Journey into the Last Wild Valleys of British Columbia's Midcoast
At the foot of the waterfall are fresh tracks of black bear and gray wolf, though gray wolves in this part of central coastal British Columbia are sometimes black and black bears occasionally white. We slip into our canoe and push off. Chum and pink salmon explode in the shallow tail of the run. I steer the small craft down a black tongue of water into the next pool, where the Aaltanhash River levels out into a mile-long stretch of quiet water before the next set of cascades dumps into the tidal flat of the fjord.
We duck under an ancient deadfall of red cedar cushioned with a jade cover of moss, paddling quietly, drifting when possible, down the fathom-deep tannic river. Ravens croak and a belted kingfisher squawks a loud complaint. Ahead, an immature bald eagle rises off a towering snag of Sitka spruce. A single tail feather separates from the bird and falls away, swaying as it descends, scattering golden light in the dappled Canadian sunshine that filters through the muted green of western hemlock, cedar, and spruce. I stroke into an eddy and scoop up the mottled feather, a good omen.
A half mile farther, we round a bend and freeze: on the right bank a plump black bear browses on huckleberries. We drift motionlessly toward the bear, who hasn't seen us. The bear checks out a dog-salmon carcass, but leaves it where it lies; the fishing is better downriver. He is walking atop a log, grazing on the streamside vegetation, as we drift up to him. His head reappears with a mouthful of grass and forbs, and we hold our breath: the bear, though less than twenty feet away, hasn't spotted us yet. This is natural. Danger doesn't drift down the Aaltanhash in a red plastic log within this bear's universe. We float away from the bear. Suddenly, he sees us. His ears pop up, his mouth falls open, and a mouthful of grass falls into the water. We suppress our giggles. After about thirty seconds of sizing us up, the bear decides to ignore us, and goes back to browsing. He behaves as if he has never seen a human, as if he has yet to learn to fear man - a situation that may soon change.
This bear, though his coat is black, is a "spirit bear," a race of coastal mainland black bears named for the one in every ten of them that is born white. The white bears are not albinos; their eyes are dark. Rather, all the spirit bears (also known as Kermode bears) carry a recessive gene that causes this white color phase. A white-phase mother may have three black cubs, or a black-phase mom could have cubs born white, black, and cinnamon. The range of the spirit bear, which some experts consider a subspecies of Ursus americanus, extends north to Prince Rupert and south to about the end of Vancouver Island. Almost all, however, are found on Princess Royal, Gribbell, and Pooley islands and the adjacent mainland coast. They depend on salmon, which thrive only in cool, clean stream water, and their presence here speaks more clearly than anything else of the health of these pristine river valleys.
But these valleys also grow the big trees coveted by timber companies. And now, with the commercially operable, easily accessible old-growth forests to the south mostly logged and cheap timber harder to come by, industry is beginning to look north to the realm of the spirit bear.
The watersheds of the British Columbia (B.C.) coast, along with Alaska, hold the last great …