Very quietly we paddle to shore in a raft from the research vessel, which has stopped at the mouth of a small river cascading into the Pacific, one of more than a hundred salmon-bearing rivers in the 1,500-square-mile territory of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais people.
We’re halfway up the coast of British Columbia, in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, in one of the largest unspoiled temperate rainforests on earth. We climb out and sit on boulders in the intertidal zone, in front of a meadow. Behind it is primeval forest, a solid wall of trees—western red cedar, Sitka spruce, alder, hemlock, Douglas fir
A crow let out two clarion caws as we came in, and now every animal within earshot knows of our arrival. The humans are back. Four of us have mounted serious lenses on tripods, and we are all waiting motionlessly, respectfully. Big gobs of meringuelike foam drift down the final run of the river into the seething surf. “Organic matter,” whispers our guide, Philip Charles, a 26-year-old Brit who has a bachelor’s degree in animal conservation science and has been made an honorary Kitasoo for all the work he has done to help these First Nations people reassert sovereignty over their homeland, and to get ecotourism going.
The Kitasoo merged with the Xai’xais during the second half of the 1800s and founded the community of Klemtu, on Swindle Island, on the Inside Passage from Vancouver to Alaska. The main trade item along the coast was eulachon, an oily smelt whose flesh was a food staple and whose oil was used as a medicine and for illumination. By the end of the 20th century, though, there weren’t enough eulachon to sustain a market. Today, many of the more than 300 Kitasoo/Xai’xais living here rely on ecotourism.
After 20 minutes, Charles points to a luminous white bear, maybe 300 pounds, which has come out of the dark forest on the other side of the river, some 200 feet upstream. She slips gently down into a pool fed by water gushing over a ledge. Within a few minutes, she bats a salmon into her mouth and ambles with it back into the forest.
The white bear is known to the Kitasoo as the Moksgm’ol, the spirit, or ghost, bear. The Kitasoo have been living on these coastal islands and fjord-diced tongues of mainland for thousands of years. They revere every living thing, but the Moksgm’ol is especially sacred. It is one of the rarest bears on earth.
There are as few as 100, according to some estimates. Scientifically, the white ones, along with their closest black relatives, belong to a subspecies of black bear: the Kermode bear, Ursus americanus kermodei, named in 1905 for Francis Kermode, who helped zoologists find the bears and later became the director of the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.
Geneticists have since learned that the coloration results from a mutation in a gene involved in the production of melanin. (It’s not one of the four genes responsible for albinism.) The trait is recessive: Both parents must carry a copy of the mutated gene for their offspring to be white. In the Great Bear Rainforest, some 500 to 1,200 black bears might be carriers.
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