The other day I was browsing a National Geographic article about the best “non-touristy” tourist destinations. Among the suggestions, I saw a picture of a moss-blanketed forest, dense, green, and lush, much like what one might find in the Hoh Rainforest of Olympic National Park. But Haida Gwaii didn’t sound familiar to me, and I didn’t recognize the corresponding images of rocky seashores and totem poles. Based on the images alone, I couldn’t help but become fascinated. Even as a kid, I loved the idea of a rainforest; I loved the lushness, the fragility, the way it seemed both old and new simultaneously. Perhaps it was that Judeo-Christian idealization of fervent and cloistered wilderness—a kind of learned appreciation for something we can only correspond to Eden (as we fastidiously manicure our suburban lawns).
So, I did some research.
Just about sixteen thousand years ago, a series of ice sheets encased North America with the exception of a strand of islands known as Haida Gwaii. Also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, the archipelago off the coast of British Columbia remained an isolated refuge for plants and animals during the final stages of the Wisconsin ice complex. Today, the unique set of islands remains temperate throughout the year due to the North Pacific Current. Because of moderately mild temperatures and consistent rainfall, the islands are mainly within the temperate old growth rainforest biome. Just as many of the plant subspecies are unique to the chain of islands, such is consistent with the fauna. For this reason, Haida Gwaii is known as the “Galapagos of the North,” isolated and allowed to evolve, develop, and grow with little (if any) influence from mainland counterparts.
While gorging myself on pictures resulting from a Google image search for Haida Gwaii, I saw a picture that jogged my memory.
I remembered an article from a National Geographic issue several years ago with which I became just a little obsessed. Coupled with magnificent pictures of a mysterious white bear lolling in ample ferny forests, the article described a unique genetic variation among a particular kind of bear in British Columbia. Just on the coast of BC in the Great Bear Rainforest (across from Haida Gwaii) there is a relatively tiny area where you can find spirit bears. There and no where else.
White-phased black bears, spirit bears, or Kermode bears, are a variant of black bear wherein there is a recessive gene to be white, but not albino. The white and black live among one another, producing white or black young based on the genetic dice.
Kermode bears have captured the imaginations of humans for possibly thousands of years, hence the alternate name “spirit bear.” The white black bears hold a special place in local native groups’ oral histories and stories. In one story, for the Kitasoo and T’simshian people of British Columbia, the spirit bears were conjured through a pact by the creator, a raven, and the black bears (keepers of dreams and memories), to stand as a reminder of when the world was covered in ice.
As a result of this prominence in their oral traditions, there is of course backlash from native populations over the Enridge Northern Gateway Pipeline which runs near the Great Bear Rainforest and considerably threatens the habitat and wellbeing of the spirit bear, of which their remains roughly 400 (nearly half the total population resides on Princess Royal Island alone).
It was my hope that while questing on Haida Gwaii, I would also encounter, from a safe and respectful distance, the mythic spirit bear of British Columbia. No such luck. Of course, it’s not far from Haida Gwaii to the Great Bear Rainforest and the ferny islands and fjords where this bear calls home. In an interesting twist, I did find that not so long ago, an albino raven lived on Haida Gwaii, and naturally became a kind of celebrity for tourists and locals alike.
The name Haida Gwaii comes from the indigenous group, the Haida, which still constitute the main population of the island. This traditionally matriarchal society, pre-colonization, was split into two clans the Eagle and the Raven. In many Native American folklore, and in most cultures and religious mythos, the raven is oftentimes strongly symbolic.
The presence of an albino raven living on these islands, for most, probably seems merely happenstance, nothing more. But in light of the Kermode bear not-quite-flourishing nearby and its metaphorical history, I like to pretend that raven has otherworldly significance or, least, can serve as a modern metaphor. The albino raven, now dead and on display at the Port Clements Historical Society’s museum, serves to remind its onlookers of times past and things gone, much like the spirit bear serves as a reminder for the Kitasoo and T’simshian people.
It is all just a coincidence that I’m thinking about spirit bears, old growth rainforests, fragile ecosystems, and ephemeral experiences in idealized vacation destinations? Is it all interconnected or is that just my residual childhood imagination, looking for links in a nonexistent chain?
If you follow Nat Geo’s advice and travel to Haida Gwaii (I most certainly will), you won’t find a spirit bear (as I hoped I might). But whether or not you do or do not go isn’t really the issue. It’s just important for me that you know about Kermode bears, their significance (culturally and ecologically), and an all too delicate symbolic spiderweb binding them to Haida Gwaii. For me, both the rainforests on the archipelago and the bears themselves represent worlds forgotten or idealized, pushed aside in the name of progress, and threatened by modernity when they live to represent the past.