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Behind the Scenes

Princess Royal Island, just off the coast of British Columbia in Canada, is a throwback to an earlier time: a temperate rainforest inhabited only by animals. Here, bald eagles, gray wolves, and salmon live undisturbed by civilization, and a rare subspecies of bear, almost invisible anywhere else, has been allowed to flourish. Princess Royal Island is the home of the ghost bear.

A ghost bear is an otherwise ordinary American black bear who, thanks to a recessive gene, is born with white fur.

The ghost bear

The Kermode bear, or "ghost bear."

Picture

Also known as the Kermode bear, after Frank Kermode, former director of the Royal British Columbia Museum, this bear is a genetic abnormality, but not an albino. Where an albino would have a white nose and light-colored eyes, a Kermode bear has a brown nose and eyes.

On Princess Royal Island, the bear population has been isolated for so long that this recessive gene for white fur shows up in large numbers: one out of every ten bears is white. It is one of these bears, an adolescent just learning to get along without his mother, who is the star of the NATURE program GHOST BEAR.

Ravens

In myth, the raven created the ghost bear.

A more fanciful explanation of the bear's origin comes from the Tsimshiam people, who once lived on the island. Long ago, the story goes, the world was covered in ice and snow. One day, the raven, the creator of the world, came down from heaven and turned the world green, as it is today. But as a reminder of the time when all was white, the raven went among the bears and turned every tenth one the color of snow. The raven decreed that the white bear, which the Tsimshiam call  Moksgm'ol, would live forever in peace.

But this guarantee may not be valid much longer. To protect Princess Royal Island, NATURE had chosen not to make its name public, but in the three years since GHOST BEAR was filmed, the island has become the center of a struggle between conservationists and developers. The island has been targeted by the logging industry, which has already begun clearing away tracts of the 10,000-year-old forest.

With its habitat in danger, the Kermode bear is a subject of great interest to wildlife filmmakers. Jeff and Sue Turner, the makers of GHOST BEAR, first ventured to Princess Royal Island in 1991 to spot this elusive creature and determine whether they could make a film about it. They travelled north in the late summer, when the island's waters were full of the salmon that tempt hungry bears out of the deep forests.

Once funding for the film shoot was in place, the Turners returned to the island in 1992. They built a base camp where they lived for an entire year with their advisor, Charles Russell, and their newborn baby. Over the course of a year, thanks to the resident bears' unfamiliarity with people, the Turners got closer to these animals than anyone has ever done.

Throughout most of the world, bears know enough about humans to avoid us by instinct.

Bear rolling

The bear was comfortable around the Turners.

For fear of being shot or trapped, a bear will walk away from a person unless it feels threatened. A mother protecting cubs or a hungry bear pursuing prey may react defensively to an approaching hiker, but bears otherwise seem uninterested in coming into contact with people.

One in ten bears is born white here

But the black bear population on Princess Royal Island is different. Here, aside from the Tsimshiam, who once inhabited a coastal village but now no longer live on the island, almost no people have entered the inland rainforest. The bears here, undisturbed for thousands of years, have no instinctive fear of people. The Turners were able to establish a sense of trust that granted them unprecedented access into the bear's world.

Charles Russell describes this mutual trust in the book he wrote about the experience of living on Princess Royal Island, SPIRIT BEAR. According to Russell, one day the team wandered into the bear's den by accident.

Afraid of an attack, the filmmakers were surprised instead to be welcomed by the young bear, who was as curious about the humans as they were about him.

Russell goes on to warn the reader against trying to initiate contact with wild bears, who have unpredictable natures, but the story -- and the fact that Russell lived to write about it -- is a testament to the spirit bear's trust for him and the Turners.

Ghost bear hunting

The young bear looks for a salmon dinner.

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