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Spirit Bear

Encounters With the White Bear
of the Western Rainforest


by Charles Russell, Andy Russell


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Excerpt from “The Quest”


After a twenty year hiatus from professional film making, I found myself setting out on another adventure, it was August 24, 1991. My friend Jeff Turner and I were on a fast moving ferry that rims between Vancouver Island and Prince Rupert, British Columbia. We had started our journey the previous day from Jeff's home in Princeton, B.C., and were to disembark at Bella Bella, a native village about halfway along this route.

But our true destination was a remote place on Princess Royal Island, east of the Queen Charlotte Islands. It would likely have been easier to reach Ellesmere Island in the high Arctic. By the time we arrived at our campsite, our 1,600 pounds (730 kg) of gear were showing signs of wear and tear from the seven times we had had to load and unload it on and off trucks, ferries and aircraft before reaching our final destination.

I went out onto the deck to watch the waves break over the front of the ferry. Although it was clear and relatively calm for Queen Charlotte Sound, there was enough wind from the northwest to create waves large enough to knock the ferry about. They were minimal compared to the size they reach in a storm. Here the cliffs of well named Cape Caution are washed clean of all vegetation for hundreds of feet above the water line, evidence of the sea's fury that wins the respect of all who sail this coast.

It was exciting to be back in this part of the country. I had not been on the central B.C. coast since 1961, when Dad and I filmed coastal grizzly bears in the vicinity of Rivers Inlet. 1 had bittersweet memories of Owikeno Lake at the head of the Rivers Inlet area, where we had spent a month in a wilderness teeming with salmon and bears. Since then the whole area had been clear¬cut, the inevitable fate of so much of the coastal rainforest.

Jeff and I were going to Princess Royal Island to search out the rare Kermode (Ursus americanus kcrrnodel) or while bear about which little was known. This rare color variation of the black bear (U. americanus) was named in honor of Francis Kermode, a former director of the Royal British Columbia Museum, by American naturalist William Uornaday.

The Kermode is the product of a double recessive gene. Princess Royal Island is known to have a relatively high concentration of black bears carrying this gene for white or cream-colored hair. Of the approximately 130 black bears on the island, nine to twenty are white. The island's isolation helps to concentrate this characteristic.

Jeff and Sue Turner were quickly becoming known as Canada's leading producers of quality nature films. Two years earlier they had hired me for my knowledge of and ability to work around hears. At that time they were shooting a film on grizzly bears for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation program "The Nature of Things." The Turners had decided their next effort might be a film on the white bears of Princess Royal Island, but they knew it wouldn't be a simple shoot.

Although the whereabouts of the white bears was known, there wasn't an instruction manual on how to find them. Thirty years earlier, I had heard anecdotal accounts of the Kermode bear for the first time. Not much had changed in the interim; any information about the bear was still somewhat superficial. Fishermen, loggers and others had reported occasional sightings, but that was all.

The Turners had first visited Princess Royal in 1990 with Wayne McCrory and Tom Ellison on Tom's boat, the Ocean Light. Wayne and Tom had spent the last ten years drawing public attention to areas, such as Princess Royal, that are unique to British Columbia. They believe that, if enough people learn about the natural history of this magnificent coast, they will come to value it for itself.

Although Tom also runs commercial ceo tours, he often donates the use of his beautiful sailboat for reconnaissance trips. Wayne was along to look at the possibility of establishing a sanctuary for what he calls the "spirit bear." Although black bears and wolves were frequently spotted, the four got only a glimpse of a white bear. Despite this, Sue had returned home excited about the potential for a film. This optimism was largely generated by a chance meeting with someone on the island under rather humorous circumstances.

Jeff and Sue had spent a wonderful afternoon watching a family of wolves after a hike up Salal Creek. It was a hot September day and Sue had felt an urge to go skinny dipping in one of the beautiful, clear pools of the stream. Sue is a bashful person, but Jeff persuaded her that there was zero chance of her privacy being disturbed. Tom and Wayne were hiking in another creek 15 miles (24 km) away. As fate would have it, of course, no sooner had Sue taken off her clothes and plunged into the water, than Doug Stewart walked around the bend in the creek. An observer would have had difficulty determining who was the more surprised.



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