The moment I first saw her is one I will never forget. It was mid-morning, and we were sitting along a creek’s edge in the pouring rain. There was barely any light coming through the heavy canopy of trees overhead, and it was incredibly quiet except for the sound of rushing water from the stream and the constant splatter of raindrops. We had been sitting in the rainforest that morning for hours, staring into the dark canopy of trees and anticipating the moment we would finally see her. All of a sudden, she appeared – a splash of white against the dim forest. We turned our cameras, secured on tripods, in her direction just in time to see her burst from the woods, run down a fallen tree trunk and splash into the water, paws outstretched. Moments later, she withdrew her head from the creek, completely soaked, and stood looking at the water with an almost quizzical expression on her face. It had not been a pink salmon she had seen and tried to catch, but rather a large twig sticking out from the moving water. She turned, ambled back up the log, and disappeared once more into the forest.
My first encounter with a spirit bear (or Kermode bear) lasted only 3 minutes. The moment was over in a blink of an eye, but it was incredible. The beautiful bear that we had seen at the creek was a female spirit bear thought to be over 20 years of age, a ripe, old age for a wild bear. She was given the name Ma’ah, meaning Grandma, by the Gitga’at First Nation who have lived alongside her and other spirit bears for centuries. Spirit bears are incredibly rare animals and there are less than 400 of them in the wild. They are a subspecies of the American black bear that carry a recessive gene that turns their black coat white. It’s believed their light coats give them an advantage at fishing as from the salmon’s perspective, the bears blend in with the sky and are less detectable.
Spirit bears are sacred to the Indigenous peoples who live in the Great Bear Rainforest, the only place where these bears are found. The Great Bear Rainforest covers 6.4 million hectares on the central and northern coast of British Columbia. Not only are these striking, charismatic bears culturally significant to many Indigenous peoples, but they also play an important ecological role. Bears in these coastal environments spread nutrients throughout the forest as they drag salmon up from the streams and rivers and feed on them in the woods. Once the bears are finished with them, the salmon carcasses are fed on by other animals. The remains also nourish the trees and plants of the rainforest.
Spirit bears face many threats. One of these dangers is habitat loss from logging and mining projects. They also face pressure through hunting. While hunting of spirit bears is prohibited, black bears are still allowed to be killed, even those that may carry the special recessive gene. Spirit bears also face threats due to decline in salmon populations which has a major impact on their food supply.
After the encounter with Ma’ah at the creek, we were fortunate to see her again later that week, this time foraging for barnacles along the coastline. Spending time watching and photographing this beautiful spirit bear is something I will be forever grateful for. My hope is that she and the other spirit bears in the Great Bear Rainforest continue to live peacefully for many years to come.