A feeling is worth a thousand pictures

Story and photography by Tim Irvin

We were deep in the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia, Canada (about 500 miles northwest of Seattle), the home of the white spirit bear. Before us was what we had hoped for. The bear had accepted our presence and was now perched on a rock mid-stream scanning the creek for salmon. Her white fur was wet from overnight rain and steam rose from her back in the morning sun. It was like a scene from National Geographic television – only this was live.

Spirit bears (also known as Kermode bears) are an exceedingly rare sub-species of American black bear with a recessive genetic trait that makes their fur white. There are perhaps only 200 to 400 in existence and they are found only in British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest. © Tim Irvin

Spirit bears (also known as Kermode bears) are an exceedingly rare sub-species of American black bear with a recessive genetic trait that makes their fur white. There are perhaps only 200 to 400 in existence and they are found only in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest. © Tim Irvin

Our group of photographers and nature buffs was thrilled. Between snapping photos we glanced at each other – smiling widely, giving each other the thumbs up. We never could have imagined this exact scene beforehand, but the hope of being part of something like this was why we had come.

The bear spotted a fish and leapt after it. Water sprayed into the air as she chased the fish through shallow water. Then she pounced with both front paws, pinning the fish to the riverbed before sinking her teeth into its back. When the bear raised her head a plump pink salmon was writhing in her jaws. Camera shutters whirred.

Research suggests that the white fur of the spirit bear gives it an advantage over its black counterparts when fishing for salmon during the day. This may be one reason why this rare genetic trait has persisted over time. © Tim Irvin

Research suggests that the white fur of the spirit bear gives it an advantage over its black counterparts when fishing for salmon during the day. This may be one reason why this rare genetic trait has persisted over time. © Tim Irvin

The rest of the world faded away as we became absorbed in taking photos. To get a low angle I lay down on my belly in the moss. After clicking a number of photos, I took a few moments to look at the people around me. Some were busy taking pictures and some were simply taking in the scene, expressions of calm wonder on their faces.

In First Nations' legend, Raven made every tenth black bear white to remind the people of the last ice age. Even today, about one in every 10 black bears in the Great Bear Rainforest is white. © Tim Irvin

In First Nations’ legend, Raven made every tenth black bear white to remind the people of the last ice age. Even today, about one in every 10 black bears in the Great Bear Rainforest is white. © Tim Irvin

Then all at once wolves started howling from within the forest behind us. We all looked up into the forest and then at each other. Jaws slackened, eyebrows raised. Everyone was still, except the bear, who kept working away at her fish.

A spirit bear shakes water from its fur after a salmon meal. © Tim Irvin

A spirit bear shakes water from its fur after a salmon meal. © Tim Irvin

The howls came from all around, but the wolves themselves stayed out of sight. At this point my camera felt useless. A photograph couldn’t possibly capture a scene like this. There was a steaming bear, a group of photographers standing on the riverbank and, beyond them, somewhere in the forest, a pack of wolves, paws planted in the soft mosses of the forest floor, howling a message we could not comprehend. The creek gurgled and lichens swayed gently on the branches of old, old trees. We just stood there, listening, watching, breathing.

The white fur of a spirit bear against the deep green rainforest is a startling sight. © Tim Irvin

The white fur of a spirit bear against the deep green rainforest is a startling sight. © Tim Irvin

A popular phrase says a picture is worth a thousand words. But photos are constrained by their own dimensions. More importantly they only capture what is happening in front of the lens; they fall short of capturing the emotion the photographer experiences from behind the camera. In other words, for most of us, the images we take do not capture the most important thing – the enlivening experience of intimate encounters with nature.

A spirit bear sits on a log, scanning for salmon. © Tim Irwin

A spirit bear sits on a log, scanning for salmon. © Tim Irvin

Eventually the photographs we take become simplified mementos of those experiences. Pictures can evoke vivid memories within us – and help convey the power of the experience to others – but they are no substitute for being there. Sure, some pictures are worth a thousand words, but a feeling is worth a thousand pictures.

I have often said that I have yet to meet anyone who was not moved by a face-to-face encounter with a grizzly (or spirit bear, or wolf). For most, that reaction is a visceral thing – the pulse throbs, adrenaline gushes, knees weaken. That just doesn’t happen when you look at a photograph.

A spirit bear portrait taken in the Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia. © Tim Irvin

A spirit bear portrait taken in the Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia. © Tim Irvin

There were several bouts of howling that morning, but all sense of time was lost. Eventually the wolves trotted off – or at least they stopped howling – and we were left once again by the side of the river with the steaming bear. That day was a gift – a rich and emotional one. For me, that emotion is best described as reverence. And that feeling is worth a thousand pictures.


Lover of wildlife and wild places. Tim Irvin is an ecologist and photographer with a special fondness for bears. He has been guiding trips for photographers and film crews in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest for 15 years. Most of the shots in this article were taken with a Canon 5D Mark III and a Canon 100-400mm lens, but some were taken with a Canon 24-105mm lens. www.timirvin.com timothy.irvin@gmail.com