Rainforest Solutions Project

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


Spirit Bear guide bears witness to Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest white-bear secret

September 5, 2006

Princess Royal Island, BC – Waist deep in sedge grass, Marven Robinson pauses to scan the Pacific Coast estuary spread out before him in one of North America’s wildest places — the Great Bear Rainforest on British Columbia’s north coast.

“In thick grass like this a bear will sometimes stand up right in front of you,” he says, “but it’s not threatening. They just want to get a good look at you. Don’t worry if one gets close. At 10 feet you’re still OK.”

Robinson is one of the few Spirit Bear guides in the world and, with the fall viewing season approaching, he is searching estuaries on Princess Royal Island, looking for rare black bears that have white fur. The bears, popularly known as Spirit Bears, are not easy to find, but even the chance of an encounter is increasingly drawing tourists to a remote area about 140 kilometers south of Prince Rupert.

Robinson talks to the bears he finds, convinced that over the years they have become used to his calming voice. Sometimes he gets close enough to touch them.

A subspecies of black bear unique to British Columbia, Ursus americanus kermodei has a recessive gene that makes one in 10 as white as a polar bear. Officially they are known as Kermode bears (after British Columbia museum curator Francis Kermode who studied them in the early 1900s), but the local Gitga’at people call them Moksgm’ol — which means white bear. Black or white, they are still bears — big, wild and unpredictable.

Before going across the grassy flats, Robinson shifts his pack and checks to make sure a can of pepper spray is within reach. “I had a problem here, once, last year,” he says. “I had the bear spray out and this big female came right up to me. Whack! Whack! Whack! She just hit me with her snout,” he says, slapping his leg to show how the bear swung its head to butt him aside. “I had this aggressive stance, and she got aggressive too and just kept coming. Then I thought, ‘I’m not going to spray her.’ I could see her relax. Her ears flicked, and I just knew she wasn’t going to hurt me.”

After pushing him aside, the bear rummaged in a backpack — not finding any food because Robinson won’t allow it near bear sites — and rolled on jackets lying nearby. Then she went back into the forest with her cubs. “I found out later the two guys I was guiding had dogs and I think she just wanted to block out the smell,” he said to explain why the bear rolled on their clothing.

So, just another routine day of Spirit Bear tracking?

“That’s right,” says Robinson with a grin. “Every day is different.”

While the bears are largely predictable during salmon spawning season — often sticking to the same fishing sites — they can also change locations without warning.

“Once I’ve found them I can usually say they’ll be here feeding at this time, but you just never know for sure,” he said. “When I take people out I tell them not to expect much, that way they are usually happy. They look at the plants and the birds and then, if a white bear shows up, they are amazed.”

Robinson, tourism and wildlife director for Gitga’at Development Corp. in Hartley Bay, has been doing his job for more than a decade and each fall the demand for his services seems to increase. “I guess word is out,” he says. “We get people from all over the world coming here to see the white bears.” He takes documentary crews, photographers (including one from The New York Times), and tourists in search of the bears, usually starting in early September.

With a Japanese film crew about to arrive for a 19-day trip, Robinson was recently feeling under pressure to locate bears. In the tidal flats behind us, salmon are jumping and dark-bodied seals are splashing in pursuit. Those sounds might attract bears, Robinson says as we enter the forest, following trails worn deep into the moss along the streambed. There are no bears, but blueberry-rich bear dung is everywhere.

“We need rain to bring the salmon up the river,” he says. “When the salmon are in you can pretty much guarantee the bears will be down feeding on them in the good pools.”

At the end of a long, dry summer, the salmon streams in the Great Bear Rainforest are so low the fish are reluctant, or unable, to enter. The bears are mostly in the forest feeding on berries. But you just never know when one will step out from behind a tree, or wander out onto the open sedge flats.

In the Great Bear Rainforest, which covers some 23,170 square miles, there are 499 salmon watersheds. Only a few of them are used by the white bears, which native legend says were created to remind the people of the Ice Age. As a child, Robinson said he heard little about the bears, which were only killed by native hunters in self-defense. “They were sacred, and they were pretty much kept secret,” he said.

About 15 years ago he bumped into Wayne McCrory, a bear biologist, who was exploring the area. “He told me about all the white bears he was seeing and I didn’t believe him, until he brought me down here and showed me.”

Since then, Robinson said he has become a passionate defender of the white bears, which were named Spirit Bears during an international campaign by environmentalists to preserve the area. That name has been put under trademark by the British Columbia government, which last spring set aside 5,019 square miles in the Great Bear Rainforest as parkland. The Raincoast Conservation Society has since complained that less than 20 percent of salmon watersheds have full protection, however, raising concerns about the bears’ future. Legalized hunting for coastal black bears also raises questions about how that will affect white-bear population, because the parents of white bears often have black fur.

There are an estimated 1,200 black and white Kermode bears in the coastal forest that reaches from north of Vancouver Island to the Alaska Panhandle. The white bears can also be found around Terrace, and can sometimes be encountered on the Stewart Cassiar Highway. But Kermode bears are found mostly on Gribbell and Princess Royal Islands, in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. On Gribbell, up to 30 percent of the black bears are white, while on Princess Royal it’s about 10 percent.

Sitting in the forest for hours, we wait without luck for a bear to appear. Finally, with the tide flooding back in to the estuary, Robinson calls it a day. Tomorrow he will try another watershed. And he’ll keep looking until he finds a white bear — or until one bumps into him.