Spirit Bears of the Great Bear Rainforest with Ken Lee

Forgive yourself if your first Spirit Bear photographs turn out a bit blurry. That’s because it’s almost impossible not to tremble with excitement and awe the first time you witness a Spirit Bear materialize from dark, dense, moss draped old growth. Instantly, you understand why the First Nations peoples of the area refer to this magnificent creature as Moksgm’ol, the Ghost Bear.

Everything about Spirit Bears is special. They are one of the rarest bears on earth, with perhaps 200 to 400 in existence – no one knows for sure. They reside only in the pristine environs of the Great Bear Rainforest of coastal British Columbia, the largest temperate rainforest left on the planet. Neither a polar bear nor an albino, science explains Spirit Bears as the product of rare recessive genes. But to the First Nations peoples of the area they are sacred symbols, Ghost Bears, their unique coloration the result of an ancient bargain made with the creator, Raven, to remind us of an age when the world was covered with ice and snow.

Opportunities to photograph Spirit bears are almost as rare as the animals themselves. Most of the time, they lead solitary lives deep inside inaccessible rainforests. But for a few weeks each autumn, spawning salmon coax them to gather along coastal streams where they feast on Mother Nature’s annual abundance. Access to these areas is under the control of the local First Nations peoples like the Gitga’at. Practically speaking, the only reasonable chance of seeing and photographing Spirit bears in the wild is to join an organized trip sanctioned by a local First Nations group. Our partnership with Gitga’at guide, community leader and “bear-whisperer”, Marven Robinson allows 5 lucky photographers to participate in a wildlife photography opportunity of a lifetime.

Although there are no guarantees, every aspect of this trip including timing, hours in the field, instructional sessions and one-on-one coaching with Ken is designed to maximize the opportunities to bring home portfolio worthy images of Spirit Bears and other wildlife.

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. Continue reading