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The chase? A black bear hustles to catch dinner as the salmon scatter in utter terror.
The chase? A black bear hustles to catch dinner as the salmon scatter in utter terror.

Into the wild

In the eyes of a bear, an activist was born Add to ...

If you've been there, the photographs will send a chill through you, and if you haven't, you'll want to start making plans.

In his new book, Emeralds at the Edge - Observations of an accidental activist, wilderness photographer Andrew Wright gets inside the skin of one of Canada's most hauntingly beautiful places - the Great Bear Rainforest.

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Turning the pages you can almost hear the sound a bear makes when it moves through the water in pursuit of salmon, or the gasp escaping from a blowhole when a whale surfaces from some ink-dark place on the sea floor.

You know Mr. Wright heard those things, because he got that close - close enough to look into the eyes of bears.

"I was out all day, soaking wet from the rain and from wading waist deep in the salmon streams. You have to work hard [to get these shots]" he says. "You have to go where you have to go."

Not that he's complaining. Being in the wilderness, he says, is just about the best feeling he knows.

"It seems to connect at some primordial level. I don't know what it is but somewhere deep in your brain it just clicks and this incredible feeling of peace settles over you."

On one recent trip, Mr. Wright stood on the bank of a small stream and a spirit bear - a black bear with white fur - walked out on a log directly across from him. Between them lay a narrow strip of water where the backs and tails of spawning pink salmon broke the surface. "He looked directly into my eyes. He acknowledged my presence and I acknowledged his. It was almost a religious experience."

Then the bear went fishing. And Mr. Wright took pictures.

Afterward he rushed back to Vancouver to get a few images from his close encounter with the spirit bear into the book just before it went to press.

The Great Bear Rainforest lies on British Columbia's central coast, between the northern tip of Vancouver Island and the southern tip of the Alaska Panhandle. It is a rugged landscape, where black, granite cliffs plunge into the sea and green, dripping forests cloak the surrounding mountains.

Cruise ships and the BC Ferries vessel, Northern Adventure, ply the Inside Passage, and that is the way most people see the area.

But those ocean voyages only give you a glimpse of the stunning beauty. To really experience it, you have to travel up the fjords, visit the small, sheltered bays tucked into the offshore islands, and walk the beaches, rocky shores and estuaries.

Mr. Wright did that with bear guides, often travelling with Bluewater Adventures, a wilderness and ecotourism outfit based in North Vancouver.

The guides put him in the wild places he needed to be, but it was Mr. Wright's eye for light, the subtle shading of mist and the drama of the landscape that made the pictures what they are.

In one frame, you see a female grizzly bear, her ears alert, the hair on her hump standing up, her eyes fixed on a place of darkness across the water. Out there, beyond the edge of the lens, says Mr. Wright, stands a big male bear, with her dead cub hanging from his jaws.

He calls that shot "Forlorn" and it is a reminder that a great picture can be made of more than the visual content within the frame.

"For me, the distressed bear is a metaphor for this entire coastal ecosystem," he writes. "The northward march of logging and development has left fewer and fewer intact watersheds, while estuaries once teeming with fish and shellfish are threatened not just by aquaculture disease and pollution, but by overfishing, river-warming long-term climate change and incongruent conservation and development policies and practices."

In another shot, "Slumbering Bear," Mr. Wright captures an image of a grizzly sleeping in the grass, its head resting on its forelegs. The bear is a rich, chocolate brown, except for the hair on its face, which is blond. It is sleeping amidst wildflowers. "Every time I look at that picture I wonder how anyone can hunt bears," says Mr. Wright. "I just don't see how you can put the skin of an animal like that on your wall."

In his trips to the Great Bear Rainforest, and to the Queen Charlotte Islands, Mr. Wright became an environmental activist. This book is his plea to the world to make sure that this special place, which he calls "one of the last gems of the planet," isn't lost.

All the proceeds from the sale of the book are being given to the Sierra Club of BC. Emeralds at the Edge can be bought online.

Follow on Twitter: @markhumeglobe

 

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