the bare facts

🕔Aug 04, 2005

Majestic blue mountain crags rise in the distance. Silvery mists shroud ancient trees and rise spirit-like from the Skeena River. Ravens play, laugh and cry. Eagles swoop and dive. Seasonally, the flash and roll of spring, sockeye, coho and pink salmon fills the rivers.

He just ambled off like he was king of the place. He certainly wasn’t afraid of people. We were just dirt to him. He sure made it a memorable trip.

In a myriad of places, an abundance of white water cascades over worn rock faces, shimmering on the lavish green beneath it. And all this is viewed without ever leaving the highway. Amidst the opulent beauty of B.C.’s ancient coastal rainforest there is a sight, however, that would perhaps top it all: an elusive white bear, the kermode.

Although it has been a long time since Simon Higginson from Terrace saw the rare bear when camping at Red Sand Lake, up West Kalum Road north of the city, he still talks about it as if it were yesterday.

It was around 7:30 a.m. on a July morning of 1992, when suddenly someone shouted, “There’s a kermode!” Simon and others leapt from their tents and walked around the camp, but the area was clear. Disappointed, they turned to head back to their tents. And there it was. A great big black bear—except that it wasn’t black; it was white.

The bear walked toward them “bold as brass,” like they weren’t even there. He entered the garbage bin corral, just feet away from the onlookers, and sniffed. He shook cans and rattled lids with no luck. Then, seemingly unperturbed about his failure, he left.

“He just ambled off like he was king of the place. He certainly wasn’t afraid of people. We were just dirt to him. He sure made it a memorable trip,” Simon reflected.

So what is this memorable bear? It’s not, as Europeans once thought, a migrated polar bear. It’s not, as later rumoured, an albino black bear. It’s not its own species. And kermode is definitely not, as Debbie Simons, from the Visitor Information Centre in Terrace frequently hears, a myth.

“It’s common to get travellers coming in and asking about the bear with attitudes similar to those who would discuss the Ogopogo. They think the kermode is myth, something unsubstantiated.” No, the kermode bear is fact, and the science behind the white isn’t even that complicated.

Ursus americanus kermodei, known as kermode, is a white subspecies of the black bear, and is often called “spirit bear” or “ghost bear” because of its pale ivory colouring. The white coat, varying in shades from dusty white to reddish-orange, turns up when a black bear cub receives a recessive white coat gene from both parents.

A black sow may have a white cub and vice-versa. Carriers of this rare gene are unique to a Northwest region of British Columbia—Princess Royal Island (a remote island, east of the Queen Charlotte Islands), to Prince Rupert, Terrace and East Hazelton, and the bear is not found anywhere else in the world. Other than that and their colour, nothing separates them from their black siblings. Half a pound when born, they reach an adult weight ranging from 250 to 450 pounds. They are omnivores and enjoy berries, skunk cabbage, fish, and although this is less romantic, garbage with the best of them.

While the science behind kermode may seem mundane, the beauty of the bear makes it anything but, and long before the white bear was deemed kermode, it was known and honoured on the coast by various native tribes.

The Tsimshian named it “Moksgm’ol” meaning white bear, and it appears in their tribal clan crests. One legend tells of raven, wishing to provide a reminder of the time when the world was pure and covered with snow and glaciers, going among the black bears, creating every tenth bear white. Raven promised the white bears a life of peace. Nisga’a believe that seeing a kermode signifies that something will end. Different tribes have different stories, but all share a common theme: the white bear is special.

The media agrees and kermode is TV’s latest star. “Ghost Bear,” by Jeff and Sue Turner, aired on PBS. “Spirit Bear: The Simon Jackson Story,” will air on CTV this fall, heavily dramatizing the story of the founder of the “Spirit Bear Youth Coalition,” which has teamed up with Hollywood with plans to make an animated feature. The latter two films focus on the “plight” of the kermode. Fortunately, most media hype about the bears being endangered is just that: hype.

The black bear population in British Columbia is enjoying historical highs population-wise and that means good things for the kermode. Dionys de Leeuw, a Terrace area biologist, is optimistic. “Black bears are definitely more adaptable [than grizzlies] to living amongst humans.”

In Terrace, kermode has enjoyed celebrity status since the early ‘80s when it became the community’s emblem—fitting because the bear’s unique beauty sums up how residents feel about their northern home: a remarkable, if somewhat unknown, treasure.

So where can you go to view a kermode? Jennifer Lewis from the Terrace Tourism Society has some ideas. “At the Trade Show, we had a kermode bear map—people who’d sighted the bear would stick a pin to mark where they’d seen it. The highest concentrations were in the Kitwanga area, on Highway 37 north, and in the Nass Valley.”

While there are no guaranteed spots to see the bear, interested people can stop by the Visitor Information Centre, 4511 Keith Avenue, to check out the map’s flagged areas, pick up brochures, and view kermode pictures.

Encouragingly, not all people feel the bear is hard to spot. When asked if he’s seen kermode, Clarence Warner, a Terrace dweller since 1932 and outdoorsman who still maintains a trap line, says in a rumbling voice with a smile in it, “Oh, of course. Many, many times,” making it sound like it’s easy to find the white bear.

Before the Kalum dump was fenced, his family regularly viewed two black bear families that consisted of at least four kermode. He frequently spotted “a big ol’white fishing salmon,” out near Little Cedar (where Kalum Rd. intersects West Kalum Rd.), and still often sees kermode on the Copper River, where the Clore River enters in (about 34 km).

Searching through the region for kermode will create an appreciation for the gorgeous terrain and the home of the spirit bear, whether you’re lucky enough to see one or not.