The Bear That Disappears

Guests who have paddled down the Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers with us will know the rich wildlife viewing opportunities brought by journeying along these glacier fed waterways.

Tatshenshini River - Nahanni River AdventuresTatshenshini River

Flowing through the largest bio-preserve in the world, these rivers not only offer untouched landscapes and intact watersheds, but are also known for their high numbers of black and grizzly bears, as well as wolves, mountain goats, eagles and falcons.

Yet there is another creature who makes these valleys and forests home, living in the shadow of these species. A creature that remains defiantly illusive, who over generations has inspired myths and bamboozled hunters and biologists alike.

The Tlingit name, s’iknóon, literally translated as “the bear that disappears”. In the English language, it is known as the Glacier Bear.

A rare colour morph of the black bear, the glacier bear’s range covers a nook where the corners of southwestern Yukon, northwestern British Columbia and southeastern Alaska meet.

Its fur is not the typical inky black, but a more ethereal range of hues, from pale silver through to a dark charcoal pelage with dusty blue tips.

The genetic code for British Columbia’s spirit bears, another black bear subspecies, was cracked years ago; a rare, recessive gene causing a brilliant white coat, but the Glacier bear genealogy remains an enigma.

In a recent attempt to understand its genetics, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game conducted a study, collecting genetic information about black bear populations from hair and tissue samples taken from across the known glacier bear range.

The researchers found a curious correlation: there was an absence of glacier bears in populations inhabiting areas without icefields. This could be coincidental; it’s plausible that there is another population of glacier bears who eluded the sampling but suggests that it is the presence of icefields that has triggered this evolutionary curiosity.

It is likely that glacier bears inhabit glaciated landscapes since this confers an evolutionary advantage. By matching their surroundings, this would increase their predatory superiority and improve their chances of survival and propagating their genes in these harsh environments. 

The North is home to some of the world’s largest remaining glaciers. The Saint Elias ice field straddles the Yukon-Alaska border and is the largest non-polar ice cap on Earth. Guests returning from a Tatshenshini or Alsek expedition will enjoy views of this incredible ice field on their charter flight from the Gulf of Alaska back to Whitehorse.

While contemporary populations of black bears are stable, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game research team concluded there is not enough information to make any judgements about populations of the glacier bear subspecies.

However, with glaciers under increasing stress from environmental change, the future of the glacier bear is uncertain. But perhaps this is how the glacier bear wishes it; having existed for millenia by successfully avoiding humans, it seems fitting that it evades the reaches of modern science to this day.

For me, their mystery is somewhat encouraging. In a changing world, it is comforting to know that the wilderness of the North remains an unknown realm.

For those of us lucky enough to enter the bears’ world, we may not see them, but simply the knowledge that such creatures inhabit these landscapes as we paddle from lush alpine meadows to iceberg filled lakes adds to the wonderment of these river journeys.

Interested in learning more?

Whether you journey to experience abundant wildlife, verdant wildflowers or glacial vistas, our journeys are sure to exceed your expectations.

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