Red Deer photographer's experience with spirit bears 'pretty overwhelming'

Stephen Underhay sat for hours in the pouring rain on the coast of B.C., observing a group of spirit bears. They were relaxing after stuffing themselves full of salmon ahead of hibernation.

Stephen Underhay was part of expedition that aims to reconnect Canadians with their country

Stephen Underhay, a photographer from Red Deer, says his time on the Canada C3 expedition was 'pretty overwhelming,' especially his time with spirit bears near Hartley Bay. (Stephen Underhay/Supplied)

Stephen Underhay sat for hours in the pouring rain on the coast of B.C., observing a group of spirit bears, a rare subspecies of black bears with light-coloured fur. They were relaxed after stuffing themselves full of salmon ahead of hibernation.

Underhay's guide then spoke to the bears just outside of Hartley Bay, a First Nations community. Underhay said they recognized his voice and carried on.

"They were so unbelievably calm and they interacted so well with our guide and they recognized his voice so as soon as he spoke to them," Underhay told CBC Edmonton's Radio Active Thursday.

An eagle is perched near Hartley Bay. (Stephen Underhay/Supplied)

"They were so relaxed and they just accepted our presence there."

The photographer was one of many on the Canada C3 Project, where Canadians from across the country travel from coast to coast to coast to experience all that the land has to offer.

'Pretty overwhelming'

The trip, which is 150 days long, was divided into 15 legs. Underhay joined the group in Tuktoyuktuk, N.W.T. on Sept. 10 — but not without a bit of badgering first.

Stephen Underhay emailed everybody involved with the expedition that he could find online before he was granted an interview. (Supplied by Stephen Underhay)

He sent emails to as many people involved in the project as he could find and eventually one of them granted him an interview to join the expedition.

"I understand the importance of this expedition, I understand its significance in Canadian history and I thought that, as a very, very Canadian Canadian, I was very interested in being involved," he said.

The project aims to help Canadians connect and reconnect with their country and learn about different cultures that many may not otherwise be exposed to.

Underhay also went up to Alaska with the expedition. This is Dutch Harbor, in Unalaska, AK. (Stephen Underhay/Supplied)

From sailing through the Beaufort Sea and across the Gulf of Alaska to exploring the island of Haida Gwaii, Underhay had the chance to learn about issues Canadians are facing every day. He's hoping his photographs and experiences can help show people different perspectives on otherwise divisive issues.

"[I'm hoping to] help Canadians experience our country and then to bring more awareness to things like First Nations reconciliation, the environment and things like that," he said.

But for Underhay, one of the major highlights was the spirit bears. Overwhelmed with the experience, he had trouble even bringing his camera up to shoot.

"Getting the opportunity to be taken to this area by a man who had been interacting with these animals for over 25 years was pretty overwhelming," he said.

"That's something I will hold with me for my whole life."

The ship, near Point Hope, Alaska. (Stephen Underhay)

Listen to Radio Active with host Portia Clark, weekday afternoons at CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM in Edmonton. Follow the crew on Twitter @CBCRadioActive.

With files from Emily Rendell-Watson