The bear was so close I could smell its fishy breath. Standing on the riverbank, I gazed transfixed as it waded through the water barely a yard away. Fortunately, Doug, my First Nation guide, was beside me.
“Stay quiet and don’t move,” he whispered. Move? I was rooted to the spot, unable to take my eyes off the bear. I had been watching it balance on a fallen tree trunk midstream but never imagined that it would decide to make for the grassy slope right next to me.
With its beautiful creamy caramel coat, it is one of the rarest creatures to be found on Earth. Known as the spirit bear, it is a “white” black bear that has inherited a recessive gene that alters the colour of its fur.
Only about 200 are known to exist, living in the Great Bear Rainforest on the west coast of Canada.
I had come to this remote wilderness in the hope of catching a glimpse of one, but this encounter exceeded all expectations.
I don’t know which emotion was uppermost in my mind, sheer terror or total awe.
The bear could easily have snaffled me for lunch, but luckily it was far more interested in lunging for the salmon milling around in the shallows. With its pale fur camouflaged against the overcast sky, it is a far more successful hunter than its black counterpart.
My day on Gribbell Island was turning out to be quite an adventure. It was the perfect location to see both spirit and black bears. Retreating to the viewing platform, I could observe their antics in safety as pretty, beady-eyed pine martens darted among the dense, dripping foliage.
A young bear slouched off in a huff after abandoning his catch to a larger male. Two adults shuffling on their bellies growled softly at each other in a territorial dispute, and a mother pounced head-first into the water, teaching her fluffy cub to fish.
The rainforest itself, about twice the size of Belgium, is a patchwork of mountainous islands shrouded in mist and swathed in virgin forest.
It was so remote that reaching this far corner of British Columbia had involved a marathon journey.
After flying to Vancouver and stopping overnight at the Fairmont Pacific Rim, with its views over the harbour, I boarded a small twin-engine propeller plane heading some 480km north to the small coastal settlement of Shearwater.
From here it was a further two-hour boat trip through a maze of waterways to the tiny fishing community of Klemtu, the only sign of habitation in this pristine environment.
Our comfortable First Nations Lodge was named after the spirit bear. Built in the style of a traditional longhouse, the main living area was decorated with local Tsimshian artwork and all 12 rooms had picture windows that overlooked the water, where porpoises surfed the waves and humpback whales came up to blow.
The atmosphere was very informal. We all had our meals together and, after a day’s bear-watching, everyone would meet to chat about their experiences over a hearty, home-cooked dinner followed by a lecture or film on the bear wildlife.
Each morning I was up early, donning waders, oilskins and rubber boots before joining Doug aboard a small launch to explore some isolated cove or inlet.
He was chief of the local Kitasoo/Xaixais people and had been working with bears for 11 years. He knew how to interpret their actions and was constantly on the watch for signs of stress or aggression.
“We don’t have guns,” he told me, “but I carry pepper spray in case of emergency, although I have never had to use it.”
We tracked bears by boat and on foot, following them in Zodiacs into narrow creeks and hiking along forest trails.
In Fiordland we dropped anchor in a flooded estuary to search for grizzlies. It was a spectacular location. Silver waterfalls streamed down great walls of granite and bald eagles soared overhead.
Doug led us through spruce trees draped in Spanish moss, pointing out depressions in the ground where bears slept in daybeds, and tree trunks stripped of bark that were used as scratching posts.
We followed him in single file, squelching across the sodden sedge grass towards a mother and cub. Stopping some distance away, we crouched in the mosquito-infested swamp with cameras poised amid the carcasses of rotting fish just in time to see the bears disappear into the mist.
On another day we sailed past cliffs adorned with ancient drawings of stickmen and eagles painted in red ochre on the rockface. How the art was created in such an inaccessible spot was a mystery.
Gusty squalls swept across the bay as we disembarked on a deserted beach, slipping on the wet barnacled rocks.
I scrambled behind Doug along a boggy trail through a jungle of ferns, hemlock and cedar, moisture oozing from the lichen-covered branches.
Huge logs blocked our path with deep score marks in the bark where the bears had been sharpening their claws.
In the hollow of a tree trunk, Doug sifted through a handful of earth to pick out strands of long black hair. “Bears have been sleeping here,” he said. At the swollen river below, they crept from the undergrowth with only their snouts visible to snatch fish from the raging torrents. They were right to be wary. It was September and the middle of the hunting season.
Only a third of the rainforest is a protected area, so Doug was reluctant to name the locations of the bears.
“Trophy-hunters pay thousands of dollars to kill them,” he said. “But locals can get a licence to shoot a black bear for just $20 (R160), or $80 (R640) for a grizzly.”
Hunting isn’t the only threat for the bears. Back at the lodge, Doug gave a talk on a proposed pipeline from the Alberta Tar Sands and the disastrous effects it could have on the ecology of the region.
Supertankers will be allowed to travel through the treacherous channels in the heart of the rainforest unless conservationists win their battle with the Canadian government. Let’s hope they succeed. If not, the future of the spirit bear looks increasingly uncertain. It made me realise how lucky I was to have seen one face to furry face. – Daily Mail