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Called by the Spirit Bear

Spirit Bear in riverI wasn’t thinking about changing anything major in my life on the night in August 2011 when a spirit bear grabbed me and started leading me on a journey from the least wild place in North America to the wildest. I wasn’t looking for a vision quest, I was looking for a burger. Navigating the chaos of New York’s JFK Airport, in a mad dash to get onto a six-hour flight back to Seattle, the heat and humidity, the screaming cabs at the curb, the body scans, liquids police, laptop X-ray all behind me, it was time to debate whether I had time for a meal. And if so where?

I’d just wrapped up a weeklong visit with my family in Connecticut that reminded me anew how disconnected I felt from my past. I was going back to the life I had created in Seattle that didn’t seem altogether real to me anymore either. I love my city, but I don’t love my life, was the uncomfortable thought I kept suppressing. Once I’m back home, I’ll have some time to think, I breathed to myself. Meantime, did I have time for a meal before the flight?

Instead of a restaurant, my eyes fell upon a Hudson News stand. Well, perhaps a magazine? I picked my way through the hordes on the same “flight reading” mission, scanning the magazine rows for something. . . .

A magazine coverAnd suddenly wide awake, I was looking at a white bear perched in a tree. “The Wildest Place in North America,” read the National Geographic cover. The wildest place in North America huh? I smiled to myself. I’m definitely NOT there now! I walked away. The bear was a bit too real and serious. It wasn’t even looking at the camera. “Well, what is it looking at?” I thought, and circled back for another peek. It was hard to ignore that bear.

“But that bear—where does he live?” a voice inside me I hadn’t paid attention to for a while asked.

By the time I got to Seattle I’d learned the wildest place in North America was the Great Bear Rainforest on the coast of British Columbia. I could get there from my home in a day. The white bear was a spirit bear, the rarest bear on Earth. 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.

And now his habitat was menaced by a proposed oil pipeline. If the plan wasn’t stopped, massive tankers laden with tar sands oil and bound for China would soon be weaving their way through a vast archipelago of islands and rocky coastline four to six times a week—dangerous waters that had already caused the wreck of a BC ferry. I knew I had to see a spirit bear, and soon, before the tankers arrived. I wanted to help. For the first time in months I was feeling energized, directed, and un-jaded.

But 12 months later, I was having a crisis of confidence. I’d been on the waiting list of the Maple Leaf, a ship recommended by National Geographic, for months and now the salmon season was starting. “You’ll go see the spirit bears next year,” I told myself while driving around Seattle one day. “Be practical. You probably don’t have the vacation time anyway. ” Twenty seconds later, a traffic light turned red. Large block letters in the back window of the Subaru before me intoned:


Car signAs messages from the universe go, this one was explicit, impossible to write off, and quite frankly, a bit bossy. I stared in a mixture of bemusement and wonder. Are you kidding me? I thought. I have good reasons for waiting a year! And what about the lack of a boat! To my snappy comebacks there were no new car signs to continue the conversation, only silence. There was no getting around it. Somebody was telling me to stop waffling mentally and get serious about seeing a spirit bear. To make sure I remembered the message, I snapped it with my phone camera just as the light turned green.

I wasn’t surprised when the next day a space opened on the Maple Leaf’s mid-September trip to the Great Bear Rainforest.

September 25, 2012: Five days ago I flew from Seattle to Vancouver, then connected to Bella Bella B.C, where the Maple Leaf was waiting to take us on a spectacular nine-day journey to the heart of the Great Bear. We’ve already seen humpback and fin whales, wolf prints, porpoises, sea lions, and lots and lots of salmon. But this is the Spirit Bear day. The Maple Leaf is anchored off Gribbell Island, one of two islands where the spirit bears live. 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,” the 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.

Pine martenWe 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.”

After a three-hour wait, we’re ready for a lunch break when Bob, a Texan and lover of rattlesnakes, 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.

Spirit Bear fishingThe 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.

Spirit Bear close upWe 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.

--Elisabeth Keating is Communications Chair of the Sierra Club’s Washington State chapter.

--images courtesy of Elisabeth Keating.


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