Story and photos by Pongpol Adireksarn
My adventure in the Great Bear Rainforest of northwest Canada in search of the spirit bear and other rare wildlife continued into a third day.
The Spirit Bear Lodge assigned a guide to take me and other guests on a ninety-minute motor boat ride through the wilderness to Steep Creek, another site of salmon run and known habitat of the spirit bear. Unfortunately, it was raining as we reached our destination. Still, we trekked up in the rain and down slopes through a pine forest for thirty minutes until we arrived at a platform located above a river with raging current flowing into the bay where our motor boat was moored. We were suitably dressed in water-proofed garments and boots provided by the lodge that allowed us to comfortably move around in the rain and sit on wet wooden benches. The rain began to subside and finally stopped to our relief. We took our cameras out, selected a favorable photographing position and waited.
We killed our time waiting for either a black or a spirit bear to appear taking photos of the river and salmon that leapt their way up the river to their spawning spot. Then suddenly, a black bear appeared on a slope on the opposite bank and crossed to our side on a large, long, fallen log which bridged the two sides of the river. The bear left the log and entered the river looking for salmon. After a long moment of waiting, the bear succeeded in catching one, but to our disappointment, the bear didn’t eat the salmon there, taking away our chance to have a photo of the bear consuming its prey. Instead, it carried the salmon in its mouth, went up the sloping path it came down and disappeared.
After a short wait, four other black bears appeared at different spots on the riverbank and entered the river preying on salmon. That morning we saw and photographed five black bears, including the first black bear we saw earlier, but there was no sign of a spirit bear, our main target at Steep Creek.
By noon all the black bears had disappeared into the forest, allowing us to have our own meal from the lunch box we brought from the lodge.
The first hour of the afternoon came and went, but still no sign of a bear. I was dozing when I was awakened by someone touching my shoulder. I looked up amid silent movement around me as members of my group raised their cameras towards the opposite riverbank. I followed their stare and saw an adult white bear entering the river. It was definitely a spirit bear! I grabbed my camera and began photographing the bear’s movement.
The spirit bear is a black bear with a white coat; therefore, it has the same body length of 1.4-1.8 metres and weighs 90-270 kilogram. In a photo, a spirit bear could easily be mistaken for a polar bear, which, in fact, is much bigger and heavier with a body length of 1.8-3 metres and weight of 150-450 kilograms. The other differences are that a spirit bear’s diet is mainly berries and salmon during the salmon run season while a polar bear is a marine mammal and a true predator that hunts seals as its main prey and is dangerous to humans as well.
The spirit bear we saw was an experienced salmon catcher. It sat in a pool waiting for a salmon to leap against the stream into the pool and effectively seized it in one catch. It took the salmon to the nearest rock and ate it immediately. Within three hours that spirit bear successfully preyed on five salmons and consumed all of them. I observed that the five black bears and the spirit bear we saw that day ate the whole bodies of the salmons they caught. While the black bear we saw at the Korich River yesterday selectively consumed the head of either male or female salmon followed by the female’s roe, disregarding the other parts. It could be that the bears at Steep Creek were quite hungry and therefore could not be too selective due to fewer salmon here than at the Korich River.
We left Steep Creek at four in the afternoon satisfied with the day’s sightings of five black bears and one spirit bear. As we were heading back to the Spirit Bear Lodge, our captain slowed the boat at an area known as an underwater giant kelp forest. He explained that this is a pristine ecological area that is an important food source and habitat of numerous species of marine life. The kelp that grows here is the largest brown giant kelp called Bullwhip Kelp Seaweed.
The next day the Spirit Bear Lodge organized a trip for us to visit Green Inlet in the northern section of the rainforest. The one-hour boat ride took us to a pristine area where wild herbs grew in abundance, including berries which were a favourite diet of black and spirit bears. We walked from the boat landing through a red cedar tree forest. Some of the trees had several fungi grown on their trunks. After twenty minutes, we arrived at a beautiful secluded lake called Green Inlet.
This area was too far from the ocean for the salmon to reach. A walk around the inlet took us to a small waterfall where we sat quietly hoping to see a bear pass by. Unfortunately, we had no luck spotting wildlife that day. Nevertheless, we all enjoyed the pleasant and relaxing atmosphere of the surrounding, picturesque scenery. It was a rewarding break from the three continuous days of confronting and photographing wildlife.
The following day, which was our last day at the Great Bear Rainforest, we unanimously agreed to the lodge’s suggestion that we return to Steep Creek, and we were not disappointed by our decision. The weather was clear from the morning onward with sunshine and no rain. Soon after we left the lodge, we ran into a pod of dolphins racing for ten minutes on both sides of our boat. It was indeed exciting.
Before we arrived at our destination, we spotted a bald eagle perched on a branch of a pine tree near the river. Not long after our arrival at the bear-watching platform above the Steep Creek River, three black bears appeared for their daily hunt of salmon and stayed until our lunch break, but no sight of a spirit bear.
We waited anxiously into the early afternoon; then to our delight, a spirit bear suddenly appeared and immediately preyed on the salmon. That spirit bear consumed four salmons and carried a fifth one in its mouth up the slope on the other side of the riverbank presumably to its hideout.
At four, the boat captain came to the platform to see how we were doing and advised that we should be ready to leave in ten minutes. So far, we had been pleased with our sightings of three black bears and one spirit bear. We began to pack our photographic gear when suddenly a spirit bear was seen coming down to the river. We turned to the captain and asked for another ten more minutes as we hurriedly picked up our cameras. Ten minutes passed, and the spirit bear had already preyed on a salmon.
As we were about to pack our cameras again, a black bear appeared and approached the spirit bear. This time we didn’t even look at the captain as we quickly grabbed our cameras and began photographing this rare scene of a black bear and spirit bear together. It turned out that we stayed thirty minutes longer without the captain’s interruption. The spirit bear caught a salmon and ate it immediately while the black bear was still searching for one.
The captain told us that he was very pleased that we had an opportunity to sight a black bear and spirit bear together, which was not a common occurrence.
We returned to the Spirit Bear Lodge happy with our last day at the Great Bear Rainforest and our successful confrontation with the spirit bear and the other wildlife of the forest. It was indeed one of my most memorable adventures.
Until we meet again with my new adventure in the next issue of Elite+.