Blogpost #3: Bounty
© 2011 Mark Seth Lender
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
After the ice breaks, and the arctic night yields to longer and longer light, tundra on the edge of taiga turns green, and flowers. Fields of crimson fireweed; cloud berries ripening red to soft, sweet, orange-pink; swarms of insects for the birds. In the ice cold meltwater that floats in the fissures above the permafrost (hard as a rock only inches down) a frog blinks and sticks out his tongue. The Sik Sik wakes from his burrowing sleep and squirreling over a boulder stops and stands up tall to meet perpetual day.
For Polar Bears despite the fireweed as bright as purple lightning and all the life abounding, this is a time of fasting. And the only feasting is on him, mosquitoes tormenting his soft nose and swollen eyes. But sometimes a bear gets lucky, lucky that something else has met an untimely end.
In the night a young beluga, his skin not yet turned from light grey to white, was caught on the reef at the grief of breaking waves and low tide. To Polar Bears, bounty. They gather round the remains in twos and threes and though the truce between them is temporal, for the sake of supper an uneasy peace abides.
At Churchilll Wild
Day 2: Churchill, Canada
The bear perambulates the perimeter with a mild curiosity, looking occasionally, vaguely, towards where I stand. He lies down like a big white dog. Gets up. Sits down in the grass. Turns and yawns… As if there is no one there. Certainly, he knows exactly where I am. And yet, though he sees at least as well in daylight as a human being, if I did not know better I would tell you I have not been seen. That is his sine qua non: Apparent disinterest. When in fact he is aware of every smallest thing. Invincibility is a very particular thing.
Day 1: Churchill, Canada
The length of day misleads. What looks and feels like a coastal summer 6 PM anywhere between Boston and Ventura is closer to 9. Only come 10 o’clock does night at last arrive and even then, for a long time still the quality of the sky is twilight.
Likewise Polar Bears mislead. What is big – bigger than you would believe if you have not seen it for yourself – is also remarkably calm. Why shouldn’t he, the biggest thing around and this he knows, and only the others of his kind worthy of consideration. He looks at you with soft eyes that belie intention and that intention is this: Everything he sees, is food. Including you.
Here on the seal river, Churchill Wild provides two guides with every party out on foot. Terry in the back, Andy in front, both of them with pistols that fire screamers, and flares that explode load as a shotgun. And if that fails, there are the shotguns. But what keeps us safe is their expertise, not the armament. They know the bears, the bears know them and by long association what the limits are. And the beneficiary of this is me, and you, close up and personal, with a creature most of us never get to see at all.
Three Western Kingbirds in Oak Hammock Marsh near Winnipeg
Eliot, my toad catcher with a Yellowbear
Oak Hammock Marsh
The land around Winnipeg gives “flat” a new meaning, and the meaning is pavement. But if you head north and keep on going you come to marshland that at once justifies that evened landscape, and explains what once might have been. The place is called Oak Hammock Marsh. Migratory birds make their rest stop here. I may have seen the beginnings of that, these juvenile Western Kingbirds all together on one branch. Perhaps too young to know I am by definition a threat, they looked and looked and did not fly away. But the great show was on the ground. Leopard frogs – appropriately spotted as their name implies, and the size of two victorious fingers. Canadian toads, small enough to fit comfortably on a copper Loonie, with jewel-like markings and deep all-seeing eyes. I was able to photograph the toads with the help of my intrepid assistant Eliot, A/K/A The Dreaded Wild Canadian Boy, whose gentle, frog-catching skills were unparalleled.
[Author’s Note: After their respective photo-ops, all frogs and boy were returned safely to their respective homes.]