CM . . .
. Volume XVI Number 31. . . .April 16, 2010
The Salmon Bears: Giants of the Great Bear Rainforest.
Ian McAllister & Nicholas Read. Photographs by Ian McAllister.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2010.
89 pp., pbk., $18.95.
Bears-British Columbia-Great Bear Rainforest-Juvenile literature.
Grades 3-5 / Ages 8-10.
Review by Gillian Richardson.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
In late March and early April it's still cool in the rainforest. The days are getting longer, but it will be a while yet before the sun starts to beat down on the forest with any real strength. So it also will be a while before the forest floor fills up with the many different kinds of plants that bears depend on for food. But that doesn't matter. After their long winter rest, bears are slow starters. They don't rush around like spring colts shaking off winter blahs. Cubs are always excited to be outside for the first time, and, like youngsters of any kind, they will use up a lot of energy charging around. But adults move slower. When it comes to finding food, they're happy to make do with whatever plants are at hand. And in early spring what's at hand—or paw—is primarily skunk cabbage, named for the pungent odor it emits—an odor that attracts pollinating bees and flies. So if your eyes don't recognize the bright green and yellow cabbage-like plant poking out of the moist ground at your feet, your nose sure will. And if you can smell a skunk cabbage with your relatively weak nose, think how tempting the smell must be for bears with their rocket-powered snouts
The exceptional qualities of the Great Bear Rainforest will begin to captivate young readers on first glimpse of the map in The Salmon Bears showing its scope, and on reading the opening lines about "trees as tall as skyscrapers, the ocean [that] roars like a lion, and giant bears… [that] roam the land like kings." They'll be motivated to read on to discover the 5 million hectare area on BC's west coast, ancestral home to First Nations, is accessible only by boat or floatplane. It isn't all forest, but its old-growth forests, with some trees over 1000 years old, harbor more biomass (living matter) than tropical rainforests. Among other animals, it has a large population of grizzly and black bears. Perhaps its crowning glory is the fact that it is the only home to about 400 rare spirit bears, the white color variation of the black bear. Preservation of this incomparable treasure depends on a key component-- the annual return of millions of salmon in spawning season.
Following the introductory chapter, the reader is guided through five fact-filled chapters detailing the seasonal activities of the bears from one winter to the next. The final chapter sums up the threats to the Great Bear Rainforest (hunting, diminishing salmon, habitat loss and possible future intrusion of oil pipelines or tanker ports) and urges the reader to become aware and involved in the fight to save it. A portion of the royalties from the book will be contributed to this cause.
Throughout the book, sidebars (Just the Bear Facts) offer answers to intriguing questions that young readers may wonder about: "Is bigger also better?", "Why are grizzlies shaped the way they are?", "How do bears choose the salmon they eat?" and "How do bears go to the bathroom when they sleep?" An amazing amount of information is packed into these inserts. Each turn of the page brings you face to face with the bears that photographer (and co-author) Ian McAllister has encountered in his exploration of the rainforest. Many are full-page to show the power and personalities of these rainforest giants.
Despite the title, this book goes far beyond bears. Its focus is the web of life in this ecosystem, shown through the daily interactions between the environment and the bears for which it is named. While it will inform in an easy-to-read, storytelling style about the science of bear life cycles and habits, its primary purpose is to show these bears in this habitat. You'll read about bear dens at the base of old-growth trees, about bears gorging on abundant skunk cabbage when they emerge hungry from hibernation in spring, about feasts of crab or clams when the tide is out. You'll smile at the humorous image the authors paint of young cubs tumbling "headfirst into the ocean" with "nothing to worry about. Bears are like boats….they float. So who needs swimming lessons?" You'll read about the need for huge tracts of undisturbed wilderness for an animal that spends most of its life alone, and most important in this place, about the salmon that must arrive each fall in sufficient numbers to sustain bears (and the entire ecosystem). Based on current research, the book firmly reinforces the assertion that preservation of habitat is the best way to preserve individual species.
The co-authors' credentials and their obvious respect for nature combine to make this story of the rainforest bears an engaging and valuable read. With so much at stake, its urgent messages are worth repeating for every generation.
Gillian Richardson is a freelance writer living in BC.
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