Paul Nicklen: Spirit Bear Blog

Written for Hauser Bears

Everything around me is wet. The forest is cloaked in a wonderfully thick cushion of lush, green, slippery moss. As uncomfortable as it is to spend day-after-day completely soaked, the sodden environment is one of the things that makes this place – the Great Bear Rainforest – so distinctive. Located in northern British Columbia, the Great Bear Rainforest is the largest remaining tract of Pacific Northwest Coastal Rainforest, an ecosystem that harbors hundreds of species including cougars, black bears, grizzly bears, and a highly adapted coastal wolf, the only of its kind to specialize in seashore scavenging for mussels, clams, seaweed, and salmon.

Despite the near-daily downpours here, I have woken up at 4am every day for 18 days to begin the long trek to the hidden post where I hope to photograph one of the rarest animals on Earth: the elusive Spirit or Kermode Bear. The Spirit Bear is a black bear that, due to a rare genetic trait, has developed completely white fur. This trait is passed from generation to generation but not to all offspring. For this reason, it is possible to see a white Spirit Bear mother with black cubs, or a black bear mother with white Spirit Bear offspring. Either way, spotting one of these creatures is like seeing a ghost in the forest. They are enigmatic, and very, very evasive.

The story I pitched to National Geographic Magazine focuses on this mythical creature. Hard to see and even harder to photograph, the Spirit Bear is the iconic symbol of a unique ecosystem that has mystified me for a very long time. I conceived my story as a natural history essay on this strange animal but, when I arrived in the Rainforest, I was saddened and frustrated to learn that this idyllic corner of the world is facing a massive threat.

Due to the massive oil deposits found in the Alberta Tar Sands, Canada has recently emerged as a “petrostate” and is cultivating a role in the world’s oil market. Alberta, however, is in the center of the enormous country. In order to ship oil overseas, Canada must build pipelines to the coast; and here is where the stories of the Enbridge Pipeline and the Spirit Bear collide.

I talked to my friend Ian McAllister, President of Pacific Wild, a conservation group that strives to protect the Great Bear Rainforest, about the pipeline and his response was sobering. If the Enbridge pipeline is built, a 1500-mile pipe will carry oil from Alberta to Kitimat, a site in the heart of the GBR, where it will be loaded onto megatankers and shipped across the ocean. The danger lies in the very feature that makes this shoreline so magical: the hundreds of inlets, channels, and fjords that are the trademark of the GBR are also some of the most treacherous waters to navigate in the world. With strong currents and fast tides, one can easily imagine a tanker accidentally running ashore. One spill would mean the end of a vital coastal community of wildlife and the First Nations people that depend on the fast-moving, clean waters of this ecosystem to survive.

Slowly I have been able to gain the trust and friendship of the Gitga’at people, who are the stewards of this land, and I have been granted their permission to travel up one of their most sacred streams to photograph the Spirit Bear. The stream where I am working is located across from the small Gitga’at town of Hartley Bay (population 180). From there, I need to take my zodiac on a 25 minute ride across the channel and carry my 60 lb backpack up the stream to a quiet pool of water at the bottom of a series of falls, where the bears come to fish for salmon. Every day for nearly three weeks, I have waited from sunrise to sunset but, as I near the end of my assignment, only a few black bears have come to fish here. This year’s berries have been extremely abundant and the bears have decided to stay up on the hills gorging themselves on the globular fruits instead of chasing after salmon on the water; and, as a result, I’ve seen no spirit bears. I’m beginning to worry I won’t get the images necessary to complete my assignment.

Although I’m not ready to give up, I am soggy, exhausted, and in need of advice. I find my friend and mentor Marven Robinson, a Gitga’at tracker. His business involves bringing tourists to see the Spirit Bears but, not surprisingly, he keeps the best spots as a secret. Today, however, Marven has offered to share everything he knows about the Spirit Bear with me. He understands that having 40 million people read about the magic of this creature and this place in National Geographic Magazine will help in the fight to keep oil out of the Great Bear Rainforest.

On this, the last week of my assignment, Marven has invited me to join him on a special trek to where he knows the Spirit Bears roam. As we lay quietly on the drenched forest floor by the edge of a stream, a Spirit Bear appears. It is a large male that Marven has known since he was a cub. “He is my friend,” he tells me. “You can get close to him.”

Being privy to the trust of a Gita’at is a humbling feeling. Marven and his people hold this creature sacred, and I feel the weight of responsibility and honor as I begin photographing this beautiful animal. I know Marven and his people are depending on my work to make a difference, and I intend to not disappoint.

For the next three days I follow the bear closely. I respectfully watch and photograph as he fishes for salmon, meanders through the forest, and spends his days being a bear. At one point he climbs a tree to eat wild apples and, in a moment I will never forget, he falls asleep next to an old growth red cedar tree, the largest in the forest. As I wait for him to wake up, I too lay idly a couple of feet from the bear. I smell his rich, damp fur, and I hear him breathing and watch his chest heaving slowly as his body begins to relax into rest. I close my eyes, knowing that this will always be one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had as a photographer and as a human being.

With great appreciation and enthusiasm, I’m happy to announce that my story on the Spirit Bear and the Great Bear Rainforest made the cover of August 2011’s National Geographic Magazine. I hope the story conveys the allure of the GBR and the Spirit Bear as well as the urgency in the Enbridge pipeline development. Please contact me with any questions, or reach out to the generous and dedicated staff at Hauserbear to see what you can do to preserve the harmony of one of our planet’s most special places.

The August 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine is on newsstands now!