Thursday, May 13, 2010

October 2009 - The Bears of the Great Bear Rainforest

Twelve months of excited anticipation vanished as I stared at the FedX scale. It read 101 lbs, my bags were exactly 35 lbs overweight. A few weeks ago I received an email from my trip organizer explaining the Canadian regional airlines I’d be flying reduced the weight limit to 66 lbs. for all baggage. I ignored his message until the night before departure. Returning home I completely unpacked and found myself staring at a mountain of camera gear, clothing and computer equipment. All of it seemed necessary. Instead of counting down the final hours to departure I was now on the clock and had to decide what I’d leave behind. That’s not an easy process for a photographer spending 12 days hundreds of miles from the nearest road, let alone anything resembling a camera retailer, should disaster strike. After three more trips to the scales I was several camera lenses, one camera body, a pile of computer equipment and several days of clothing lighter. The next morning I stepped on the airport shuttle, still 18 lbs overweight.

I really enjoy traveling, especially to places for the first time. However, my internal wiring doesn’t always allow me to enjoy the journey on trips like this. For me it becomes a logistical process, fraught with anxious moments, of moving gear and bags to each destination hoping items aren‘t lost or left behind. I have two days of travel and three flight segments ahead of me to reach The Great Bear Rainforest.

The Great Bear Rainforest is the most northern portion of the British Columbia coastline. It’s one of the largest tracts of temperate rainforest left on the planet. The coastal mountains rise steeply and plunge into the Pacific Ocean. The coastline is cut by steep inlets and fjords with countless small islands scattered about. It’s location defines remoteness and much of this true wilderness is rarely visited by humans. The area is teeming with wildlife including black bears, coastal grizzly bears, coastal grey wolves, bald eagles and a large assortment of marine mammals. A little over a year ago I met Brad Hill, a BC photographer, who leads a small group of wildlife photographers to explore this region annually. I was lucky to get one of six spots for his 2009 trip.

Our primary focus was to look for and photograph the Spirit Bear. A Spirit Bear is a rare, white-phased form of the American black bear. Spirit Bears are not albinos. The white fur color is caused by a recessive gene and when two copies of the gene are present (one from mom, one from dad) a white coat is the result. The subspecies of Black Bear found in the Great Bear Rainforest is a Kermode Bear. Not all Kermode Bears possess the recessive white coat gene so it becomes a genetic roll of the dice for an offspring to become a Spirit Bear.

Our rendezvous location was Prince Rupert, BC. While I hadn’t met the others in the group it was pretty easy to identify some of them in the airport. Photo backpacks and long lens bags aren't usually carried by most travelers. By late afternoon our group, composed of two Australians, two Canadians, one European and two American photographers, arrived at the Eagle Bluff Bed and Breakfast. We spent the next few hours sorting through gear, testing equipment and discussing protocol for photographing wildlife in remote bear country.

Our last flight was a one hour hop to Hartley Bay on a DeHavilland Beaver seaplane. The weather was cooperative and we were treated to a beautiful jaunt over the coastal range. For the next hour we skimmed over peaks watching one magnificent valley after another drop from beneath us. The landscape was simply stunning. A light dusting of snow draped the peaks. The landscape flowed steeply away from rocky summits through amber tinted tundra to deep green old growth spruce forests before finally plunging into the Pacific. We taxied into the marina and boarded the Oceanlight II, a 71 foot sailboat, that would be home base for the next 8 days.

Tom Ellison is the captain of the vessel and our bear guide. The outfitting business is highly regulated in Canada. The wildlife branch of the BC government issues a limited number of business permits, called tenure, to outfitters. Tom holds some of the most exclusive tenures in BC. He has intimate knowledge of the geography, the eco-systems and the wildlife that live there. He’s an active conservationist and has led numerous changes to environmental policy in British Columbia.

We departed Hartley Bay sailing several hours through Squally and Whale Channels. We anchored the Oceanlight II at Bishop Bay. For the next three days we took a skiff to the mouth of a small hidden stream and packed camera gear a short distance through the birch and spruce forest. Returning each night, we soaked in a nearby hot spring easing our aching muscles from hours of awkward shooting positions and hauling heavy equipment.

The stream banks were littered with salmon carcasses, many partially consumed by the resident bears. Fresh salmon pushed upstream and spawning fish thrashed in the riffles. Bears are in hyperphagia and feed round the clock this time of year. We set up on the banks in two separate locations. Less than 30 people a year visit this creek so the bears paid little attention to our presence. This was my first experience with coastal black bears bears and there are distinct differences. Most noticeably is their size. These bears are as large as interior grizzlies found in the Rockies. The other distinction is their gentle and tolerant nature. Bears wandered up and down the stream all day, some passing a very short distance from our firing shutters. We encountered several bears each day traveling the trails. By keeping still and quiet we were given glimpses into the day in a life of animals whose behavior is completely natural. They exhibited learned behavior that hasn’t been influenced by man. Quite an eye opening experience.

Leaving the Bishop Bay we sailed south through the Prince Royal Channel to our next destination, the Fjordlands. Our attention shifted to grizzly bears. Humpback whales rolled and bubble netted along the way breaking up our time in the galley. There was a lot of anticipation in what we would find at our next stop. Last fall the pink and chum salmon run was almost non-existent causing a steep fall off in visiting grizzlies. Some speculated many may not have survived the winter. Prior to our arrival only three bears had been reported in the area despite an abundant supply of salmon this season. Tom was particularly anxious. He has decades of experience with the bears in this area, many of which he‘s watched year after year. He’s watched small cubs emerge in the spring and grow up to return as adults with families of their own. Over many years some rise to be a matriarch of the valley and then quietly fade away, returning only as a memory.

We anchored in the bay of a large river a couple hundred yards off the beach. Everything was swallowed up by the size of the surrounding landscape. Towering granite domes paralleled the river to the end of a box valley. Waterfalls randomly cascaded off sheer edges draining the low hanging cloud layer. We launched the Kodiak in a steady rain and motored quietly through the estuary. We traveled as far upstream as the tide allowed looking into the understory for traveling or resting bears. We found four grizzlies throughout the morning, but none presented great photo opportunities. Mid-day we spotted a grizzly swimming along the shore with a cub of the year bouncing along the bank . For the next hour we drifted the shoreline watching the pair feed on scattered salmon carcasses. The rain picked up through the afternoon, but so did the bear activity. Over the next two days grizzlies continued emerging in the estuary with the count growing to thirteen. It’s obvious the bears are here to for the salmon. There’s a truce in place and they seem to know this time of year is about feeding, not fighting.

My final afternoon we were back with the sow and cub. She was calling a small island home. She waded the waters edge grabbing fish, eating a portion and sharing the rest with her cub. When they finished feeding the pair wandered back into the cover. The cub was bedded at her feet and the sow began glancing into the deep canyon behind her. She looked alert and we soon found out why. A pair of wolf howls began to roll from the forest. The cub looked up anxiously and they began to move. As the howling continued the bears disappeared. The sow could easily fend for herself, but it’s doubtful she could defend her cub from a pack of wolves. As we returned to the boat we saw the sow again. She had perched herself on a high rock bench. She had a defendable position and a 360 degree view of the valley.

As we sailed south to Bella Bella I had the opportunity to talk with Tom about my visit. I learned that despite it’s remote location and scale The Great Bear Rainforest faces many challenges. Seventy percent of it’s 25,000 square miles remain unprotected. Logging and mining threaten bear and wolf habitat. Unregulated trophy hunting is having a profound impact on the grizzly population. The marine habitat is also having trouble. Open net salmon farms have introduced Atlantic salmon into the ecosystem creating concern on the impact of a reproducing non-native species. Additionally, the cramped confines of netted fish farms are becoming breeding grounds for increased nitrogen levels, disease and parasite infection of native fish stock. Salmon are the lifeblood of the entire ecosystem. Without changes the salmon population could fall to fractions of it’s current levels.
My ten days in the Great Bear Rainforest was the most intense wilderness experience I’ve had. As I walked away I realized wilderness has new meaning, a new definition, and my view of the natural world has expanded. The opportunity to witness true wilderness-the marriage of wild faces and wild places-is something I will savor. As a traveling nature photographer I now believe I have the opportunity, and perhaps responsibility, to participate differently. I want to make images that share more broadly my experiences and give amplitude to those fractional moments of time I borrow from the natural world. Years ago I was told photography is simply visual story telling. I now understand that.

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