The three sets of polar bear footprints on the tundra slope in East Greenland were very fresh. Two sets belonged to a pair of younger cubs and the third larger set was their mother’s. The sight of these tracks made me freeze in my tracks, and I turned quickly around to Julius behind me, inquiring with a whisper, “Where is the gun?”
With a sheepish grin, he nodded to the Zodiac on the beach 1,000 feet below. That is where he had left his loaded 30-06 sniper rifle, which was the only defense between us and a polar bear family on this warm, sunny day at the Sermilik Fjord in East Greenland.
We were on a Zodiac scouting trip up north to check out the ice conditions in the inner Sermilik Fjord prior to our 2016 season at Natural Habitat’s Base Camp Greenland. We were also trying to catch some Arctic char in the larger river streams flowing into the fjord. We had no luck at the rods this time, and soon it became lunchtime. That is why we were on that beach slope going up to the outlook above—without any defense but our bare hands.
Julius, who is a very experienced local Greenland guide, had let this guard down for a short moment and luckily, it did not take him long to retrieve the gun while I stood still over the polar bear paw prints. Now protected, we proceeded carefully hunched over and followed the bear tracks to the top of the hill, not wanting to surprise a polar bear mom with two cubs. Even though the gun would hopefully only be used simply to frighten the bears away, encountering them in these environs could potentially be a deadly recipe.
To be clear, the safety of the polar bears is as important as our own safety. These animals already face enough challenges without the added threat of adventurers with guns. As a company and as individuals, we truly care about polar bears; after all, they have been a big part of our DNA since Nat Hab’s inception in 1985.
With adrenaline levels high, Julius and I peered around in all directions and saw that the polar bear paw prints continued straight towards the beach on the other side of the peninsula. We looked around for the animals in that direction. Alas, they had all disappeared out of sight—and were probably swimming somewhere among the ice in the middle of the huge fjord, hunting for seals. We had luck this time and were reminded that in the Arctic, one always has to be alert for the unsuspected.
As Barry Lopez wrote in his classic Arctic Dreams novel: “The Arctic is a place where long periods of deafening silence are interrupted without warning by explosive violence.” Whether it be a large iceberg calving in front of you after hours of quietly floating along, a whale piercing the leaden ocean mirror without warning, or a family of polar bears confronting you out of nowhere.
For sure, polar bear confrontations with humans in East Greenland are very rare. In my 30 years of leading nature expeditions along this wildest and remotest of coastlines, I have only encountered these magnificent animals a handful of times.
Once, in Greenland National Park on a three-week-long sea kayaking expedition, we were confronted with a large male polar bear who had broken into a small hut where we were supposed to pick up our food supply. Our group of two guides and ten guests were standing on the shore and when the polar bear lumbered towards us along the beach. We instructed the guests to line up shoulder to shoulder in two lines, one front line kneeling and one behind—several of them holding emergency flares ready to fire in the air. The group was flanked by us guides, each with a loaded gun ready to fire warning shots over the bear’s head. That strategy worked. The sight of us must have made for an impressive defense force and after we fired a few warning shots, the bear put its nose up in the air, lumbered into ocean, and swam away with a measured and royal dignity.
There have also been a few human encounters with polar bears in the Sermilik Fjord area the last couple of summers. Last year, a couple of Dutch hikers were chased away in their skivvies from the tent where their food was stashed. They did not have any bear defenses such as horns, flares or guns, and were lucky to have escaped without a scratch. It was sheer luck, since you never know the mood of any particular bear on any particular day.
And the number of these bear encounters seems to be growing. Polar bear researchers claim that bears are going ashore more and more often in the summer. They are increasingly hungry, since the diminishing ice pack offshore minimizes the chance of hunting their favorite prey—ringed and Greenland seals. This is yet another consequence of global climate change.
That is why we make polar bear protection a top priority at Base Camp Greenland. Natural Habitat Adventures has constructed one of the most sophisticated polar bear defense systems around our camp on the Greenland coast. While it is effective, it also does not make camp visitors feel that they are fenced in or separated from nature. First, we have two different dog-sled teams positioned at strategic high points above the camp and if a polar bear approaches, their loud barking will most likely cause the bear to turn back. The dogs’ barking will also alert our camp staff, which has horns, signal flares and pepper spray at their disposal. As a very last resort, our camp staff can resort to using guns with rubber bullets and even live ammunition, if absolutely necessary. Secondly, our camp is surrounded by a continuous three-foot-tall electrical fence charged with 2,000 volts—enough to stun, but not harm, a large bear. The same fence also incorporates a thin metal wire which, when broken, will trigger a loud noise to alert our camp staff, which quickly springs into action to keep our guests safe.
When we are away from camp, we always bring polar bear deterrents and guns along. Most importantly, when our group hikes through the Arctic terrain, we move along together and carefully observe the surrounding terrain so that we don’t suddenly surprise a bear at a short distance. Experience is key.
I realize that it would be great for our groups to safely encounter these great animals at a safe distance during our Greenland adventures. And it is my hope that we will do just that out there exploring in the Greenland wilderness. But we have to balance our desire to encounter this great bear in the wild with the need to protect both ourselves and the polar bears. And never let our guard down like Julius and I did on that sunny Greenland afternoon.
By the way, I heard that a few days after our bear encounter, a German group of campers at Sermilik Fjord encountered a very curious, insistent and large mother bear with two cubs. Having no other defense system than an old, rusty single-barreled shot gun, the unprepared group decided to evacuate and had to call for boats to pick them up. All in all, it was a smart move to let the polar bears have the right of way in their undisputed, albeit threatened, kingdom of the Arctic.