Close Encounters of the Polar Bear Kind
It was the evening of April 16th, 2017. Our team had been skiing across the arctic sea ice for 3 days, and we were in great shape having already made 25 nautical miles. It was a little before 8pm and our team was busy making our dinner of soup, bacon’n’cheese quesadillas, and Mountain House.
In the middle of telling a story, Annie (my co-guide) heard the sound of heavy footsteps crunching on the snow outside and unzipped the tent door to see who it was. What she saw was not a fellow team member, but a polar bear, eyes curious, sniffing the air, not 15ft away.
“Bear! Bear! Bear! Bear!” I was in the middle of boiling water when Annie’s yells registered. The rush of adrenaline propelled me out of the tent, yelling as I unzipped the tent door. I met the bear’s eyes and it startled as I yelled, running 40ft away before stopping to reconsider the camp. Shotgun and flare gun in hand, Annie and I came together as our team members filed out of the tents, cameras rolling.
Annie fired an explosive flare high into the air and when it exploded the bear took off running and stopped again about 80 yards away, at which point it rolled around in the snow playfully, not seeming scared or aggressive. Within a minute, the bear began walking back towards our camp and Annie fired a second explosive flare round. This type of flare makes a loud bang when fired and then a second, delayed explosion four seconds after. Basically like mini fireworks.
At the second explosion, the bear took off running again and although it looked back several times, continued away from camp until we lost sight of it behind some ice rubble, nearly a half-mile away.
At this point, we began removing all food from our tents and gathering it in two of our sleds, placed 50ft downwind of our camp. We also constructed a roped perimeter around our camp and called in to Barneo Ice Camp to report the encounter. Barneo reported that the other two Last Degree teams were within a mile of our position although we could not see them over the surrounding pressure ridges.
I climbed a nearby pressure ridge and located one other camp under a mile away, so our team suited up to ski over to warn whoever was at the other camp about the presence of the bear. When we arrived, it was clear that they had not encountered the bear, but we agreed that our teams should group up for the night and reassess in the morning. Our team skied the ¾ of a mile back to our tents while CP and Taylor’s team of six began packing up to move over to our larger camp. At this point, it was 3am.
Back at our camp Annie and I were outside watching the other team begin to make their way toward us, and Annie spotted the bear again. It was 100 yards away, slowly approaching our camp from the same direction as before. We launched one more explosive flare into the air in the bear’s direction and when it exploded, the bear took off in a hurry, not slowing down and soon disappeared behind a pressure ridge. That was the last we saw of it.
When the other team arrived, we reconstructed our perimeter and kept a watch for the rest of the night. The following day, our two teams traveled together and enjoyed it so much that we completed the rest of the expedition as one big super team. Multiple shotguns and flare guns, as well as a few extra sets of eyes put everyone at ease.
After some research, we decided that the polar bear we encountered was an adolescent, but cannot speculate on the gender. At no point did its behavior seem aggressive. It inspected our camp with curiosity, likely drawn by the scents of fried salami, bacon quesadillas, and bags of snack bars.
The encounter was a good one for all parties. While we were prepared to use lethal force if necessary to ensure our top priority of group safety, the explosive flares proved very effective in scaring off the bear without harming it.
Having now observed a polar bear in the wild, in a place where humans rarely venture, I am humbled by their power and beauty. Given the rarity of encounters like this, I do not expect that I’ll experience it again. Half of me laments that, while the other half would be happy to not cross paths with a polar bear again. They are the true masters of the Arctic.