Find the bear on the berg!In the Arctic, PB is not peanut butter. It’s a polar bear. Like crying fire in a movie theater when there is no fire, you don’t want to say the words polar bear in the Arctic—unless there is a bear. So as we floated from one fjord to the next on Spitsbergen, we would ask each other: “Seen anything interesting?” Anything could be a Beluga or a Walrus, or a Seal or a Minke Whale or any number of wondrous birds. But always, what we all wanted to see was a big white creature, a PB, a “furry friend.”

We had sailed into a beautiful fjord. Our three guides, Sarah Red, Sarah Blue and Therese went ashore to mark off a safe area. The scan and set-up was taking longer than usual. We stood on deck and strained toward the shore to know what was happening. The radios crackled. And then word came back: a bear was there, floating on a small iceberg. We could say those two words: Polar Bear.

The zodiacs ferried over all of the Arctic Circlers and we peered into the distance at the off-white pile of fur sleeping on a berg. I can’t say it was the most satisfying view, but there was no mistaking what was there. Sarah Red had spied it, changing her name to Sarah Bear.

Then, without fanfare, the bear slipped off of its resting spot and swam off. We returned the zodiacs and the safety of the ship. A half hour later, the bear ambled onto shore. It swung its legs in a casual manner, but its strength and speed, even at a distance was obvious. The bear was off-white, smudged by dirt, not fat and not thin. From the distance of the ship I couldn’t see details of eyes or teeth, couldn’t smell the fur of the big bear. I only could see big shaggy feet, a lumbering gait.

I had been thinking that the safety of the trip was excessive—so much precaution against so few bears (there are approximately 3,500 on Spitsbergen). But once I saw this bear I realized how unexpected it was, and how fast it moved. Since the early 70s, when the Norwegian government required all traveling on Svalbard to carry a gun, only five people have been killed. That’s an impressive record. So my feeling caged in by the limited safety zones was the bear’s freedom. That seemed a fair trade off.

Nansen in his expedition north on the Fram met many bears. And he never hesitated to pull out his gun and shoot—a polar bear provided a lot of food for his men, and the fresh meat was important in keeping scurvy away. But his shooting is often dreadful to read—there are sloppy and slow deaths, and then there is a moment when he kills a mother with two cubs. He shoots the mother first, then describes in oddly loving detail the young sniffing and pushing at their mother in despair. He shoots them as well. Nansen finds the breast of the cubs a delicacy. The bear moving before me, however, is protected. No one is allowed to shoot a bear, except in self defense (and then an investigation ensues to ensure the danger was real).

The bear walked the shoreline, and then headed uphill where a herd of reindeer grazed. They dodged the bear and continued to eat the low, green grass. The bear soon vanished in the distance. And that was it, the first polar bear I had seen in its own environment, there and then gone so quickly. Like many who marvel at the natural world, I anticipate these moments of seeing some of our great animals. I expect, perhaps, some sort of transcendent experience. But there was nothing but the simple excitement at seeing a large white animal lumbering the beach, knowing it was both free and safe. 

Reader Comments (1)

Loved reading this. So glad you were not close enough to smell its wet fur. Do you have an itinerary posted somewhere? I am so geographically challenged I need to spot you on a map. Having you at one tip and at the other is quite odd. BTW I want a nickname like Sarah Bear. Perhaps today I could be Polly Lawn Mower as about to mow Peg's lawn. Love you.
Polly LM

July 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPolly Munts Talen

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