by Cristina Eisenberg (Non-fiction)
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN PRINT, ISSUE #16, December 13, 2014. (Now out of print. E-book versions forthcoming.)
The bear turned to face me and looked at me with soft, nutmeg-colored eyes.
It took four flights on progressively smaller aircraft, the last one a seaplane, plus two trips on small boats, the last one a sailboat, and six days to travel the 900 miles as the raven flies to the Great Bear Rainforest in coastal British Columbia from my northwest Montana home. For much of this journey there were no cell phone or Internet connections, and—more importantly—no roads.
I ventured into the Great Bear Rainforest to learn new lessons about coexistence. This meant going there in autumn, at the height of the salmon run, when pinks, chums, Coho, and sockeye, their bodies battered, bloody, and egg-heavy, instinctively find their way back to the coastal streams in which they were born. They lay their eggs in gravel beds and die, providing a feast for the bears, wolves, and bald eagles that show up in droves to feed on this bounty, as they have throughout the ages. Word was that humans in this place had returned to a much older way of coexisting with carnivores. Indeed, Canadian bear expert Charlie Russell had come here to spend several years living with wild bears.
This remote Canadian temperate rainforest covers 21 million coastal acres from the north end of Vancouver Island to the British Columbia–Alaska border. Much of it mantled by nearly impenetrable western red cedar, western hemlock, and Sitka spruce forests, 5 million acres of this ecoregion are protected. These discontinuous conservancies, as they’re called, resulted from a collaboration between the eighteen First Nations who have territories in this region, the Nature Conservancy, Pacific Wild, conservationist Ian McAllister, and the provincial government. These sanctuaries are closed to logging, mining, gas-well drilling, and the hunting of bears and wolves. Since a prime tree here can be worth $10,000 when cut down, such protection is no small feat. Only accessible by boat or seaplane, these conservancies lie scattered like emeralds flung from a giant’s fist across 250 miles of ragged coastline.
I sailed into this rainforest on the Ocean Light II, a 71-foot ketch, with Jenn Broom, the boat’s owner, as well as Captain Chris Turloch and biologist Jim Halfpenny. My other companions included my husband Steve and several friends. Chris expertly navigated the boat deep within a maze of fjords. Breeching humpback whales and killer whales relentlessly hunting Steller sea lions filled these coastal waters. Along wave-scoured islands, amid the spill of foam across curving shores, and in estuaries where the mouths of rivers met the sea, we looked for bears—and found them.
Both grizzly bears and black bears live in this rainforest. They partition themselves spatially by species, to avoid conflict. Grizzly bears only inhabit some islands, and black bears only inhabit others, which makes life simpler. This area also contains the largest population of Kermode bears—a very rare subspecies of black bear also known as the Spirit Bear, due to its white fur. Approximately 400 Kermode bears live here.
On the sixth day of our journey, Chris took us to Khutze Bay, a grizzly bear–dominated estuary. We set anchor and spent the night, the steady patter of rain on the deck lulling us to sleep in our cozy berths. At first light, we set out from the sailboat in a small Zodiac inflatable boat. Keeping the outboard engine purring on low throttle to avoid disturbing the wildlife, we cruised slowly up the Khutze Inlet, seeing bald eagles and gulls everywhere. Chris stopped the boat against a seagrass-covered shore, and waited. It didn’t take long.
Two figures emerged from the mist, walking toward us: a huge, beautiful grizzly bear mother and her tiny cub of the year. They stopped at the shore, 30 yards from us, where the bear mother immediately got down to business. She put her face into the water and swiftly pulled out what must have been a twenty-pound Coho salmon, its silver body flopping around, and passed it to her cub. The cub chewed on it a bit, and then dropped the slippery fish. She found the cub two other equally hefty salmon, which the cub promptly fumbled. The third one threw the cub off balance, and both salmon and cub ended up in the water, where the fish swam off.
Before joining her cub in the water for more fishing lessons, the bear mother’s eyes met mine, mother to mother, a classic “What’s a mother to do?” expression on her face. I know how it is, I thought, returning her look—I’m a mother too. In her body language, especially in the relaxed eye contact she made, this was a very different bear from any I’d experienced in Alaska and my wild Montana home. And she prompted me to think about what coexistence really means.
Until now my hundreds of meetings with bears, while peaceful, typically consisted of both of us consciously trying to minimize conflict. These accidental meetings often occurred while I measured aspens as part of my research as an ecologist, or walked in the forest on my land. In these meetings, the bears usually didn’t face me, instead passing me in profile without overtly acknowledging my presence, the better to avoid trouble. The Khutze bear mother brought up things beyond the pale. Was coexistence once very different from how we experience it today? Was the calm communion I experienced with her anything like the way our relations with bears once were? And if so, when did our relations with bears and the other carnivores go so wrong?
On the eighth day we made our way to Gribbell Island, a 70-square-mile islet between the Inside Passage and the Douglas Channel. This lush, wedge-shaped island contains a lot of bears and wolves, but no human settlements. In fact, it provides home to the largest known concentration of Kermode bears.
The only way that one can set foot on Gribbell Island is with the permission of the Gitga’at, a Tsimshian First Nations band that controls access to this land. The Tsimshian live in coastal British Columbia, along mainland inlets and estuaries, and on islands. They consider themselves related to bear, wolf, raven, and killer whale, and don’t hunt these animals. So it makes perfect sense that today the Gitga’at serve as gatekeepers to one of the most ecologically sensitive bear sites in North America.
Lead Gitga’at guide Marven Robinson met us as we clambered out of the Zodiac at low tide onto a slick-rock intertidal slope dappled with sea stars the color of pink grapefruit. Sturdily built and in his mid-forties, he wore chest-high waders and rain gear, a baseball cap on his head. He led us through an opening in an alder thicket, along a narrow, fern-edged trail toward the island’s wild core. He’d grown up in this rainforest, in the nearby mainland village of Hartley Bay (pop. 200), which is accessible only by sea, so he knew this island and its bears intimately. As a child, like others of his band, Marven was brought up to respect bears and not hunt them. From the mid-1800s to the late 1990s, outsiders came to Gribbell Island and the surrounding region to hunt bears—the bigger the better. They especially came for trophy spirit bears hunts. Two decades ago, Marven was one of the people instrumental in getting this place and its bears protected. These days he guides people into Gribbell Island to raise awareness of bear conservation.
In a light rain, we followed the trail along the crest of a ravine that paralleled a narrow creek. Mist fingered the cedars, spruce, and alders that grew right up to the stream in this viscid, verdant rainforest. Moss clung to every surface. Raven gronks echoed through the forest nave. Faint wolf howls came from far upstream. About one mile up the trail, Marven took us down through the woods to the stream, to a viewing platform suspended on stilts, where we could sit out of the rain and watch bears. However, he had other plans for me. He took me down to the creek, below the platform.
“Sit here,” he said, “and wait.” Then he left.
I sat and waited. I don’t know how long I waited. This primeval creek felt like a place out of time. Over the sound of creek water flowing on rocks, I heard the wanton cries of pileated woodpeckers marking their turf, and the husky chitter of pacific wrens foraging in the understory. The water churned with salmon bodies, mostly gleaming Cohos and dun-colored pinks, their humped backs protruding above the water’s surface. Occasionally an electric-red sockeye finned upstream through the Medusa tangle of other species of salmon, all fighting the current to lay their eggs. Dead salmon, mission accomplished, littered the streambanks and lay washed up on rocks. From time to time, ravens swooped down from their perches to scavenge these dead fish.
Eventually a figure emerged from the woods, like an apparition. The big, black bear steadily approached the streambank, moving as if in slow motion. I sat there, spellbound. That bear, the local dominant male, was called Scarface. Battle-scarred (hence his name) and still in his prime, his body rippled with muscle and fat. Moving gracefully for such a large animal, he stopped about fifteen feet from me.
Chris talked to the bear. “Good to see you,” he said. “You’ve been eating well.”
The bear turned to face me and looked at me with soft, nutmeg-colored eyes. And in those long moments when our eyes met, there was no “us” and “them.” Just “we”—two living beings here on this creek at the height of the salmon spawn, meeting in peace. Then he broke our gaze, looked intently into the fish-filled water, opened his massive jaws, and lunged faster than I thought a creature his size capable of moving. In less than two of my fast heartbeats, he pulled out a 30-pound Coho salmon. He sat there and calmly devoured the fish: first the roe, then the firm flesh, followed by the head. After he finished, he looked at me again, his eyes still soft, a crimson gobbet of salmon meat clinging to his chin. Then he turned away and departed the way he’d come, walking with loose-limbed grace atop a sway-backed mossy red cedar log that had fallen into the creek long ago. He jumped off the log and vanished into the forest understory, the alders and salmonberry bushes rustling with his passing.
I sat there for a long while, unable to speak, taking in deep lungfuls of rainforest air and the comingled scents of wet cedar and rotting salmon—life and death. Marven brought people here, to this ursine inner sanctum, because he believed that we need to look into these bears’ eyes to feel that connection, living being to living being, in order to want to do something to protect them from threats such as a proposed gas pipeline.
The bear mother and Scarface had shown me how it once was, between us and wild creatures sharp of tooth and claw, long before we thought we knew everything and could grow forests and elk like we grow cabbages (to paraphrase Leopold badly). When he wrote, “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering,” Leopold was referring to the importance of saving large carnivores. Today part of intelligent tinkering, also known as ecological restoration, involves acknowledging that you can’t go back, you can only go forward, striving to create healthier ecosystems that preserve essential processes such as predation. So while we can’t quite re-create the close relations we may once have had with living things, such as what I experienced in the Great Bear Rainforest, we can envision a world in which we base our relationships with carnivores on respect, rather than fear. A world where we allow them to fulfill their ecological roles as much as possible. A world where we give them room to roam, so that their benefits cascade through whole ecosystems.
Sharing this Earth with thriving, healthy carnivores comes down to coexistence. The problem is that coexistence means different things to different people. To some people, coexistence means keeping carnivore numbers as low as possible short of extermination, in order to produce more moose. This means coexisting with bears, wolves, cougars, and other carnivores on our terms, not theirs. Conversely, some define coexistence as protecting every carnivore, completely and always. Realistically, though, in our fragmented, modern world, coexistence lies somewhere between these two perspectives. And while sometimes it seems like we’re very far from achieving such a vision, there are now more large carnivores than there have been in over 100 years in more places than we could have imagined twenty years ago. This gives me hope.
Knowing there are places like Khutze Inlet and Gribbell Island, where bears and humans can just be, means that eventually we’ll get this right. I’ll never find full answers to the questions the bear mother inspired as she looked at me calmly, mother to mother. But she and Scarface taught me that there’s no separation here. To me these bears and the other carnivores are walking reminders of why the word ecology comes from the Greek word oikos—“house.” For we’re all threads in the same cloth of creation, and we dwell in this Earth household together.
A version of this essay appears in the author’s new book, The Carnivore Way: Coexisting with and Conserving North America’s Predators (Island Press, 2014).