National Geographic : 2011 Aug
bark. " ey like to stand and bite the tree just to say to other bears, I'm here using this river." An hour passes. Robinson waits patiently on top of a moss-patched boulder. en he sees a rustling in the bush. " ere he is," he says. A white bear steps out of the tree cover onto a streamside rock. Set against the dark palette of the rain forest, the bear's fur appears shab- bily radiant. Not pure white, exactly. More like a vanilla-colored carpet in need of a steam clean- ing. e bear swings its head from side to side, peering into an eddy for salmon. Before it can lunge for one, a black bear suddenly comes out of the forest and runs the white bear o its perch---though "runs" might be a bit strong. Ev- erything the bears do seems to unfold in slow motion, as if they're trying to conserve every last calorie for the coming winter. e white bear lumbers into a thicket and disappears. Robinson watches. He's spent 15 years among the spirit bears. Still, he's trans xed. " is par- ticular white bear is very submissive," he says. "Sometimes that gets to me. I'm protective. I once saw an old white bear attacked by a younger black bear. I was about to jump in and pepper spray the black one. e instinct was strong in me. But then the white one reared up and threw him o ." Robinson smiles, as if to admit the absurdity of a man jumping into a bear ght. But in his eyes there's a hint that he might have done it. ' . at same protective instinct runs strong throughout the Great Bear Rainforest. It's one of the factors that have kept the spirit bear alive. "Our people never hunted the white bear," says Helen Cli on, sitting in her kitchen in Hartley Bay, a small shing village marked by tendrils of wood smoke and the echoing calls of ravens. Strong in voice and spirit, the 86-year-old Clif- ton is a clan matriarch of the Gitga'at, one of 14 bands that make up the Tsimshian people of Brit- ish Columbia's northwest coast. Bear meat was rarely a main food, she says. But First Nations hunters went a er black bear in greater numbers when European merchants established the Brit- ish Columbian fur trade in the late 18th century. Even in those days, though, taking a white bear was taboo, a tradition that has continued through many generations. "We never even spoke of the spirit bear at the dinner table," Cli on says. at tight-lipped custom might have been an early form of environmental protection. By not speaking of the bear, much less hunting it, the Gitga'at and neighboring bands never let word of the creature reach the ears of fur traders. Even today the Gitga'at and Kitasoo/Xai'xais people keep a watchful eye on their bears during hunt- ing season. "It's not a good idea to come a er black bear in our territory," says Robinson. "You never know. Our bears might shoot back." at attitude makes a di erence. For decades the presence of poachers and trophy hunters---as well as mills and a cannery---made grizzlies in the Great Bear scarce and skittish. e industries are now gone, as is the grizzly hunt in parts of the rain forest. e bears are responding. "In my early years it was really something to see a griz- zly bear," Doug Stewart tells me. As a sheries 16 0mi 50 0km50 NGM MAPS SOURCES: APPLIED CONSERVATION GIS; VALHALLA WILDERNESS SOCIETY PACIFIC OCEAN Nass Skeena HAIDA GWAII VANCOUVER ISLAND BRITISH COLUMBIA ALASKA CANADA UNITED STATES Gribbell Island Princess Royal Island Estimated extent of Kermodism 130°W 50°N Kitimat Terrace Prince Rupert Bella Bella Bella Coola Smithers Klemtu Kitasoo/Xai'xais Nation Hartley Bay Gitga'at Nation Ranging across British Columbia's north coast, Kermode bears cluster on Princess Royal Island and Gribbell Island, where a petroglyph (le ) re ects many centuries of human presence. BRITISH COLUMBIA PACIFIC OCEAN CANADA U.S.