On a wet forest floor of north Princess Royal Island, we sit huddled against the cold. Toby is shivering because her boot filled with icy water. Franklin is starving. Russell removes his boot and wrings out a sock. The clouds hang low and dank in the early morning.
In front of us, a roaring river, compressed inward by harder rock, creates waterfall after waterfall, as the river drops sixty feet in a quarter mile. Mist drifts up to our faces and lenses, lights up with rainbow. Up ten-foot falls leap pink salmon through impossible odds. Some wriggle up next to the sheer rock side, using the eddies to propel them forward. Others come tumbling right up the main channel and fly through the air. Those that fall are swept down stream.
We sit silent, focused, and reverent, awaiting the cream-colored kermode bear. This genetic variant of the black bear makes up about 5% of the total black bear population. Numbering perhaps five hundred, the Kermode lives only on this mid-British Columbia coast.
For the Kermode quest, we have risen pre-dawn, clung to a bouncing skiff, and slogged a trail that was made entirely of deep mud. Poor Russell, while documenting how deep the mud was on our rubber boots, lost his own in the suction of black muck.
Yesterday, we spent seven hours on the rocks of a thirty-foot-high waterfall at the mouth of the river. No white bear at all. Franklin, Natalie, Russell, and Richard took many shots of black bears across the wide falls. Black bears blink in and out of view, readily merging with dark woods.
At first it was dismaying to see and smell all the salmon carcasses that littered the forest floor far out from the river. Why are bears so wasteful?
Then, in one of those blinding flashes of mental fusion, I understood the system.
What if you were an engineer asked to design a planet-sized machine in a gravity-driven system? Since all the water and nutrients flow down to the ocean, how do you raise them back up to the mountainous continents? For water, of course, you design evaporation, weather patterns swirled by the Coriolis effect, and rain. But how do you create a system to recycle nutrients?
Then, to distribute the nutrients of fish bodies out over the land, you hire tens of thousands of ravens and eagles, along with half a million bears. When the bears eat only the head and drag the rest of the carcass away from the river, they unwittingly carry the nourishment of the ocean ecosystem high up into the mountains, feeding the forest.
"A professor from the University of British Columbia has measured tree rings over many years and found that in good salmon years the tree rings nearby are bigger," our guide, Marven, tells us. Natalie adds that another study shows the boles of trees to be made up of forty percent marine carbon.
To ease disappointment at not seeing a Kermode, I focus on the abundant life I've seen the past two days. A favorite was the American dipper, a little bird that walks up stream bottoms and up through waterfalls to eat insects.
"Dippers feed at the mouths of rivers because the fish lice attached near the anus of salmon die and fall off in fresh water," Marven told us as dragonflies clattered by like psychedelic blue helicopters.
Most startling is the vivid memory of a young deer that ran frantically out of the bear trail and into the roaring water in front of us. Foaming at the mouth he ran into whitewater to avoid a bear. Swimming near humans, he plunged over rocky falls into the sea, then swam for shore. Marven is pretty sure that a wolf caused its flight.
Also yesterday, I separated myself from the group and stared at them from a distance. Just between you and me, photographers are a very peculiar bunch. They stand, sit, lie, freeze, and cook for hours and hours or days on end for an image. Their art consists of seven hours of boredom and four minutes of panic. Their lenses are huge, the size of small garbage cans. They lug these lenses, tripods, and camera bodies, deep into the forest (mountains, deserts, etc.) in the worst of conditions. They grouse at you if you get in the way, if you move and alter an animal's behavior, or if you fail to be a good photography subject during embarrassing moments. I find it helps to view them like a wild species whose behavior is odd, unpredictable, and possibly dangerous, but which creates a beautiful image when feeding at a distance.
Down stream we see two white forearms, a long muzzle, and long neck. A five-hundred-pound white bear is bounding for salmon in the shallows. Cream color merging into cinnamon and rust, he is fattening up for the winter. I shiver; the bear does not seem of this world. I cannot believe, for a moment, that I am in its presence. Only day two, a real honor.
The bears, metabolic wonders, have made the fall shift into hyperphagia, or maximum eating most of the day, switching from 8,000 kilocalories to 20,000, to bulk up. We are surrounded by bear food: blue berries, huckleberries, skunk cabbage, russula mushrooms, carcasses, fawns, and insect protein, as well as the salmon. (By the way, we, too, are in a stage of hyperphagia, due to Bob's cooking on the Explorer.)
The bears will den up during November, and go into a deep sleep -- not hibernation -- until spring. During that time they will not eat, defecate, drink, or urinate. In this metabolizing process, fat is broken down into water and carbon dioxide, which they exhale. Their urea is broken down inside their body into water, carbon dioxide, and ammonia, and the ammonia is recycled into protein for new muscles.
The longer we silently watch, the more we become like the bears, stealthy and well fed.
We begin to think like the bears: where could I most easily fish? Where could I relax to eat my fish? Who are those weird animals with those obnoxious smells and gleaming, lenticular eyes and why won't they go home?
Trying to think like bears excludes thoughts of being cold, tired, hungry, wet, anxious, or time-bound. We start being more alive than we have ever been in our lives. And once we start being bears, the whole forest is a banquet and all of life is a continuous feast of experience.