A Trip into Polar Bear Country

Just before Christmas, the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) announced their finding that 2014 would be the hottest year in recorded history. This was in accord with preliminary findings by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The unprecedented heat has consequences, including the worst drought in California in 1,200 years and higher temperatures in Europe than at any time in the last half-millennium. It also continued a recent trend of rapid melting of the arctic ice that serves as polar bears’ hunting grounds.

In our January/February cover story, Sabrina Shankman takes a look at the impact of this climate change on how polar bears interact with human beings, particularly in the Torngat Mountains of Labrador, Canada.

Ocean temperatures are climbing faster in the Arctic than anywhere else in the world, leading to a substantial decrease in sea ice. In September 2012, the Arctic sea ice level was 49 percent lower than the historical average from 1979 to 2000. The southern parts of the Arctic, including the Torngats, have had an ice-free summer season throughout modern times. But the ice-free period is growing longer. Since the late 1970s, the number of ice-free days in the area around the Torngats has increased from 125 days to 175 days. Less sea ice means polar bears must spend more time on land. To survive, they live off the body fat stored from their earlier kills on the ice. As the period when they have to live off that reserve grows longer, some eat goose eggs, grasses, or berries. But their foraging goes only so far—they can’t survive without the fat they get from seals. “As the bears’ body condition declines, more seek alternate food sources so the frequency of conflicts between bears and humans increases,” the scientists concluded.

Shankman’s tale is a story of changing climate and habitat, but it is also a riveting adventure tale in the genre of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster and Into the Wild. For me, at least, there is something strangely compelling about these stories of people who have both the disposable income and extensive vacation time to travel to the most forbidding places on Earth and then run into all-too-predictable trouble.

This is a recent development in human behavior, where people brave the death zone on Everest or deliberately try to live off the land in remotest Alaska, not for conquest, science or the pursuit of riches, but purely in the pursuit of self-fulfillment. With all the troubles in the world, it is hard to be overly sympathetic to those who go seeking trouble of their own, but there is also something to admire in their sense of adventure, love of nature, and willingness to suffer hardships in order to win unique and memorable experiences.

The ad in a fall 2012 issue of Sierra magazine promised the adventure of a lifetime: two weeks trekking through the untouched lower reaches of Canada’s Arctic tundra, with the possibility of seeing the world’s largest land carnivore, the polar bear. Participants must be fit and experienced hikers, the ad warned. They would also have to accept an element of risk, including lack of access to emergency medical care. But the payoff would be big. “If you dream of experiencing a place that is both pristine and magical, a land of spirits and polar bears rarely seen by humans, this is the trip you have been waiting for,” the ad said.

Two seasoned Sierra Club guides would be leading the trip. Rich Gross, now sixty-one, worked for a low-income housing nonprofit in San Francisco but since 1990 had spent a week or two each year guiding Sierra Club trips in remote parts of the world. Marta Chase, sixty years old, was a medical diagnostics consultant who’d been leading hiking trips since she was in high school. She and Gross had guided fourteen trips together.

Four people answered the ad and headed off with Gross, Chase, and Chase’s husband into the “pristine and magical” wilderness. And it wasn’t long before they encountered badly malnourished polar bears.

At first, however, they saw this as a positive.

At about 4 a.m., Castañeda-Mendez woke up to pee. Trying not to disturb his wife, he slipped out of his sleeping bag and unzipped the door of their tent. When he stepped outside, he saw that he wasn’t alone. “Hey!” he called out. “Polar bear on the beach!” A mother and her cub were walking along the shore in the early morning light. The mother bear’s snout was raised in the air, sniffing out her neighbors. Chase joined her husband while Dyer and the others grabbed their cameras. They were shouting distance from two of the world’s most violent predators, yet the scene was overwhelmingly peaceful. Dyer was on the verge of tears as he watched the bears walk along the shore, the cub close on its mother’s heels.

Safe in the confines of their electric fence, the hikers felt a quiet connection with animals they all knew would, in some circumstances, see them as prey. That reality, though, felt very far away. Here was a parent taking care of its young and teaching it how to survive. They were in awe of their good fortune.

You can probably predict what happened next. We have a picture of a “man-eating polar bear” on the cover of our magazine for a reason.

But I don’t like to spoil things, so you’ll just have to read it for yourself to find out what happened, how they reacted, and who lived and died.

As you might expect, what makes these kinds of stories so compelling is always the resourcefulness people can muster when put in even the most daunting situations. It’s why we loved Apollo 13 and Gravity. It’s what made Into Thin Air such a page turner.

So, enjoy. The overall topic of climate change is as serious as the circumstances these hikers found themselves in when a hungry polar bear walked right into their camp as they slept, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a great diversion by reading this long and captivating tale of adventure.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.