The White Kermode Bear - Storybook Photo Gallery
In June 2002 I stumbled upon the most exciting and intriguing animal I have ever seen the in the Canadian Rockies. At the time, I thought that it might well be the first recorded sighting of a Kermode bear, a rare white black bear found in the Great Bear Rainforest on the Canadian West Coast, in Canadian Rockies history.
A few months ago, I was driving along a quiet road in the mountains looking for wildlife to photograph. Early in the evening, I spotted a car stopped on the side of the road with two men leaning over the hood with binoculars looking off into the distance at something on a steep open slope.
Curiosity got the best of me and I pulled over to take a look with my own binoculars to see if I could spot what they were checking out. To my astonishment, I could vaguely make out what appeared to be two bears on the slope, including one that looked completely white.
A little dumbfounded, I kept staring at the tiny specks hoping that some sense would come of what I thought I was seeing. I threw my big lens on my camera along with my 1.4x teleconverter for an even closer look (first photo on the right) and concluded that either my eyes were playing tricks on me, or I was looking at an albino bear.
There appeared to be only one thing I could do to find out for sure, so I grabbed my bear spray, threw my camera and tripod over my shoulder, and took off up a treed drainage towards the two bears.
I want to clarify that I do not normally stalk bears. In fact, I had never stalked a bear in the Rockies until that day, but my inquisitive nature and ever-present 'sasquatch' mentality got the better of me. I figured that if there was a white bear out there, I had to at least try to get pictures of it or no one was going to believe what I'd seen.
The scary part was that I was so far away from the bears when I first spotted them that I couldn't accurately tell whether they were black bears or grizzlies. It was obvious that one bear (the whitish one) was smaller than the other, so I was extremely nervous considering that there was a distinct possibility I was going to be trying to get close enough to photograph a mother grizzly and her white cub.
I spent the next forty minutes approaching the bears from below with the wind so that they would be able to smell me and know that I was coming (I wanted to reduce the chance of a surprise encounter). At first I raced through the forest, my heart pumping furiously. But when I started to get close to the open slope I slowed to a crawl, using every tree and mound of dirt as cover.
My sleuth-like abilities were obviously lacking, for when I edged out into the open at the bottom of the slope, the bears had vanished. I wasn't sure whether they had heard me or smelled me, but they were gone. Disappointed, I hiked back down to my car and continued on my way, still not entirely sure what I had witnessed earlier.
Two hours later, while I driving back through the same area, I stopped and almost immediately spotted the same two bears out on the slope again. This time I decided to take my chances and attempt a real stalk, downwind of the bears.
I circled around to the south side of the slope through the trees, then began a long and arduous approach crawling on my hands and knees trying to lug along my camera equipment.
Because of the angle of the approach, I wasn't able to see if the bears were still out in the open, even after I had started across the slope itself. For thirty minutes I moved step by step, half frozen in fear, making absolutely sure that I didn't accidentally make any noise while staying downwind of where I thought the bears were.
At this stage, I caught my first glimpse of the bears and almost experienced total heart failure. As I half-stepped, half-crawled over a small hummock of dirt that visually separated one little ridge from another, I suddenly caught a glimpse of two brown ears poking over the other side of the hummock less than fifteen feet away from me.
In a brief moment of panic, I thought I was glimpsing a mother grizzly, but before I could do anything the bear moved forwards a bit, raised its head and looked right at me. Just as quickly, it appeared to go back to eating, apparently not realizing that it had just looked a human in the face.
I still hadn't gotten a good enough look at her to tell if it was a brown black bear or a grizzly, so I quickly lay down and backed away on my belly as quietly as I could, hoping to put some distance between myself and the bears.
As soon as the mound of dirt hid the bear from my view entirely, I stepped up and backed away quickly to a more distant vantage point near the trees, where for the first time I got a good look at the brown bear as it crested the mound I had just been hiding behind moments earlier. To my relief I realized that it was a cinnamon-coloured black bear and not a grizzly.
The bear still hadn't spotted me, so I hunched down and began to stalk the bears again to the uphill side in an attempt to get a clear look at the white bear, which I assumed was still with the brown one.
After an agonizing few minutes of slowly sneaking closer and closer to the bears, I was finally able to get a good clear look at them. I pulled out my binoculars for an even better look and what I saw absolutely stunned me. The other smaller bear, the cub of the brown one, was almost pure white, even whiter than a polar bear, but it was not an albino!
Was I seeing a Kermode bear in the Canadian Rockies, more than 1000 kilometres from where the rare and elusive 'ghost bear' roams the Canadian coastal rainforest?
I didn't know, but what I did know was that I absolutely had to capture this bear on film to show everyone and anyone that cared about this remarkable sighting. I quickly shifted my big lens into action and began to snap shots of the two bears from about seventy-five yards away. As soon as I began to shoot, the loud sound of my camera shutter caused both bears to look up repeatedly at me, but fortunately they still didn't seem to have figured out that there was a human sharing the slope with them.
While this had been unfolding, a cow elk had slowly sauntered out of the trees at the bottom of the slope and was moving directly towards me, unaware of either me or the bears. When it got to within twenty feet of me I started to get nervous that I could be quite vulnerable laying as I was, prone on the ground behind my camera and a small bush, so I spoke out loud to spook it.
In a whirl of activity, both bears heard my voice and looked right at me while the elk began to dance around nervously, eyeing both me and the bears. When the elk started to move towards me threateningly, I immediately stood up and raised my camera above my head to scare her off.
The elk took off down the slope, so I shifted my attention back to the bears, which were now in full alert mode, staring directly at me. The mother bear huffed loudly once, then began to tear uphill at full speed with her white cub in tow. As quickly as she had taken off, she suddenly halted and looked back at me again (the final picture), then huffed repeatedly over and over again as they ran off into the bush.
I was left standing there with the indelible impression that these were very wild bears that had not had much contact with people before from the way they reacted when they realized that I was human.
When my adrenalin slowed a bit, I started my long trek back down to my car through the trees. While I'm usually very disappointed when I photograph an animal and end up disturbing it, I couldn't shake the thought that in this particular case it had been well worth it -- after all, I had just photographed a pure white black bear in the Canadian Rockies!
For the first time in my photography career, I detoured on my way home and drove directly to Calgary instead, heading straight to my film lab to get the one golden roll of film developed. I waited three hours for the roll, then rushed home to throw the slides on my light table intent on discovering if I'd captured the white bear on film.
To my delight, four hours of hiking and stalking had paid off. For the cost of a roll of film and developing I had something far more valuable, even priceless: a crisp, clear photograph of a white black bear where it's not supposed to exist.
The White Bear
Click on thumbnail images to view larger photos
The Kermode Bear is a white black bear thought to exist only on the West Coast of British Columbia, Canada. Black bears that have this unique colour phase have a double recessive gene responsible for the almost pure white colour of their fur. These bears are not albinos, they are 'normal' black bears that are white instead of black.
Princess Royal Island is thought to have the highest concentration of these 'ghost bears', with up to 1 in 10 black bears being white. In the rest of its small range, only 1 in 1000 bears is believed to carry the double recessive gene.
Within days of getting these images, I forwarded them to Alberta provincial wildlife biologist, Jon Jorgenson.
Jon agreed with me that not only was this a very rare series of photographs, but also that it was definitely not an albino individual. However, without actually doing research on the bear, he wasn't sure if it was a Kermode bear or just a very light-coloured individual.
After further looking into it and consulting Alberta bear biologists and other wildlife biologists, Jon contacted me to pass along news that one other researcher had reported capturing and working on a very light-coloured bear in the Rockies in the early 1980s.
The Spirit Bear
For more information on the Kermode bear, check out Charles Russell's fantastic book, "The Spirit Bear - Encounters with the White Bear of the Western Rainforest."
Charles spent two seasons living with Kermode bears on BC's remote Princess Royal Island in the Inside Passage.
The book is one of the most fascinating I have ever read and includes spectacular photos of this rare and endangered animal.