provincial officials have been slow to act. After a decade of deliberation since the first call for a park, the government has placed under study and given interim protection of two years to just one-third of the proposed area. Meanwhile, the bears wander the forest oblivious to negotiations and deliberations.

The next morning we again make our way up the bear path. We part tresses of witches' hair, a pale green lichen traditionally used by the Nuxalk natives to decorate dance masks with whiskers and hair. We carefully push aside Devil's Club, a relative of ginseng and one of the most important medicinal shrubs of the coast, avoiding contact with the stinging spines running down its trunk. Through every break in the foliage we check the stream for the bear. No sign.

Then, just before reaching yesterday's outcrop, we see a flash of white through the curtain of green. We quickly make our way to an opening in the bush. There in the riffles on the far side of the stream, up to his belly in water, patiently fishing for breakfast, is the spirit bear.

His cream-coloured coat is luminescent in the morning light; an apricot mantle cloaks his neck and shoulders. He is a four-legged Buddha of tranquillity, living in the moment and the moment is food.

He is making his way downstream toward the mouth. He has a definite but unhurried agenda: a fish here, a fish there. Breakfast. A third fish, a fourth fish. Winter's coming. He pulls the salmon from the depths of centre stream, from the faster water of constricted, shallow areas, and from quiet eddies with the same success rate. Not every attempt is a hit but during the half hour we watch him he catches his fill. His success is partially due to his acumen as a fisher, partially due to the number of salmon making their way upstream and, frankly also due to the fact that some are already dead. With the numerous live - albeit terminal - salmon available, it is a surprise to see him eat so many dead and rotting fish. Sometimes he eats them mid-stream but usually he takes his catch back to the bank and eats it either standing up or, occasionally, sitting on his haunches like a dog. Working the stream, he follows the current down to the fast water of the mouth, along the salt water shore of the inlet and disappears into the forest.

While he is out of sight, presumably snoozing, we head back upstream to the outcrop and have an early lunch. The time is not without entertainment. The show goes on. We watch a black bear belly up to the buffet. Like the white bear, he has a repertoire of fishing styles. The most dramatic - but surprisingly effective - is a spectacular belly flop off a small chunk of island into deep water, submerging his head and resurfacing with a salmon flapping in his jaws. He also feels about in the water with his front paws, eyes transfixed but unfocused while concentrating on feeling for his food. Farther down and midstream he walks on his hind legs, chest submerged and leading, shoulders drooping below the water line, front paws hanging limply deep in the water by his sides. Ursus Frankensteinus. Steam from his warm breath on the cool water draws a halo above his head. Dots of foam created by the fast water sparkle in the morning sun and swirl about his neck in a florescent collar. Then, most surprisingly, he sticks his face deep into the water - including his eyes - so that all that remains in view are his crown and little round ears. After he leaves we head farther up the creek. There in the same riffles as this morning is the white bear back for another round of roe. This time he is going up stream.

Tom joins us and we wade through the water to a small island. Well over six-feet tall and familiar with the water, Tom is across in no time. But by mid-stream, the water is up and over my hip waders. I steady myself with the tripod from my spotting scope but still must drag my now full 15-kilogram boots across to the other side. I quickly drain them and we push into the bush. It is difficult to determine what is solid ground and what isn't. The island is a jumble of huge fallen trees, layer upon layer resting on boulders. In between, the spaces have filled with the chartreuse tentacles of moss and lichen that weave to form springy carpets and cushioned perches. Below the jumble, rushing water braids and unbraids. Above it the canopy obscures most of the sky. The air is rich with the pungent, dank smell of the Pacific Northwest.

We find the bear on the far side of the island climbing over a wall of logs. At first we hide behind a five-metre upturned fan of roots from a fallen hemlock and allow him to move around us. The bear is not oblivious to us but appears in no way perturbed. He's curious but has more important things on his mind: salmon. Now I am straddling the midsection of a fallen tree that forms a perfect bridge across the creek, a metre above the water. The bear moves to the far end and on to the log, walking towards me. I back off to allow him passage but he stops mid-way - just where I had been sitting - drops into the pool below and heads into the bush on the far shore.

When my heart beat returns to normal I look around and try to imagine this forest razed to the ground. Images of landscape stripped bare by clearcutting come to mind but I can't transfer the idea here. This is not your backyard garden. These forests are thousands of years old and thick with hundreds of species. How do we get from here to there? From vertical beauty to horizontal disfigurement. Apparently quite easily. Using modern logging practices, what takes a thousand years to build, can take minutes to level. Only recently have we begun to rethink what we once called progress.

In the early 1990s, the BC government began a laborious process of identifying new tracts of land for protection in the Central Coast Plan Area (CCPA), which covers 4.8 million hectares between Johnstone Strait and Princess Royal Island. A home to the spirit bear and about 3,500 permanent residents, primarily native. In May 1992 the government identified sites in the Central Coast as potential candidates for protection. This was a prelude to the government's Protected Areas Strategy, announced in July 1993, which outlined their commitment to develop and expand protected areas to 12 percent of the province's landbase, including freshwater lakes, by 2000. The protected zones would represent the natural diversity of the province or special features such as rare and endangered species, critical habitats and outstanding or unique botanical, zoological, geological and paleontological features.

While they're under study, the sites are subject to Interim Management Guidelines that halt logging, road construction, sale of Crown land, mineral claim-staking and tenures. At the time of the 1992 site identification, approximately 11 percent of the area of the CCPA was already protected; the new areas added an additional 22 percent. But in 1997, the government decreased the amount of land under study and protection to seven percent. The changes were "based on short term socio-economic implications... (and) trade-offs, both socio-economic and political..."

The study areas that coincide with Valhalla's proposed boundaries are "top priority, Goal 1" for the government and total about 113,000 hectares. It's a far cry from Valhalla's proposal of 300,000 hectares.

However, Bill Dumont, chief forester of Western Forest Products (WFP), B.C.'s oldest forestry company, did not foresee the approval of a protected area of the magnitude described by Valhalla. WFP's forestry licence was granted in 1958 and includes Tree Farm Licence 25, of which Block 5 covers the central coast around Princess Royal. Mr. Dumont was surprised at the current size of Valhalla's proposal stating it had tripled in size from what he knew of it. If accepted in its entirety, the proposal would have a "devastating effect on WFP," he said, although later he added "the vast majority of the area has mostly non-commercial timber values."

Mr. Dumont says one of the companies acquired by WFP over the years has been logging on B.C.'s coast since 1857 and was granted its first licence in the southern portion of Princess Royal in 1904. The company built the province's first wood-based pulp mill in the early 1900s at Swanson Bay on the mainland across from the island. In 1929, the mill closed with the fallout from the Depression. Now, decades later, B.C.'s forestry industry faces not only the vagaries of the world economy but another, equally challenging threat: the environmental movement.

"We in B.C. have all been through the wringer," Mr. Dumont concedes. "The first method of resolving the conflict without having winners and losers is to sit down at the negotiating table. We will decide the land use for these areas - not people in Toronto, Washington or Bonn - we who sat at the table."

On day three we forego breakfast and move upstream early, this time on the opposite bank arriving at the stream on the far side of the riffles. He is already there trolling in the morning mist. He is a pale figure in the pale light, mist rising with the sun over the cool water. He feels about under the rocks reminding me of a raccoon searching for crayfish. As always, he eats the fish starting at the tail. Perhaps he gets better purchase from holding the head and gills against the rock than he does by holding the thin slippery tail. It does mean he can have dessert first: fish eggs. Leaning on the fish's belly with his other front paw he squeezes out a stream of roe licking it off the rocks and from between his claws. Then the main course. He genteelly filets the fish with his teeth. Then, with a mouthful, he points his snout skyward as his lower jaw flaps up and down to meet the stationary upper jaw. No filling of the cheeks, no back-of-the-mouth mastication. Like the wooden mouth of a ventriloquist's dummy, a pulley system pulling lower jaw to upper jaw. Lips and nose now covered in blood like garish smeared lipstick on a drunken wench. Eyes glazed over in gastronomic rapture. Ah, spawning season.

He leaves us and does not return until after 3 p.m. When he does he makes his way on to a mid-stream log beside which Tom floats in a kayak. The bear makes its way along the log coming within a metre of the bow, returns to the other end of the log and, perhaps showing off, goes for a theatrical pounce into the water. To his certain chagrin, however, he slips mid-pounce and ends up splayed over the log, half on, half off in the water.

He travels at speeds we can't, both faster and slower. Not only his ability to run twice as fast as a human but his ability to move with the leisure of molasses in winter. In the water, fishing, his every step seems considered. He moves like a horse but without the definition of conformation; the skeletal structure lost under layers of muscle, pre-hibernation fat and fluffy coat. Right hind, right front, left hind, left front, his stumpy legs moving methodically through the water, over boulders, under brush.

We follow him upstream. He is about to lift himself over a tangle of logs when he jumps back and hides behind it instead. We wonder if we have startled him but a more serious threat has emerged, a black bear. During spawning season bears come within very close proximity of each other while working the same lower reaches of a stream. These two seem matched in size but the white bear backs off into the bush. Now the black bear is startled and moves off into the forest. This time it's our fault. One of our group slipped in the mud and down an embankment. It was fortuitous however because it brought the white bear back. We stay with him for another 45 minutes before he goes for a snooze and we wait two hours in the drizzle for his return.

Not only has he seemed to accept us but we are beginning to think, perhaps wishfully, that he welcomes our company. When he re-emerges it is right in front of us. He doesn't skirt through the forest to another section of creek. Instead he comes within two metres of Mike and me. He looks curious and holds our gaze for some time. His head slightly cocked with perplexity. His brown eyes and eyeshadow have the ill-defined softness of suede, the colour of cappuccino. The same hue lightly outlines his mouth. He has two significant scars across the bridge of his nose. He picks a salmon from the water and sits on his butt just metres away.

Without a doubt, it is normally only fools that sit this close to bears. Many bears, habituated to human food and garbage, have become very aggressive. Our fault, not theirs. But this guy, well-fed on what he should be eating, seems trusting and trustworthy. Wayne McCrory says the bears in this area have shown less fear of humans than most bears. "Perhaps", he later speculates, "it is a tolerance developed in the past when the coast was heavily populated with native groups."

"But not all of them are like this guy," Tom warns. As a precaution, a few of us carry bear spray and we stick together. Although, after a decade with the bears, Tom has yet to use the spray. As he says throughout the trip: "If you have to use it, you've done something wrong."

Logging is not the only threat to the survival of the kermode bear. While the overall black bear population throughout the province is extremely healthy, poaching remains rampant. The international trade in bear parts has made poaching a multi-million dollar business over the last decade. Black bear gall bladders are favoured in Asian markets for the ursodeoxycholic acid, an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. Bear claws and feet also are presumed to enhance human libido. Laws, clearly irrelevant to poachers, offer nominal protection to the spirit bear. Regulations forbid the killing of a white bear but, ironically, allow the hunting of a black bear in the region that could be carrying the recessive gene.

As well, tourism may be the bears' saviour and its foe. As with bears from parks such as Algonquin and Banff, habituation with people and more particularly people food, has been the nemesis of some bear populations. Unruly bears are often re-located or, worse, destroyed by park officials as a security measure. "The trust this bear showed us will change," Tom predicts, although human contact may be controlled once a sanctuary is established. "This was a bad year," he said, referring to a TV crew that was on Princess Royal this summer and fed the bear they were filming. "It's a catch-22. Everyone wants a snapshot but they're ruining the big picture. We could save the trees for the bears, but ruin the bears in the meantime." As such, while in the bush we are diligent about clearing away all traces of lunch and snacks and never leave food packs unattended.

Day four is also rich with bear time. He moves on the same schedule and in the same area where the creek multisects the island. He takes his afternoon nap at the same time and re-emerges like clockwork. Again, he shares his meals right beside us, just metres away. But, keeping in mind that trust with the bears is fragile, we agree that we have pushed our welcome to its limit. It's time to give him his privacy.

The next day we move through the coastal drizzle to a new stream. We pass the time drinking coffee, eating well thanks to Jen, reading and napping. The eight-hour journey leaves us with only an hour and a half on land before dark. We all stay near the mouth of the creek deep in the pocket of this inlet. The large boulders lining the shore are treacherous with algae and intertidal slime made particularly slick and dangerous by rain, limpits and razor-sharp barnacles. It is here at this stream more than a decade ago that Tom first saw a kermode bear. Looking for a safe haven in a storm he ventured into the inlet only to see an apparition moving along the shore. Tom has come back every year since then. The mouth of the creek is a constricted area, apparently too constricted for the white bear that makes an appearance just long enough to grab a fish and return to the safety of the forest. He is plump, healthy and shy. It turns out to be the only time we'll see him.

We spend our last two days on the stream watching the dance of death and re-birth that is played out every year along this coast: the salmon spawn. This is the most critical stage in the salmon's life and the stability of the stream is the key to its reproduction. In turn, the spawn plays a major role in the life of the bears and other carnivores of the area, the fertilization of vegetation along the shores of the streams, not to mention the survival of the beleaguered West Coast fishing industry. As we make our way up the creek we stick to the shore as much as possible, crossing the creek bed only when necessary. Salmon eggs are buried throughout the gravel bed and Tom cautions us as we cross not to follow single file and not to pivot on our feet so as to keep damage to a minimum.

At the mouth of the stream and the start of the spawning journey the newly arrived salmon are sleek, robust, full of classic salmon colour. But after a kilometre or two upstream of jostling, sparring, jumping and mating, they are battered, grey, pock-marked, flat-sided and decomposing. But they still have a mission and are driven 'til they drop. One male chum or dog salmon that we spot jockeying for position with a female, has a chunk the size a small fist torn from his spine behind his gills. Perhaps a bite from a bear or wolf. We see males lunge at other males coveting the same female. Their powerful jaws and sharp teeth locking into atrophying flesh.

The gravel bed of the creek is pock-marked where females have scooped spots in which to lay their eggs. Chum eggs will remain here for three to five months, hatching in the spring and immediately heading to salt water. Sockeye will hatch at about the same time but spend the first few years in a fresh water lake before heading to the sea. There are five salmon species spawning in the creeks of the mid-coast: chum, pink, sockeye, coho and chinook. At the mouth the water was alive with hundreds and hundreds of vibrant fish, but here, further up, it is thick with death. Rotting corpses, gelatinous flesh falling away, eye sockets vacant, final task complete, nourishing the shore and creek bed. Mercifully, salmon sandwiches have not been packed for lunch.

At dusk on our last night we leave the inlet under the powerful skies of storm season. We pass through a dramatic landscape where greens are black and blues are grey, heading to safe anchorage from the building southeast winds. I stand on deck in the incessant coastal rain trying to observe and absorb the land and seascape. But even in the confines of the Inside Passage, it is too immense. I turn around and around trying to see full circle. I thought when I arrived that this was essentially a story about the spirit bear. After a couple of days I believed it was a story that hinged on the health of the rainforest. Then, after a discussion one drizzly morning in the woods with Tom, I agreed it was about the imperativeness of the salmon. But I have evolved from that view as well. It is, holistically, a story about all that and more. It is also a story about the people who rely upon and profit for salmon eggs are buried throughout the gravel bed.those who work from the outside. But wherever they sit, those who decide upon the future of the B.C. midcoast must do so wisely and quickly before all that is left is the white bear's spirit.

By Pamela Coulston
Published January 24, 1999
The Ottawa Citizen (Citizen Weekly)

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