Siege of the Polar Bears
Credit: RGB Ventures LLC / Alamy
After I arrived in Arviat, I picked up my rented Ford Ranger and drove out to the dump. There weren't many streetlights, but it was a clear night and the road distinguished itself by a uniform glaze and filigree incisions of snowmobile blades. As I pulled in, I saw a pale shape amid the trash mounds about 150 yards away, but it wasn't moving and seemed too big to be a bear. I drove forward slowly and got to within 100 feet of it. It was a bear. The scale seemed wrong: On all fours, it was too wide and too long. Standing, it might have been nine feet tall. The breadth of the shoulders and area of the shoulder blades and circumference of the midsection were well beyond common bear dimensions and nonsensically far beyond human dimensions. A resident of Arviat had once seen a 13-foot-tall bear. Looking up at that bear would have been like looking up at someone leaning out of a second-story window. A large male polar bear is arguably closer to dinosaur scale than human scale.

The bear had buried its face in trash. Then two ears flicked up, and it raised its head and took a few steps back. It moved with languor – I would have expected it to lumber and thud, but its steps were eminently controlled. I could see the machinery of its muscles and bones working beneath its fitted coat. It swung its head to one side and back before resuming its meal.

Polar bears are aquatic animals: Their paws are webbed for swimming and their necks highly extendable for breathing in rough seas; a whalelike layer of blubber makes them buoyant and impervious to cold – they're so well-insulated, they're nearly invisible in infrared photographs. They can swim more than 200 miles, run 25 miles per hour, walk on thinner ice than seems possible because their paws splay wildly to distribute their weight. They can smell a 150-pound seal under three feet of ice from a mile away, approach its breathing hole soundlessly, and casually pull it from the sea. They will reach into ice floe threads to grab 3,000-pound beluga whales. As the whales spin to get away, the bears' claws dig spiral gashes into their bodies, a design that may impress whale hunters years later.

Encounters between humans and polar bears are infrequent, and fatal attacks remain exceedingly rare. But polar bears are superb and opportunistic hunters, and if they're hungry enough, they will kill and eat humans. Unlike brown bears, which usually attack only when they're startled, and will often maul a victim and leave, polar bears are predatory. They are stealth hunters: You won't see or hear them until they charge.

I made out two more bears, absorbed in eating, before the whine-roar of an approaching snowmobile caused them to scurry away like deer and disappear behind the piles.