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The Spirit of the Bear

It was almost 25 years ago when Cyndie first visited Terrace, British Columbia. She traveled to Terrace with her parents, who went there on their own "mid-life adventure", in hopes of viewing and photographing the Kermodei Bear.

Terrace is home to possibly the rarest of all bears. The black bears in this region are genetically unique and are known as Kermodei bears. What makes these bears so unusual is that a small number of these bears, about 10%, are white in color. 

Native Indians, who first spotted this bear over a century ago, called the Kermodei, (rhymes with Cody), "The Spirit Bear". These white bears have rounded ears and an almost friendly facial expression. They were known for showing up when the Indians were in trouble, leading them to food, water or safety. Legends even claim that the bear would take would take on a human form at times. It was the legend of these rare bears and the relative lack of documentation of their existence that fascinated Cyndie's dad, Emmett Shelton, Jr. 

During their search for the bear, Emmett and his wife, Jeanette, were befriended by a local trapper named Paul Shulte. Paul was a crusty old fellow who lived most of his life along his trap line in the British Columbia bush. Paul came to Terrace in the late 1930's and was one of the first white men ever to see a Kermodei bear. When he first spotted a white bear along his trap line he was quite confused by what he had seen. He asked the local Indians about it and they confirmed that it was indeed a white colored bear. They told Paul, "We don't tell white men about them because they will come and kill them."

Paul took a liking to the Cyndie's folks and they kept in touch. In 1975, they returned to Terrace for a month. With Paul as their guide, they hiked into the bush on the trails along his trap line, visited his remote trapper cabins and photographed the rare white bears. Emmett published his photographs of the bears and the story of his experience in the Austin newspaper.

It was several years later that the Shelton's received a letter informing them that Paul Shulte had died. The letter said that Paul was found in the woods, lying on his back with his rifle across his chest, frozen solid in twenty degree below zero temperatures.

It was with this as a background that we decided to visit Terrace on our way out of Alaska. We wanted to relive an experience that has become one of the most memorable events in the Shelton family. We hoped to view and photograph a Kermodei ourselves.

When we went to Terrace we knew only two things about where one might see a Kermodei bear. One was that they used to be seen regularly around the Terrace city dump. But, we soon learned that the British Columbia wildlife management office had installed an electric fence around the dump to keep the bears out. Such actions have become necessary to protect bears from becoming dependent on feeding on garbage and from hunters, who soon learn they can kill a trophy white bear just by hanging around the dump. With the fence, it was a cinch we weren't going to find a bear at the Terrace City Dump.

The other thing we knew about finding a Kermodei bear was that Paul Shulte and the Sheltons has seen them along his trap line over 20 years ago. We figured if we could find Paul's trap line, and spent some time hiking along it, we might be able to see and photograph the bear. But first, we had to figure out just where in the British Columbia bush his trap lines were located.

At this point we'll make a long story a little shorter and just tell you we never saw a Kermodei bear. However, the search for Paul Schulte's trap line proved to be an incredible journey for us. It was on this journey that we found "The Spirit of the Bear".

We started our search for traces of the old trapper by asking around town to see if anybody knew of him. Finding nobody who recognized his name, we headed off to the Terrace library looking for traces of him in local history books. After quite a few hours in the library, we found only one mention of him in any documented history of Terrace. It was in an interview with another colorful local character, Pat Beaton, who stated, "I came to Terrace in a boxcar with Paul Shulte in 1939".

Just when we thought there was no remaining trace of this old trapper, we got our first break. Amongst the mound of materials we gathered in the library was some information on Terrace's Heritage Park. Like many pioneer towns out west, Terrace has created a park in which buildings and artifacts that are important local history are kept and preserved. One of the brochures said that in Heritage Park was an old trapper's cabin that had been placed on display to preserve the history of the early trappers who first settled this area. The description of this trapper's cabin noted that it had been moved to the park from Paul Shulte's trap line. By now, we realized we probably were not going to bring home a photograph of a Kermodei bear. But, a photo of the trapper's cabin that the Sheltons had visited twenty years earlier would give us a chance to share a common experience with them.

We made a beeline to Heritage Park only to find a sign that read "Closed for the Season". There was a phone number posted on the sign and we began making calls to see if there was any way we could get into the park to see the cabin. It took us two days to reach the right person, but we finally got someone to agree to let us into the park.

It was close to sunset on a Saturday evening when Norma Kirby, daughter of the head of the local historical society, met us at Heritage Park. She opened the gate and led us to the trapper's cabin. As she fumbled with the keys to the padlock that secured the door, Cyndie noticed some writing carved into the log above the door of the small cabin. Thinking "who would have defaced this cabin by carving their name on it", she looked closer. There were five names, all in the same handwriting. Two of those names read "Emmett Shelton". One was dated 1973 and the other 1975. It was then we realized that Paul Shulte had only taken five visitors to this remote cabin, and two of them had been her father. He had recorded these visits by carving their names into the log above the cabin door.

Cyndie was at this point overwhelmed. Tears welled in her eyes as she realized what she was seeing. The women from the Historical Society, who was now pretty impressed by our connection to this cabin, was quite interested in what we knew about Paul Shulte and the cabin.

As it turns out, Paul Shulte was pretty much a recluse and, although the Historical Society had his cabin, they knew very little about this old trapper. Since Cyndie's father has photos of the cabin while it was still in use and hours of taped conversations with Paul Shulte, he may have some of the best recorded history of this trapper who has come to represent the history of this area.

The final chapter to this story was written when we looked up the one remaining relative of Paul Shulte's, Herman Buschmann, who was Paul's cousin and still lives just outside Terrace. We called the Buschmanns and they invited us to their home to talk about Paul and his love for the Kermodei bear. Although they do still see a white bear on occasion, most are seen in areas that require crossing private property. As we had been unable to see and photograph a Kermodei, they gave us two photographs that Paul Shulte had taken of white bears with cubs. These photos have become a treasured addition to our collection of memorabilia from our midlife adventure.

The Bushmanns also related a story that, to us, characterizes the spirit of the Kermodei and this community. For many years there had been a white Kermodei that was seen regularly near the Terrace City Dump. The bear was loved by the local people who treasured the opportunity to watch it. Two years ago, the bear was killed by a "hunter" who (illegally) shot the bear as it wandered harmlessly along its regular trail. The Bushmanns were devastated by the loss of the bear that had become their friend and neighbor. They erected a memorial to the bear along the road where it was often seen. On a wooden cross with a photo of the great white bear are the words:

"In loving memory of our beloved Kermodei Bear.
Rest in Peace.
We shall never forget you.
From all the people who enjoyed watching you." 

Although we never saw the Spirit Bear we went to Terrace searching for, we found much more on this journey. We found that the name "Emmett Shelton" will be preserved forever, carved into a log on the trappers cabin in Heritage Park. And, we found "The Spirit of the Bear"

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