Greenland – The Journal of My Journey (Pt. 3)

by matthay44

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At last, the third and final post from my trip to Greenland last spring. I had to hold fire on this one because it describes the same encounter I wrote about in the latest edition of ‘Another Escape’.

Of all my diary entries from the GRNLND2018 expedition this is my favourite. Even now, reading about my encounter with the Arctic’s top predator brings a smile to my face and fills me with gratitude. It just doesn’t get much better than this for someone like me.

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BEEAAARRRR!!!

Very little room left in this journal now so I must be economical, but wow, what a day!

It started nicely with a lazy morning in the tent. The sun was shining, the air was cool and crisp, with a westerly wind ruffling the canvas. We brewed up two rounds of delicious Glen Lyon coffee, played some cards and smoked the remainder of the first cigar to pass the time. All very Edwardian and civilised. Then our attention turned to fixing Louis’ broken ski. In the end we used a leather-man to cut out a section of my shortbread tin, folding this over with pliers to make a splint. Louis then filed down the sharp edges and taped it over the break in the skis. Using two of our heavy duty tent pegs, we then taped these along the side of the ski to stop it bending too much around the weakened section. It wasn’t perfect – but it worked!

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The Mad Carew with broken ski…

While Louis was refining this repair, I decided to set out for a ski tour. It was the first nice day in ages and given our height on the glacier, relative to the surrounding peaks, it looked an easy ski to summit one of the nearby mountains and then enjoy a good descent back to the tent.

Before I left the campsite Louis queried if I wanted to take the pepper spray with me. I declined. I had my pen flares and what were the chances of finding a polar bear on this glacier anyway? I boldly stated that if I met any ursine adversaries I would go toe-to-toe against them armed with nothing but my wits and my ski poles 🙂

I set out on my tour, revelling in the freedom and the beauty of the glacier. With music in my ears and the sun softening the frozen crust on the snow it was a wonderful ski. I had amazing views to the west, down Sødal, of Hurry fjord and Jameson land, while out to the east I could see the fjords, pack ice and open water of the Greenland sea!

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Looking down the glacier to a frozen fjord and the Greenland Sea

As I skied on, my thoughts turned to polar bears. I reflected that this was the first solo excursion either Louis or I had made on this expedition, wouldn’t it be typical if one of us had a bear encounter now, especially when I’d turned down the offer of pepper spray and my rifle.

I also reflected on what a great route Sødal and this glacier provided for any bears transiting between Scoresbysund fjord and the Greenland sea’s pack ice. As close to a straight line as possible, while avoiding the human village (with all its risks) at Ittoqqortoormiit.

Then, as I scanned back round to the east I noticed what looked like tracks on the glacier about 800 metres to my right. It was hard to make out the tracks distinctly but two thoughts occurred to me. One, if I could see the tracks from here they must be large, which meant human, musk ox or polar bear. Two, we’d had fresh snow last night, so these tracks must be very recent.

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Large tracks on the other side of the huge moulin

I knew that Musk Ox didn’t live in Liverpool land, it would be unheard of to come across one on this glacier. That left humans as the likely suspect. However, despite our recent encounter with some Scandinavian punters, people were rare in these parts. And we would have doubtless heard them if they had skied by so close our campsite. They would also have surely detoured to our tent to greet us too…such is the human instinct when encountering other members of our species in these remote environments.

That left a bear as the prime suspect and as I traced the footprints up the slope, yes, there it was, a polar bear! At least I thought it was…a great indistinct white boulder seemed to be moving, but I couldn’t be sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. I got my camera out, regretting leaving my zoom lens in the tent, and snapped a quick photo, magnifying it as much as possible. The resulting image was highly pixelated but also definitely a bear.

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Is it (a) A Polar Bearing??

Immediately, my adrenaline started flowing and I began to assess the situation extremely logically. I was 20 minutes ski from the tent. I didn’t know which way the bear was travelling, but if it did pursue me, I was unlikely to make it back to the tent before it reached me. I had no way of warning Louis.

Heart-pounding, I quickly took my flares out of my back-pack and refreshed my memory of the firing mechanism, before stowing them in my pocket, within easy reach. I then glanced at the bear, trying to make out what direction it was moving in, and if it had seen me. It didn’t seem to be coming my way, certainly not at any great speed, so I took the opportunity to take my skins off. If I did have to retreat back to camp, the slight down-hill gradient would help me but only if my skis were allowed to slide freely. De-skinning would probably speed up my return to camp by 30-40%.

I didn’t want the bear to see me running away. I also didn’t want to approach it and so I deliberated as to the best course of action. My right leg was shaking slightly with the nerves as I weighed up my options, trying to gauge the distance to my target peak. I considered skiing on, parallel with the bear, assuming that if I could climb the slope and make it to high ground, I would have a great vantage point AND be an energetically expensive prey for the bear to pursue. The problem was that I didn’t know if I would make it to the slope fast enough, and every step I took away from camp left me more exposed.

I also genuinely wanted to go for my ski tour and to make the most of the good weather. But, in the end it was clear to me that the right course of action was to go back and tell Louis. He needed to know. I also needed to be better armed if there was a bear this close and I really REALLY didn’t want to make a decision that exacerbated this situation…I had Anna and Mum at home, worrying about this precise scenario and I owed it to them to take the least risky course of action.

Staring at the bear for a few more minutes to confirm its direction of travel as being away from me, I turned around and began to glide towards out tent, using the adrenaline still in my system to ski quickly and tirelessly back towards camp.

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Our tiny tent – ‘Home, sweet home’

In my mind, I began to rehearse the nonchalance with which I would announce the visit of our ursine friend to Louis…this amused me greatly, the idea of pretending to be irritated that the bear had blocked my path to the mountain, when in fact I was delighted to have seen one. A polar bear, in the wild, encountered while out on my skis. No snowmobiles, no guides, no cruise liner, just me and the bear both wandering in the Arctic wilderness.

As I stepped over the trip-wire perimeter of our campsite, Louis heard me and called out “back already mate?”. “Yeah”, I replied glumly, “I should have taken that pepper spray like you said…”. “What do you mean?”, Louis asked quickly. “There’s a bear on the glacier mate”, I said, “about a kilometre to our north”.

“Are you joking?!?”, Louis asked, startled. “Nope”, I replied. “I got a few pictures of him in fact.”

I popped into the tent to show Louis and he was awestruck. “Mate, this is amazing. How amazing. Was it a big one do you think?”. I said that I didn’t think it was very big, probably a female or a cub, but that it had walked up just 500 metres from our campsite on its way up from the sea ice and we should go and inspect its tracks. Would be a good test for Louis’ recently repaired ski too.

Louis quickly readied himself to go and we set off towards the tracks. Louis, for once, slow in comparison to me as he moved his broken ski gingerly, it’s ability to slide severely compromised by the tent pegs now attached to it.

When we reached the tracks they were enormous. So, so impressive to behold. Just seeing the prints of such an enormous wild animal is a sensational experience. A true member of the mega-fauna, one of the last giant carnivores left on planet Earth. Each of its footprints was about 15 inches long, almost a foot wide and the snow beneath had been utterly compacted as it bore the weight of the bear. You could see where the claws had scraped along the snow as it lazily lifted each paw forward and even the guard hairs that flank male bears’ legs had left their mark on the surface.

This latter clue and the size of the prints left Louis in no doubt that our visitor was a full-sized adult male. It was too big to be anything else. He explained that when travelling on deep or soft snow, the bear will move its back feet into the tracks made by the fore-paws, so that it is only breaking trail once, in effect, and therefore conserving valuable energy.

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“I think it went this way, mate”

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Bigger than a size 10…

Now that we had established the nature of our quarry, Louis asked me what I wanted to do, stating that he should probably go back to the tent so he didn’t overdo it on his fragile ski. At all costs, we had to preserve his ski for the journey home! I said that I would go and watch the bear and see where it was moving and what it seemed likely to do.

We parted ways, Louis skiing back the way we had come and me, now armed with a rifle, turning up the slope and following those enormous tracks. This time knowing exactly what I was going to find at the end of them…

As I followed the bear tracks up the glacier my senses were crackling. Because I couldn’t see him yet, I didn’t know for sure if he had changed his direction of travel or where he might be. Every rise potentially concealed him and as soon as new terrain became visible I would quickly scour it, searching for any sign of his ivory form. 

Eventually I saw him again, clearly lying down, seemingly asleep. Very conscious of the wind direction and the fact that my scent would be blowing towards him, I kept skiing up the slope of a mountain until it became too steep to go on. (I’d shunned my skins for this outing, opting for Louis’ wax instead, in case I did have to make a quick getaway, but the wax couldn’t hold me on slopes steeper than about 15 degrees). 

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When I reached a good spot, I set up shop: taking off my skis, priming my rifle and my camera and settling down with a few snacks for my stakeout. I was probably 800 metres from the bear and now, armed with my zoom lens, I could see his sleeping form clearly. I positioned my backpack as a camera support to try and limit the blur on my photographs and lay there in the snow for 20 or 30 minutes. 

Part of me wanted to sneak closer, onto the next ridge of the glacier, but a more sensible instinct advised me to stay put. Anna and my family were still very much at the forefront of my mind, but as well as this, I really didn’t want to disturb or upset the bear. Come the summer this old boy would be starving, living on the fat reserves that he was currently accruing. If I startled him, forced him to run or deviate from his route, he could expend energy that would make life much harder for him further down the line. Plus, he was super cute asleep, all four legs out to different sides like a starfish, with his muzzle resting on the snow. 

Once I’d had my fill of sleeping bear photos I sat up to have a drink and a bite to eat. I looked up a few seconds later and a jolt of adrenaline surged through me. The bear had woken up, stood up and was staring right at me. He knew I was there, watching him. I waited anxiously to see what he decided to do. I think he was assessing me as well, deciding if any evasive action needed to be taken. Eventually, and probably to our mutual relief, he turned around and did a big poo. Then he sat on his haunches before slowly rising and lumbering off to the north in the direction of Kalkdal. 

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He walked slowly and rhythmically, with a great lumbering gait. His head swung to and fro in time with his shoulders as he moved those great paws in turn. Briefly, he was out of site, behind a slight rise in the glacier, but then I saw him again, now climbing an extremely steep slope up to a knife-edge ridge that separated our glacier from the next valley. 

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. His pace hadn’t changed at all, despite now going up a 30 degree slope. He just lumbered on. Once or twice he seemed to slip slightly, but I guess those great claws act like built in crampons and so he continued his relentless march unperturbed. He made slight zig-zags up the slope like a ski-tourer would, cutting up a gully line that would then lead him to a col. I don’t know why I was surprised, but I hadn’t considered any bear having such an innate mountaineering nous. The slope to his right had avalanched recently, such was the steepness of the terrain he ascended, and I began to wonder if this was why he’d been sleeping…waiting for the temperature to drop and the snowpack to firm up, to reduce the avalanche risk before his climb. I’ll never know exactly what he was thinking, or indeed why he had come up into the mountains at all. But it certainly seemed possible, given what I was seeing now, that he was a master at moving over these vertiginous slopes. 

Towards the top of his climb the relentlessness of his ascent seemed to finally take its toll. A few minutes work from those great front paws and he’d dug himself a large pit, burrowing straight into the side of the slope. He hopped in, now secure and safe from sliding, turned his head out to face me and had another nap. My kind of creature. 

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The only way is up…

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Time for a nap

With his direction of travel now reasonably certain, I began to head back to the tent. I was filled with wonder. All around me the snow sparkled and the glaciers glowed in the evening sun. I felt so privileged to be here, in the Arctic, and to be able to have such an adventure. The air was cool and crisp, there was very little wind and surrounded by the mountains I felt utterly in my element. I felt as though the trip had come full circle and that I was finally at home in this harsh land. I’d gone through the pain, acclimatised to the discomforts and now I was reaping the rewards of being able to exist in this place. 

The Arctic is truly special when experienced in this long, slow way. It gets under your skin. The light, the beauty, the intense simplicity are both humbling and intoxicating. It seems at once fierce and indifferent, but also fragile and delicate. Finer details, like low sunlight on a crag or the shimmer of cold air rushing downhill, seem more important and meaningful here than elsewhere. There is less to distract your mind from appreciating these simple wonders and focussing on the smaller things. I feel certain that if I could only show the Arctic to people and let them experience it in this long, slow way, they would understand the draw it has on me and why I put myself through so much to come back here again and again…

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