Ma'ah, a white bear, clambers over rocks by a stream of salmon.

Another season for Ma’ah

As the 2019 spirit bear season approached it seemed there was one question on everybody’s mind: would Ma’ah still be with us?

Ma’ah is a white bear who is closing in on 20 years old. Her name is the Tsimshian word that local guiding legend, Marven Robinson, used for his own grandmother. Some say she is the matriarch of the area – the oldest known spirit bear in the Great Bear Rainforest.

She is showing her age. She’s losing body mass and is moving more slowly each season. At the end of last year’s salmon run we wondered if it might be the last we ever saw of her. She has a way about her that endears her to people like no other bear I have ever known. In a recent email, a previous guest put it this way:

“Has anybody ever reflected about Ma’ah as a “noble beast?” She would deserve such a term. I felt immensely at ease with nature in her presence and, though I am not a religious person at all, I felt a deep and satisfying attraction to her incredibly good nature. And this was, up to now, more important to me than all the nice photos I was able to bring home.”

I, too, have felt uncommonly at ease and at peace in her presence. There is something about being in close proximity to such a striking and gentle bear that defies description. We’re told to fear bears, that they are unpredictable and dangerous. And then, this white bear appears and poses herself on a rock just in front of you and it feels like you’ve been swept up into some kind of fable. As one visitor said, it is like seeing a unicorn.

No wonder we all wanted to know if she was still with us.

The season started off well, with good numbers of salmon and sightings of a couple of other white bears, including bears known as Warrior and Boss. And then a call came through on the radio from Lyle, one of Marven’s guides: “Moksgm’ol,” he said, the Tsimshian word for white bear.

Me: Where?
Lyle: Up by the falls
Me: Is it Warrior?
Lyle: No.
Me: What? Are you sure?
Lyle: Yes
Me: Is it her?
Lyle: Yes
Me: Ma’ah?
Lyle: Yes.

Ma’ah had made it through the winter! Later, when she appeared from behind a log, she looked skinny and was moving slow. Still, she was here.

At that point in the season, the salmon were still lively and hard to catch where they hid in the deep pools. The other bears who succeeded in catching fish were too hungry to leave many scraps behind for Ma’ah to scavenge. Ma’ah stared at the fish in the pools and kept walking. She knew it wasn’t worth her energy to chase them. She stuck around the river for a few days, then disappeared; better to go eat some berries and crab apples than to waste her time with these fish. From all her years of experience, she knew better.

When she returned to the river days later things had changed. Heavy rains had spread the salmon around and the other bears were having much greater fishing success. Ma’ah had plenty of partially consumed salmon carcasses to choose from. With all these calories, she quickly grew stronger. Within a week she was actively hunting for herself. Within two weeks, she was noticeably larger and looking as healthy as in previous years, even standing her ground against some of the other bears.

Over the course of the season, I kept getting emails from previous guests, eager for an update on Ma’ah. I was happy to share the news.

Ma'ah, an elder white bear, stands by the water watching salmon in the Great Bear Rainforest.
Photo by Tim Irvin.

A lot has happened in the Great Bear Rainforest during Ma’ah’s lifetime. Many valleys of ancient trees have been felled. Overfishing has depleted numerous fish stocks, fish farms are proliferating disease and parasites, and salmon returns are not what they once were. During this time the Northern Gateway Pipeline project emerged and threatened to fill supertankers with bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands, and ship it directly past Ma’ah’s doorstep, risking a catastrophic spill.

But that is only part of the story. The Northern Gateway project was cancelled. Humpback whales and elephant seals have continued their post-whaling and hunting recovery. Ma’ah’s offspring may live to see sea otters romping in the waters offshore as the otters continue to recover and expand their range. And, the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement was signed, giving 85% of the forest some form of protection.

Amidst all this change Ma’ah has become famous. A small number of people are fortunate enough to see Ma’ah each year with their own eyes. Some of those people describe the experience as “unforgettable” and “magical.” Meanwhile, her story has helped draw attention to this special part of the world, building greater momentum for conservation.

A few days before the end of our season Ma’ah disappeared. Perhaps she’d had enough salmon and went looking for a nice dry den for the winter. Maybe she’ll save herself the trouble of excavating a new one and simply use the same den she used last year? Nobody will ever know. This, like so much of her life, will forever remain a mystery. We only ever see her for about two months of every year.

By late September it was also time for me to leave the river valley and go home to Heidi and our kids, aged two and four. I brought a surprise home for them – several strands of Ma’ah’s fur plucked from one of her mossy day beds. And stories. Lots of stories. I hope my kids will get to share a world with bears like Ma’ah. And when the emails start rolling in again next year, I hope to have some more happy news to share.

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