In his new book, bestselling author Doug Peacock—loner, iconoclast, environmentalist and a U.S. Special Forces medic in the Vietnam War—reflects on a life lived in the wild, considering the question many ask in their twilight years: “Was It Worth It?” In this excerpt, Peacock discusses his sighting of the elusive Kermode bear and the fate of their coastal old-growth forest habitat in B.C.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, I made numerous trips to British Columbia, mostly to support Round River Conservation Studies students by giving campfire pep talks and writing magazine articles supporting the conservation efforts. I had co-founded the nonprofit group and served as board chair for twenty-five years. A few trips were solo, traveling by canoe or kayak and living off the land; others were shared with friends on their sailboat or with Captain Joseph Bettis aboard the Sundown. The following story occurred during that time.
The current in the Aaltanhash River plunges over a small bedrock sill and deposits its sediment load in a small delta. In the mud at the foot of the waterfall are fresh tracks of black bear and gray wolf, though gray wolves in these parts are sometimes black and black bear are occasionally white.
We slip into our canoe and push off. Chum and pink salmon explode in the shallow tail of the run. I steer the small craft down a black tongue of water into the next pool, where the river, on the east side of the Princess Royal Channel in British Columbia, levels out into a mile-long stretch of quiet water before the next set of cascades dumps into the tidal flat of the fjord.
My wife, Andrea, is in the bow and Karen McAllister squats midcraft between two struts. We duck under an ancient deadfall of red cedar cushioned with a jade cover of moss, paddling quietly, drifting when possible, down the fathom-deep tannic river. Ravens croak and a belted kingfisher squawks a loud complaint. Ahead, an immature bald eagle rises off a towering snag of Sitka spruce. A single tail feather separates from the bird and falls away, swaying as it descends. The scattered golden light in the Canadian sunshine filters through the muted green of western hemlock, cedar, and spruce. I J-stroke into an eddy and scoop up the mottled feather—a good omen.
A half-mile downstream, we round a bend and freeze: on the right bank, a plump black bear browses on huckleberries. We drift motionlessly toward the bear, which hasn’t seen us. The bear checks out a chum salmon carcass but leaves it where it lies; the fishing is better downriver. He is walking atop a log, grazing on the streamside vegetation, as we drift alongside him. His head reappears with a mouthful of grass and forbs, and we hold our breath: The bear, though fewer than twenty feet away, hasn’t spotted us yet. This is natural. Danger doesn’t drift down the Aaltanhash in a red plastic log in this bear’s universe. We float away from the bear and, suddenly, he sees us. His ears pop up, his mouth falls open, and a mouthful of grass falls into the water. We suppress our giggles. After about thirty seconds of sizing us up, the bear decides to ignore us, and goes back to browsing. He behaves as if he has never seen a human, as if he has yet to learn to fear humans—a situation that may soon change.
You might also like:
This bear, though his coat is black, is a “spirit bear,” a race of coastal mainland black bears named for the one in every ten that is born white. The white bears are not albinos; their eyes are dark. Rather, all the spirit bears (also known as Kermode bears) carry a recessive gene that causes these white-colored individuals. A white-phase mother may have three black cubs, or a black-phase mom could have cubs born white, black, and cinnamon. The range of the spirit bear, which some experts consider a subspecies of Ursus americanus, extends north to Kaien Island and south to Vancouver Island. Today, most all are found on Princess Royal, Gribbell, and Pooley Islands or the adjacent mainland coast. They depend on salmon, which thrive only in cool, clean stream water, and their presence here speaks more clearly than anything else of the health of these pristine coastal river valleys.
These valleys also grow the big trees coveted by timber companies. And now, with the more commercially viable, easily accessible old-growth forests to the south logged and cheap timber harder to come by, the timber industry is looking north to the realm of the spirit bear.
The watersheds of the central coast of British Columbia contain the last great temperate rainforests left on the continent. The ecosystem is born of maritime winds that blow inland against the coastal mountain ranges, trapping moisture in the valleys. To date, most news of conflict in these rainforests has come out of southern British Columbia—like Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island, where, after decades of fighting, First Nations and conservation groups have slowed and contained a forestry industry onslaught against giant Sitka spruce, towering red cedar, and ancient western hemlock. But to the north, at the center of what is known as the Great Bear Rainforest, battle lines have formed over still-untouched watersheds of considerable size and ecological importance. Most are unknown to outsiders. Much of the biological diversity of the region lies in these valleys. These undisturbed lowland forests, dozens of them, hold a mosaic of avalanche scars and thickly forested slopes; they hold the plants and salmon eaten by black and grizzly bears; and they hold ancient trees—the trees sought after by timber interests.
Conservation efforts to save the temperate rainforests in commercial timber country is frustrating; you win a small victory in one drainage and the forest industry clear-cuts another forest next door. You can win many times only to lose once and the entire ecosystem is gone. Edward Abbey cautioned me on this, reminding us to be “a part-time crusader, a halfhearted fanatic,” saving the other half for enjoying what we are fighting for: the wilderness.
We are traveling with Karen and Ian McAllister, who live near coastal Bella Bella on the midcoast of British Columbia. They sail on their comfortable sailboat. Though I have been traveling these wild provinces for decades, I have never visited Princess Royal—the principal spirit bear island. The island is just down this ocean inlet, we passed it on the way in to the Aaltanhash. I’d like to see a white bear, visit the Khutze River estuary, go to Pooley Island where wolves fish for salmon, and sneak into spirit bear habitat. I know that these extremely elusive creatures are rarely sighted.
Just before dusk, we hear wolves howl. I paddle the small canoe toward the inlet and jig for fish. I catch two decent quillbacks and a greenling. I quickly fillet the fish and use the carcasses to bait a crab pot.
On the morning of our departure, I dart out to the crab pot and pull it up: it is crawling with Dungeness crabs. I keep three big males. I throw together the boiled and picked crabmeat with some egg, mayonnaise, hot sauce, and seasoning, then dust the crab cakes in pancake flour and fry them in butter until golden. Breakfast is over and we set sail, heading out toward the Princess Royal Channel. A dark, swift bird sweeps out of the sky and strikes a glaucous gull. White feathers erupt from the gull, but it manages to land on the water. Ian says the dark raptor is a Peale’s peregrine, one of the small falcons that nests on the outer coast.
We motor and sail out and up the coast into the shipping lanes. This is the Inland Passage favored by cruise ships and barges, and we pass a huge self-dumping log barge carrying an entire valley’s worth of dead trees. Heavy swells roll in from the outer ocean, so we dart inland, taking a narrower but smoother channel. Beyond the thin fringe of timber left along the shoreline, window dressing for international cruise-ship passengers, lie massive clear-cuts.
On the way back south we turn into the Khutze River fjord. Toward the end of the inlet, the estuary and tidal flats swarm with bald eagles and gulls. Waterfalls cascade from every direction into this cathedral of a valley. Clouds of white kittiwakes emerge from a scudding haze upriver; rising behind is a line of larger, darker bald eagles of every age. The flocks of gulls and kittiwakes divide like flecks of white dust blowing around stands of towering Sitka spruce. It is a scene of great power.
At 560,000 acres, Princess Royal is the fourth-largest island in the province. Its topography is subdued compared with the steep-sided fjords across the channel on the mainland. Low scrub forests, bogs, and lakes cover much of the island; most of the commercial timber—there isn’t that much of it—lies in sheltered old-growth valleys, where white bears and black wolves dine on numerous salmon runs.
We head south; we will return to Princess Royal Island in a few days. At the southeast tip of Pooley Island, a fresh, A-frame-shaped clear-cut angles up the steep slope; we’ll see more of them before the day is out. Halfway down the channel, we swing into James Bay to anchor for the night. A grove of huge Sitka spruce grows in the shelter of the towering granite cliffs above us. A chalk-white beach, which we visit to gather clams for chowder, signals an ancient midden site. The intertidal rectangular lines of rock mark prehistoric fish traps—constructed centuries ago by the ancestors of today’s First Nations—that still wash in the gentle surf.
The Indigenous population of the coast has occupied the mainland for at least 10,000 years at places like Namu. But on the outer archipelago southwest of Bella Bella, Heiltsuk archaeologists have found evidence of human fire pits that are 14,000 years old. This means these people came by sea, boating down the glaciated coast from Beringia, after the ice started to melt about 14,700 years ago. The younger occupation, such as that at Namu, may have come from the mainland, down the ice-free corridor from Alaska to Montana. Whether these two separate migrations ever shook hands is one of our great archaeological mysteries.
Later, we head north through birds, past mew gulls, rhinoceros auklets, kittiwakes, and an occasional marbled murrelet. The thin mist of a humpback whale blow evaporates in the morning fog. To the north, subalpine ledges sprout a thin green layer of sedges. A half-dozen white mountain goats decorate the wild landscape.
A small river tumbles into the surf at the edge of Princess Royal Island. We go in, though we are not certain if we are trespassing on private land or not. The tidal flat is littered with bear food. The fetor of rotting dog salmon floats heavily on the breeze. Raven and eagle feathers lie on the tide line. The bulbous head of a harbor seal appears momentarily on the skin of foam where the mottled white backs of spawned-out salmon twist listlessly in the current. We follow deep footprints of generations of grizzly bear walking in the same tracks into the meadow at the edge of the estuary. The headless carcasses of salmon line the banks and black bear tracks are everywhere. The meadow is full of grizzly bear digs; the most recent appear to be for the corms and roots of angelica and lovage, fall food in this country. The stream is stained chestnut from the rich organic matter. A few salmon are in the river, but the bears here are feeding on forbs and berries. We stop at a bear-marked tree. Fine guard hairs, caught up in the bark and resin, indicate black bears of several colors reside in this valley. We extract a slender bundle of three-inch-long hairs. They are pure white.
We spend the rest of the day looking for the white bear, finding only hair and a quart of yellow chanterelle mushrooms. I see wolf sign and an older grizzly track. There is a steelhead run here so I break out my fly rod. In the largest tidal pool at the river’s mouth, salmon, steelhead trout, and mackerel leap, and harbor seals roll. I cast among them until dusk but catch nothing. We never see the white bear, but we know she is somewhere nearby.
The next morning, there she is, fishing the same pool I did with the same luck. We watch as she repeatedly waits on the tide line and leaps into the ocean only to catch nothing. It is a scene of simple elegance: On a slate-colored shoreline, perched on a dark ocean, walks the small white bear. The bear appears young, probably female, with a relatively small head on a body too large for an adolescent black bear. She is already fat, early in this river’s season of sea-run fish. A slight reddish-brown yoke along the back of her neck runs halfway down her spine—possibly the result of foraging in streams rich in humic acids. Her mouth is open, she seems relaxed and preoccupied with searching for food, though this is likely “displacement behavior,” a response inappropriate to the stimulus of our boat floating just offshore.
The lovely animal picks her way across the mouth of the river, where a fan of low waterfalls cascades into the ocean. She checks each pool and dives into the largest, submerging in the froth. After emerging, she continues along the shoreline. We watch as she stops to chew a clump of blue mussels and then looks up at us, seaweed hanging out of her mouth. Among the Kitasoo/Xai’xais and Gitga’at Nations, the White Bear People were believed to be reminders left by Raven of the time when the land was white and covered with ice and snow. Raven set an island aside for the White Bear People. There, on the shores of Princess Royal, the White Bear People were meant to live in perpetuity.
I admit to having been prepared to resist both the legend and the appeal of the white Kermode bear—like a bad ad for Weyerhaeuser. But then I saw one, on its own terms. The presence of this vulnerable animal shattered my anthropomorphic prejudices.
Excerpted from Was It Worth It? A Wilderness Warrior’s Long Trail Home © 2022 by Doug Peacock. Reprinted with permission by Patagonia.