Aug 042013

Bear on Ice

(C) 2013 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved

There is a polar bear swimming through the slush at the edge of the floe. This year’s ice and last year’s ice and the porous remnant of a berg. All that melt, dispersed, makes the sea air cold. The bear, only head and face and sometimes the highpoint of his backbone above water looks cold although he is working too hard for that, trying to get away, from us. Seeing this, Gunnar Ross, the ship’s Master cuts his engines to dead slow so there is more drift than way. To give him room. The bear… speeds up. He looks back, and his lips part in a low growl we cannot hear for the idling of the screws and the steering gear and the floebergs scrapping the steel of the hull. He turns into a channel in the ice, and disappears. There he is again much closer. We’ve veered off, changing course; but the bear has changed course also and come out the wrong way – toward us. Now in his mind he is sure. We are after him. He is going to die. He sneers, and paddles on, faster and harder.

He is making 5 knots maybe 6 which seems an impossible speed and the wake breaks out behind him 40 meters in a widening V. It is too much. Even for a polar bear (who can swim without drowning 300 nautical miles). It is all being spent, right here.

The polar bear cannot give up will not part from his will to survive it is not in him. Nor is it in him to continue like this. In a last gambit he breaks stride and kneeing up like a child at a chair that is too high, clambers onto a flat of ice, the sea pouring out of his hair.

Water cascades from his face, the underbelly and swaying paws as he half walks, – half runs.

Then slows…. And looks…

And comes to a stop. He stands broadside to our retreating ship, the dark skin showing through beneath the saturated white of him. And his head comes up, and follows as we head away and knows that he has won.

His rest is brief and all he needs, and clambers slowly back into the sea as polar bears have always done and swims, away, from our small sample of Humanity and into the brash ice, and beyond, until he vanishes among the icebergs that are white and blue as clouds on a fragile… glass… blue… sky.

Field Note:
In the high Canadian Arctic, crossing Hudson Strait with Adventure Canada, we had an encounter with a polar bear at the floe edge. The bear saw us and fled. A bear swimming away from you is not much of a story, and in any case, not the story you want to tell. The protocol (and I take it very seriously) is never stress the wildlife, much less chase after it. The ship’s captain was Gunnar Roos, a man on his retirement voyage with fifty years of mastery under his belt, and he did exactly the right thing: Back off, turn away. I was aware of that at the time but as a passenger on a ship the length of a football field it was not, in any case, anything I could control. I stood on the mezzanine deck, my tripod braced against the gutter below the rail, and kept my eye glued to the camera.

The polar bear was at a considerable distance and despite the longest lens I own only a small moving mark in my field of vision, indistinguishable from the floe ice except for the long wake peeling off behind him. Plus it looked like what I was getting was the back of his head. I had little hope of anything worthwhile from any of this. But the other rule right up there with “Thou Shalt Not Chase” is “KEEP SHOOTING!” So I did. And a good thing too.

It was not until that night when I scanned through the shots I’d taken of the encounter (several hundred frames) that I fully realized what had happened. I knew the ship had slowed, but not that the bear had sped up. Yet, there he was gaining more distance than we were giving way. Nor could I know (before the images were enlarged) that every time he looked back at us he grimaced, curling his mouth into a sneer. This is the great value of using the camera as a notebook, I am able to see what I could not otherwise have seen.

There is a low vocalization of displeasure bears make when they are afraid. I’ve heard polar bears do that before, mostly at each other, accompanied by that very same facial expression, that little sneer which just reveals the tips of the teeth. That was what I was seeing in the frames, the polar bear looking over his shoulder, paddling on, the expression on his face so clear I could not help but hear it clear as a ship’s bell: I am afraid. Yet there was nothing to be afraid of – not from us – and we’d been doing everything we could to indicate this to the bear. It was not perhaps 10 minutes later, when he climbed out onto the ice and the revelation was virtually forced upon him that he got the point.

I am used to animals, predators in particular, being far more aware and in control of circumstance than me. The way I usually put it is like this: Polar bear will outsmart you. In polar bear country, especially when you are on foot, It’s not a bad thing to keep that in mind. Yet, here was a polar bear, full-grown, scars on his face to prove his prowess and experience, and he was completely mistaken. Much as we might be followed by a polar bear, who simply happened to be going the same way.


Adventure Canada (Arctic Tours)

Jillian Dickens, Travel Specialist

Canadian Tourism Commission

Mark Seth Lender reading Bear on Ice on Public Radio International’s syndicated program, Living on Earth


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 August 4, 2013  General, Mammals, Polar Bear No Responses »
Jul 062013

Farthest North, Log 5: Eternity Glacier

© 2013 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved

Southbound along the Greenland coast. The morning fog clears slowly, and then its mountains and pinnacles and eskers and peaks all along the way. Upon the vast snow fields and below the hanging glaciers the white is raked with dark rills, the tracks of many small avalanches (and some not so small). The peaks run upwards of two thousand meters, small as mountains go, but because they start at the sea they have the aspect of a range many times that high. At the mouth of a fjord we drop anchor again, and take to the small boats.

This is Evidghedsfjorden, “Eternity Fjord.” At the apex, an aging glacier, all blue ice fractured and crevassed in vertical lines 50, 60 meters overhead. And threatening to cleave away. The resident flock of Black-legged Kittiwake own the floating ice. They stand on the small glassy flows and only take off when you are so close you can read the bright of their jet black eyes. On the narrow shore and the dark bare cliffs that close in on the glacier from either side, it is the Glaucous Gulls that rule. Many are in that halfway plumage of summer molt, mottled brown and creamy white. But a distance it is more their pale pink legs that set them apart from the Kittiwakes. In flight, against the glacier’s face and in the air above it they both provide scale which otherwise is almost impossible to judge. Not very big as glaciers go it is plenty big enough.

Mike Beedell is at the Zodiac’s helm. He is a nature photographer’s photographer, the kind of guy who will sit there eaten by bugs or freezing his tail off for the sake of a Decisive Moment He knows wildlife and its landscape with an intimacy only decades of experience can buy, and easily points out where to look, what we are looking at, and always lines up for the best shots. With all, he keeps a safe distance. If one of those bad boys decides to break away you want open water between you and where it drives down, and plenty of it. Fjords run deep, and it’s a long, long way to the bottom.

Stresses in the ice snap like gunshots. Ba-BAM! BAM!

Nothing happens (You relax thinking “False Alarm”)

Without warning a chunk lets go…

It hits the water in fragments, not with a splash but concussion. The slurry of ice that follows goes on and on. It sounds like running water. There is that here too, glacier-fed waterfalls that hiss all the way down the worn granite faces between ice and sea. An eider duck flies over the glacier’s fragmented white top. We must have startled him up, I did not see from where. A big bird, against this landscape he is very small. And again, that sense of scale and how tiny we are. Glacier; Arctic; Greenland; I can’t get used to it, have to keep reminding myself of the reality of the place. Well the place is real enough. The reality of me – here –that will take time and reflection.

Special thanks are due to Jillian Dickens of Adventure Canada and without whom none of this would have taken place.

 July 6, 2013  Birds, General No Responses »
Jun 262013

Farthest North, Log 4: Shallow Water

© 2013 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved

In the summer melt as the ice temporarily gives way to a near-constant sun, 1.5 million litres of water pours into Kangerlussuaq Fjord, every second. With that water comes thousands of cubic meters of rock, ground to a powder by the passage of 100,000 years of glaciers. It turns the water out in the fjord milt blue. Out in the center channel it’s 200 meters deep but in the near shore water the heavier particles settle out and mudflats line the shore. In the fjord the tide flows out even faster than the melt flows in, a good 12 knots by the looks of it and aided by a steady wind. We are aboard a Zodiac racing that tide to our ship, Sea Adventurer. The water is d dropping half a meter every 10 minutes. We aren’t going to make it…

We’ve run aground. The mud is silky soft, no rocks and there is no danger to the inflation bladders that make up the rails, and provide buoyancy. We’re safe, but we aren’t getting out of here. I have an oar and Jane the pilot and I push as hard as we can trying to clear the highpoint that has us hung up in the center. Actually these are paddles, short narrow wood and they aren’t up to it. After a few minutes of this mine is permanently bent. In the 40 minutes we’ve been at it another 40 meters of beach has appeared and now there are moguls of grey featureless mud raising their heads around us. The other boat can’t reach us either and the alternative is either wait for the tide. It is still shy of dead low and that will take hours. The only alternative is to wade out to deeper water.

The water feels deceptively warm to the touch but that mud? It has memory and that memory is ice. In half a dozen steps my bare feet have gone from painful to numb. They will warm up. What worries me is my gear. All of it is in the Zodiac. All. And I’m really worried.

But then again, how many people do you know who can say they’d run aground above the arctic circle? Only this one, I wager.

 June 26, 2013  General No Responses »