Rainforest Solutions Project

Promoting conservation and economic alternatives in British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest


On the hunt for the elusive spirit bears

November 29, 2008

(Princess Royal Island, BC) – On our six-day sailing trip through numerous small islands, inlets and the Great Bear Rainforest, we spotted grizzlies and black bears — a thrill that can’t be overstated. But we wondered if we would be lucky enough to see the kermode, or spirit bear, in the limited time frame of our vacation. Princess Island’s size poses a problem for finding the elusive white bear.

Our First Nations Tsimshian guide, Marvin Robinson, had been scouting the area earlier in the summer and early fall, and decided that Gribbell Island was an ideal location to spot a kermode. When the big day arrived, he and two companions came to pick us up at Bishop Bay with his motorboat.

A big task for me, pacemaker and all, was to make the rugged climb up the rocky shoreline to a path at the top. With some difficulty, the climb was achieved, and then there was a 750-metre hike uphill to the viewing platform. Most found it not too strenuous, but after the tough climb to the start of the path, I found it necessary to stop for breathers three or four times.

For the next two hours, sitting on the platform, our gazes shifted to the north and south. While waiting for a bear to come along the creek fishing for salmon, we enjoyed the beautiful view, interesting plant growth near the water, and a rather chubby, inquisitive marten who posed for a picture-taking session.

At last we spotted a black bear coming around the corner to the left of us. He was taking his time checking for fish, walking over and under logs, and coming closer and closer and closer. When he spotted us and the cameras, he became a little shy and decided, after about 10 minutes, to head back in the direction from which he came.

Robinson felt confident we were going to see a kermode bear. However, after six hours of gazing up the river, we were getting ready to leave. The disappointment of failing as others had in the past was showing on our faces.

Suddenly gloom changed to glee. Almost as one we pointed upstream and, in a mass of fallen logs and rocks the elusive white kermode appeared.

He was a fair distance from us but as he slowly moved in our direction, looking into the shallow water of the river for a fish, smiles came to our faces and cameras were whipped out of their cases.

Joan took three rolls of film, and each photograph from these rolls displayed the progressive advancement of this spirit bear. His various poses in this rugged terrain of rocks, fallen trees, and water made his approach toward the platform much more exciting for us.

The Kermodes are celebrities of the bear world. So many people want to see them, but finding them proves to be quite challenging. They roam about the coastal rainforest near Terrace, B. C., the mainland watershed, and nearby islands, especially Princess Royal Island.

The reason for this restricted location is the fact that only 10 per cent of black bears in this region carry the same recessive genes, and only cubs that receive the gene from both black parents will develop white fur.

The Kermodes are referred to by different names. The Tsimshian name for them is Moksgm’ol. They are also called spirit bears and, of course, white black bears.

Their size variation, denning habits, return dates following hibernation, and food consumption in early spring and summer parallel those of the black bear.

After our successful viewing experience, I visited with Derek Reese, a young Tsimshian graduate of Hartley Bay High School.

I told him I was interested in legends and asked if there was a legend explaining the existence of the spirit bear. He hesitated and then said, “No.”

A couple of minutes later he looked at me and said, “The Raven of the Tsimshian clan decreed that every 10th cub of the black bear would be a white bear, to remind the members of the clan, the Tsimshian, that their land was once covered with white ice and that this could happen again.”

The spirit bear, like the spirit wolf, is a reminder that everything possesses a spirit.