In a moss-draped rain forest in British Columbia, towering red cedars live a thousand years, and black bears are born with white fur.
On a drizzly autumn morning on the coast of British Columbia, a shadowy figure lumbers down to shore. A black bear has come to eat. It’s spawning season. Egg-heavy fish glut the streams of Gribbell Island, a small piece of Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest, one of the largest coastal temperate rain forests in the world. The bear pauses on a patch of rockweed algae to sniff the air. The rain and mist can’t mask the funky rot. Pink and chum salmon carcasses lie tangled in linguine strands of tidal sedge. The bear moves like a silhouette across the landscape, its black fur blending in with the dark rocks and dusky woods.
Marven Robinson spots the bear but turns away, uninterested. “We might have better luck upstream,” he says. Robinson, 43, stocky and swathed in rain gear, is a wildlife guide and member of the Gitga’at First Nation, whose traditional territory includes Gribbell Island. This bear isn’t what he’s looking for. He’s after a more revered and rare creature: what the Gitga’at call mooksgm’ol, the spirit bear, a walking contradiction—a white black bear.
Neither albino nor polar bear, the spirit bear (also known as the Kermode bear) is a white variant of the North American black bear, and it’s found almost exclusively here in the Great Bear Rainforest. At 25,000 square miles—one and a half times as big as Switzerland—the region runs 250 miles down Canada’s western coast and encompasses a vast network of mist-shrouded fjords, densely forested islands, and glacier-capped mountains. Grizzlies, black bears, wolves, wolverines, humpback whales, and orcas thrive along a coast that has been home to First Nations like the Gitga’at for hundreds of generations. It’s a spooky, wild, mysterious place: There are wolves here that fish. Deer that swim. Western red cedar trees that have stood a thousand years or more. And a black bear that is white.
As his boots slosh up a soggy trail fringed with ferns and devil’s club, Robinson scans for movement. No bears. He spots a tuft of white fur snagged on an alder branch. “They’re around here, for sure,” he says. He points to the chewed bark. “They 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. Then he sees a rustling in the bush. “There 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 shabbily radiant. Not pure white, exactly. More like a vanilla-colored carpet in need of a steam cleaning. The 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 off its perch—though “runs” might be a bit strong. Everything the bears do seems to unfold in slow motion, as if they’re trying to conserve every last calorie for the coming winter. The white bear lumbers into a thicket and disappears.
Robinson watches. He’s spent 15 years among the spirit bears. Still, he’s transfixed. “This particular 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. The instinct was strong in me. But then the white one reared up and threw him off.” Robinson smiles, as if to admit the absurdity of a man jumping into a bear fight. But in his eyes there’s a hint that he might have done it.