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November 13, 2012

Spirit Bears, Salmon, and Tar Sands Oil Don't Mix

Spirit Bear
(Photo: Elisabeth Keating)

After a spectacular six-day journey through whale, wolf, and sea lion habitat, the schooner that brought me here, Maple Leaf,  is anchored off Gribbell Island. Gribbell is one of two islands in B.C.'s Great Bear Rainforest where spirit bears live (and incidentally, yet another island oil giant Enbridge omitted from their proposed tar sands tanker route map). Rare genetic variants of the black bear, only a few hundred spirit bears exist. According to tribal legend, a godlike creator in the form of a raven turned one of every ten black bears white to remind humankind how clean the Earth was during the Ice Age. For hundreds of years, the bears have been protected from bounty hunters by the First Nations of British Columbia, who kept their very existence a secret from outsiders. But now, the survival of this rarest bear on the planet is menaced by oil giant Enbridge's plan to send hundreds of tankers a year laden with tar sands oil through their pristine habitat.

Inflatable Zodiac boats have taken us to shore and in the early morning fog of an alder forest we wait for our First Nations guides to arrive. Marvin Robinson, a spirit-bear guide of the Git-ga'at First Nation tribe, has built platforms overlooking the river where we will sit all day waiting and watching. "We'll be there for hours, being as quiet as possible, so prepare to have a long day," Maple Leaf's captain Kevin Smith told us the night before. "And we may not even see a spirit bear. Some people wait for months and never do."

As the guides lead us down the trail, Kevin asks me how I feel. "Like I’m in exactly the right place on Planet Earth on exactly the right day with exactly the right people," I answer. "Right here, right now: There’s nothing more important to be doing than this." We both smile: It's a good feeling.

(Photo: Heidi Krajewsky)

We arrive at the platforms positioned above a salmon stream and climb up. There's another platform just upstream from us. Professional photographers with huge telephoto lenses camp out below us. We settle in to wait and it doesn’t take long for the show to begin. Ancient red cedars laden with moss sweep the river’s edge. Spawning salmon splash, a pine marten plays hide and seek. Soon a few black bears appear and scan the water below, fishing for salmon, bounding from rock to rock as they skillfully swipe. In any other place they’d be the star of the show.

We ask Chris and Jesse, a pair of young assistant guides for Marvin, what they think of the proposed tanker route. Chris: "It's not just the risk of them having an oil spill. The noise will get rid of the whales. And the wake from the tanker will make salmon wash up on beaches. There goes the salmon, there go our bears. Even if there isn't a spill you're still having a huge impact on our environment. The spill is going to happen. But in the meantime, I'm worried about the effect of the wake action. Think about it: the whole coastline. That’s a lot of salmon and whales."

We talk about his people’s relationship with the spirit bears.

"Our ancestors never talked about the white bears to protect them from trophy hunting. If we hadn’t kept quiet about them, they wouldn't be here for you to see today. Even to this day, my grandfather says, 'Don't tell anybody where you seen it. Just say you seen it.' And he’s a smart guy. If my grandfather says to do something, I do it."

Spirit Bear 2

(Photo: Elisabeth Keating)

After a three-hour wait, we’re ready for a lunch break when Bob, a Texan whose love of rattlesnakes is matched only by his love of bears, whispers: "Guys, There is a LARGE WHITE BEAR just upstream from us."

We peer through the trees, suddenly jealous of the group in the bear stand upriver. We can see a snowy figure moving between emerald trees. "He's coming this way," someone whispers and we all stop breathing.

The spirit bear steps into view. He makes his way deliberately, step by step, with the air of a very self-possessed celebrity, and the black bears fall back and make space for him to fish. He steps from rock to rock as if the riverbed is his catwalk. He raises his head to solemnly survey us on the platform, then focuses on catching a salmon.

He’s big, shaggy, with fluffy legs, round ears, pure white with flecks of tawny gold mixed in on his back. He catches a salmon, gets pink blood all over his muzzle, and still manages to look adorable—no small feat. He rests his haunches against a mossy log and fishes with one paw like he’s sitting on a La-Z-Boy recliner. This is one chilled spirit bear. He has the air of an old soul. He seems to take life in stride. And just when he seems especially mellow and enlightened, on a higher plane than the more frenetic black bears, he suddenly splashes headlong into the water chasing a salmon.


(Photo: Elisabeth Keating)

We watch him fish, gorge, and meditate on his log for 40 minutes. Eventually, the spirit bear continues his tour along the river below and disappears around the corner. Well done, I think. You definitely made a few converts to your cause today, wise Spirit Bear! Wait till people see these pictures!

As we walk back to the zodiacs and a celebratory dinner on the Maple Leaf, my senses seem heightened. I smell decaying cedar mixed with moss, hear the twigs crunch under my boots as we walk. I notice with surprise that it suddenly feels like autumn. A few falling leaves swirl over our path, and I realize the seasons changed four days ago. I feel like a whale in a channel with no tankers—a whale that can hear its own voice and communicate with other whales. I thought I was coming to the Great Bear Rainforest to heal it. But the Great Bear has actually worked its magic on me without me even noticing. How crazy that one tanker spill could destroy this place, I think. The magic here is so huge and ancient.

“The biggest impediment to shipping oil to Asia right now is the fact that the Great Bear Rainforest is sitting between China and India and the oil reserves of Alberta.”

Traveling to see grizzly bears the next day almost feels anticlimactic after our day with the spirit bear. But as we anchor in grizzly habitat, we notice another boat is already here. It's the Habitat, owned by Ian McAllister—an environmentalist and photographer who has written award-winning books on the carnivores of the Great Bear. Ian is a founding director of the Canadian based wildlife conservation group Pacific Wild, which seeks a ban again all tanker traffic on the B.C. coast. In 2010, he was awarded the NANPA Vision award and was also named among Time magazine's "Leaders of the 21st Century" for his environmental conservation work. I have a chance to interview Ian the next day as we stand in the foggy Mussel estuary, watching grizzly mothers teach their cubs to fish for migrating salmon as seagulls feast nearby.

(Photo: Kevin J Smith / Maple Leaf Adventures)

Ian tells us the federal government first went to the First Nations seeking a deal to ship bitumen through their coastal waters. When they were rebuffed, things got nastier.

"They [the federal government] switched their message to say 'This project is in the national interest, regardless.' The biggest impediment to shipping oil to Asia right now is the fact that the Great Bear Rainforest is sitting between China and India and the oil reserves of Alberta. And they would really like this whole idea of the Great Bear Rainforest to go away. They realize that the salmon and bears and the fiercely independent first nations who are so against it are the biggest impediment to moving that oil. If they could somehow remove the Great Bear Rainforest from the equation they'd have a really good chance of moving that oil."

"We need to have a local and national discussion that involves what we want energy strategy to be. That conversation isn't happening. There's no energy strategy: it's just extract as much tar sands oil as possible and ship it to the highest bidder as quickly as possible."

Watch my interview with Ian here:

Ian's next book will be on the Enbridge pipeline hearings. Participating in the hearings has been a patriotic experience for him. "We're often at odds with each other in the B.C. coastal community. We rarely agree. But on this one, there's such unanimity. So I think that the long story may well be a good one because it’s gotten people off the couch. People have woken up to how special this coast is and are willing to stand on the front lines to protect it."

Watch Ian discuss the Enbridge hearings here:

Even as our journey on the Maple Leaf draws to a close, some encouraging news arrives.  The radio crackles to life and a friend of Kevin's spreads the word that that the B.C. municipal governments have just passed a "No Tankers" resolution. And in October, when I’m back home in Seattle, huge "Oil Free Coast" rallies take place in Victoria and across BC.

(Photo: Heidi Krajewsky)

"You mean, there’s a senator for all this?"

It's been a month now since I returned from my extraordinary journey to the Great Bear. I've been lucky enough to visit some spectacular wilderness kingdoms in my life, including Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest, Alaska’s Copper River, and Wrangell St.-Elias National Park. I even witnessed the Porcupine caribou herd’s annual migration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But I’ve never seen anything that rivals the Great Bear. Thinking back on it, I still can’t believe how much wildlife we saw on one nine-day journey. I keep wondering: What price can you put on short term tar sands oil vs. the Great Bear: an irreplaceable Eden of biodiversity?

We saw:

  • 18 humpback whales
  • 2 fin whales
  • 54 Dall porpoises
  • 2 harbor porpoises
  • 2 blue sharks
  • 1 spirit bear
  • 12 grizzly bears
  • 6 black bears
  • 50-75 Stellar sea lions
  • 5 river otters
  • 1 sea otter
  • 1 pine marten
  • Myriads of intertidal creatures
  • Salmon entering every river
  • Countless birds including marbled murrelets and bald eagles

We heard and saw signs of:

  • A large healthy pack of 20-30 wolves

Endangering all of this strikes me as pure folly.

I’m reminded of Gary Snyder’s words: After climbing Glacier Peak in the North Cascades, and surveying the magnificent wilderness, Alan Ginsberg asked Snyder: "You mean there’s a senator for all of this?" Snyder responds, no, unfortunately, there isn't.

The fight for the Great Bear is just another symptom of our worldwide addiction to fossil fuels. By developing renewable sources of energy we can choose to make far more ethical and rational choices, to live in harmony with the planet and with our fellow creatures, and not as adversaries. We need to develop a better definition of wealth: one that takes into account the rights of animals to their habitat, and long term wealth of a sustainable conservation-based economy as opposed to a short term, extraction-based boom and bust economy.

On the Maple Leaf, a No Tankers flag still flies: a sign of the pitched battle underway between a coalition of diverse British Columbians vs. Big Oil for the soul of the Great Bear Rainforest and all the wonders it contains. The timeframe is frightening: A series of environmental assessment hearings are already well underway and a decision on the northern Gateway pipeline and tanker route is expected from the Canadian government sometime in 2013.


(Photo: Heidi Krajewsky)

How can you help?

For more information and to help protect the Great Bear Rainforest from tar sands oil tankers contact these organizations who are working for a tanker-free B.C. coast:

  • Pacific Wild: http://www.pacificwild.org/
  • Raincoast Conservation Foundation: http://www.raincoast.org/
    Last fall, Raincoast set sail with to the Great Bear Rainforest with a world-famous line up of US and Canadian surfers. The result is a 25-minute documentary titled GROUNDSWELL. “Part of what we wanted to do was reach out to different constituencies, people who have skin in the game and a vested interest in protecting the Great Bear,” says Raincoast Director Chris Genovali. “Surfers are the human equivalent of marine mammals. We’re using the screening events we’re hosting with Patagonia to build awareness and get people engaged in these issues.” Groundswell is now touring the U.S. For screening dates or to organize your own viewing party, please visit: http://www.raincoast.org/groundswell/screenings/


Tell your Senator and Representatives you don’t want dirty tar sands oil laden tankers on the Western coast of the United States. Not all the Northern Gateway tankers would go to Asia. Some would be sent to U.S. ports in Washington, Oregon, and California. The risk is too great.

To learn more about eco-tourism trips on board the Maple Leaf, contact Maple Leaf Adventures: http://www.mapleleafadventures.com/

-- Elisabeth Keating, Communications Chair of the Sierra Club's Washington State chapter.


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