In the Land of the Polar Bear

Mj 618_348_in the land of the polar bear
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“Get up, Kitt – it’s an absolute gong show out here.” My twin brother, Cody, delivers the news with a nervous laugh. I’ve seen this look in his eyes before: He’s trying to act like he’s not scared. “Two of the tents are completely buried, and two more are almost gone. We need to start digging again.”

I’m deep within the warmth of a minus-45-rated sleeping bag. Outside, 60-m.p.h. winds are driving the type of cold that can kill you in a few minutes. Inside my tent, ice crystals cling to every surface. It’s still dark, which means it’s sometime between midnight and 4 a.m. – the only hours of total blackness this far north in late March.

As I struggle into six layers of clothing while still inside my sleeping bag, the reality of our situation sinks in: We’re 750 miles from the North Pole and many miles from the nearest heated building, surrounded by the planet’s densest population of polar bears – creatures known to actively hunt human beings – and on the third day of a blizzard so relentless it’s like being swallowed whole by the sinking white sky.

Pushing through the tent door and into the whiteout, I hear voices and stumble toward them. Cody’s handing me something and yelling over the deafening wind. I grab the shovel and start to dig.

Five days ago, I looked down upon the intricate lacework of blue fjords and giant blue icebergs jutting from a frozen ocean as our plane bounced into the airport at Longyearbyen. I thought this trip would be easy. It had been arranged, after all, with the legendary Abercrombie & Kent adventure company, famous for bringing crystal stemware and white-glove service to African bush safaris – a company that boasts of creating “luxury cocoons” anywhere in the world.

Longyearbyen, with about 2,000 people, is the largest town on the island of Spitsbergen and the northernmost year-round community on the planet; Spitsbergen is, in turn, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago, which lies halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. Dutch explorer Willem Barents officially discovered the archipelago in 1596, though it remained a disputed territory until the kingdom of Norway established sovereignty over the region in 1920. In recent years the town has blossomed as an emerging eco-tourism destination, which led Abercrombie & Kent to choose it as the base for one of its newest adventures, to Spitsbergen’s remote eastern coast – a place where polar bears are not yet endangered.

As we drive from the airport, the sun’s low angle casts a glow of glistening soft-yellow light on a herd of reindeer grazing in the middle of town. Then the whining buzz of a dozen or so snow scooters – the main form of transportation here during the eight-month winters – quickly shatters the fairy-tale scene. (There are more snow scooters in Longyearbyen than people.) As a couple of kids who couldn’t be older than 12 roar past us, we pile into a local shop to be outfitted in heavy-duty boots and one-piece Finnish snowmobile suits. Cody takes a quick look at me and cracks up. “You look like an Ewok wearing one of those sumo-wrestling fat suits,” he says.

Twelve hours later, the morning light is a mix of deep purple and blue creeping down the mountains above town like cold syrup. It’s 4 a.m., and jet lag has me wide awake in our hotel room and staring at the thermometer outside the window. Minus 22 – probably closer to – 40 with the windchill. Today we leave our warm hotel to charge 60 miles into the Arctic wilderness; I’m not really in any hurry to get outside, but Cody’s awake too and suggests a brief constitutional. My 20 pounds of insulated clothing have me feeling like an astronaut as we walk clumsily toward town; the only window we pass that doesn’t have the shutters drawn is filled with sealskin blankets, Arctic fox pelts, and reindeer-hide rugs set amid a taxidermy display of a polar bear with glowing glass eyes.

The frozen wind feels like hot fire on my nose. My thumbs are completely numb, and my balaclava is frozen into an ice mask around my mouth. Mats Forsberg, our expedition leader and polar bear expert, has had us on the snow for slightly more than two hours, and nearly everyone is suffering from frostbite: blisters and inflamed red skin the telltale signs. (Our ragtag group of nine comprises mostly journalists and businessmen, along with a 19-year-old Russian banking heiress set on touching a polar bear.) The extreme cold, coupled with snowmobile speeds of up to 40 mph, has blasted any exposed skin with temperatures well below 50. We apply duct tape to helmets, gloves, and goggles in an effort to seal any gaps where the wind can sneak in.

Then the snowmobile in front of me jolts to a stop; our local guide, Audun, tenses visibly and reaches for his gun. It’s only then that I see footprints as big as my head, with massive claw marks. Staring at the stamped-down snow in front of me brings a sudden surge of adrenaline, as much from the excitement of seeing the prints as from the fear that comes with realizing I’m no longer at the top of the food chain. The tracks are less than an hour or two old, and solitary, which can mean only one thing: a large male.

There are an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears throughout the Arctic regions of Russia, Greenland, Alaska, Canada, and Svalbard. They spend the majority of their lives floating on and swimming between massive chunks of sea ice, and a recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey predicted that two-thirds of them will disappear by 2050 as the ice shrinks. The supporting evidence is clear: Since 1978 the melt season has lengthened by 20 days, and permanent sea ice is declining at a rate of more than 11 percent per decade.

The Barents Sea bear population, which includes Svalbard, was hunted extensively until a 1973 Arctic treaty regulated harvesting. At that time, fewer than 1,000 bears lived on and around the Svalbard archipelago, but they’ve since made a dramatic comeback, now numbering around 3,000 – about the same as the number of people living here. Of course, with no native population left to hunt the bears, 60 percent of the land covered by glaciers, and large swaths of habitat fiercely protected by the Norwegian government, Svalbard is an exception; in fact, the bear population here continues to rise. The flip side of all this: Occasionally they attack or even kill people on Svalbard, and citizens kill an average of three polar bears each year in self-defense.

After eight frigid hours of riding, we turn up a canyon and reach our base camp, which consists of a small canvas-covered john with a frozen seat and a Russian cook tent housing a kerosene stove. The cook tent, 10 feet by 15 feet, is the only heated structure in a 40-mile radius. It’s also the only place for all nine of us plus our three guides to dry out gear, eat dinner, and stay warm (warmth being supremely relative – the average temperature inside the tent is just above freezing). Mats gives us a lecture about safety and points out where the flare guns and rifles are kept.

That evening, a large red sun hangs on the horizon for more than an hour, seemingly suspended by the cold air as the snow around us turns burnt orange. It’s the last time we’ll see the sun for four days.

If polar bears are kings on Svalbard, then the wind is God. When it decides to blow, life comes to a grinding halt. The bears just lie down and go to sleep, letting the drifts cover, insulate, and warm them until the storm lets up. For humans, it’s not that easy.

On the first day, huddled in the small cook tent, Cody and I play cards, read, and laugh at war stories from adventures past. Eventually we head outside and climb to the top of a small ridgeline. Losing sight of the tents, we take turns jumping off a rock with our arms spread, marveling at the wind’s power to carry us 15 feet down the slope. Then, just before our footprints disappear, we follow them back to the camp.

On the second day, it starts to snow, and movement becomes almost impossible. Walking between my tent and the cook tent, I fall to my knees; there no longer seems to be up or down, left or right. Everything around me looks the same: blank. I try hard to make out my black boots and focus on each step to avoid the dizzying cloud enveloping me. We all start to take turns digging out the tents.

By the third night, digging is a constant, while sleep is almost nonexistent. More tents succumb to the storm; we’re running out of shelter. Finally, on the afternoon of our fourth day, the wind dies. Snow is still falling gently, and the silence of our camp – after 72 straight hours of wind-driven pandemonium – is a revelation. Stumbling out of the cook tent, we get our first clear view of the camp. The snowmobiles, gear sleds, fuel barrels, and collapsed tents are buried four feet deep, with the other tents in various stages of surrender. A favorable forecast has salvaged our hopes of exploring the coast, but first we’ll have to dig ourselves out. Progress is slow, but by sunset – around 10 pm – the 12 of us manage to free all 12 snowmobiles; miraculously, every last one of them starts. Tomorrow, if the weather holds, we’ll finally get out on the ice.

I don’t know how he saw it. After a morning exploring the pack ice, watching fulmars and black guillemots ride the thermals of large ice ridges, Mats slams on the brakes, shuts off his engine, and starts dancing around in some sort of strange, silent jig, clawing at the sky and signaling for the rest of us to stop.

I hit the kill switch; Mats hands me his binoculars and points to the horizon, where I see a milky yellow dot moving steadily across the ice.

“I think we will stay with this polar bear for a while,” Mats announces with a subdued flourish. We’re going to double back, stay downwind, take shelter near a large iceberg, and wait for him to come to us. For the next hour we creep across the ice and then settle in to wait. As the sun pops out just in time to begin its long nod into sunset, the bear, still oblivious to our presence, starts heading straight toward us.

When he gets within 400 yards, I can make out his every movement; he stops to sniff the air, then lowers his massive head to the snow; every so often he rears up on his hind legs, then smashes his front paws into the ice, all 1,000 pounds of him shuddering from the impact. He moves with the casual grace that comes with being in complete control of one’s environment, totally comfortable in the harshest climate imaginable. I am transfixed and unmoving for close to an hour, watching both an animal and a place so powerful and raw that humans will never conquer either – yet so fragile that the slightest change in climate can destroy both.

Beneath my many layers of clothing, I feel goose bumps rise on my skin. The sun strikes the mountains in the distance, washing them in frozen gold, while the ice glows a pastel pink and the open water shimmers blue. Eventually the bear gets a whiff of something – maybe a female in estrus, maybe a den of ringed seals – and heads off toward the evening shadows in pursuit, never having known – or cared – that we were even here.

The Inuit have a word, iliyra, which means “the fear that accompanies awe.” I think I’m feeling more the inverse – the awe that accompanies fear. But there’s something else that Geoffrey Kent – the son of Abercrombie & Kent’s founder and the man whose brainchild this trip has been – told me earlier, too: “When you finally spot one,” he’d said, “the thrill of watching such a magnificent animal from close range makes you feel undeniably privileged.” Having walked into this trip thinking of luxury and endured it thinking occasionally of death, I’m happy to settle on privilege – and iliyra – at its end.

How to Spot a Polar Bear in the Wild

There’s no guarantee you’ll see one, but these outfitters can make it easier.

Abercrombie & Kent
After arriving in Longyearbyen, you’ll snowmobile, ski, and trek through the Svalbard archipelago along Spitsbergen’s east coast, home to the world’s last protected natural polar bear habitat. Expect 10 days of both luxury (the food and expert guiding) and occasional privation courtesy of Mother Nature (March and April, $13,995;

Expedition Trips
The outfitter’s mobile tundra lodge – a snaking RV made of connected sleeping, dining, and lounging rooms – is the ideal vehicle for five-day bear-scouting trips around Churchill, Manitoba, known as the polar bear capital of the world. You’ll also see Arctic hare and both silver and red fox (October and November, $5,995;

Quark Expeditions
In 2012, the Kapitan Khlebnikov will return to work as an escort ship in the Russian Arctic. Until then you can book a cabin in the former Soviet icebreaker for cruises to the Northwest Passage; Tanquary Fjord; Ellesmere Island and Greenland; and Svalbard–Tanquary is best for polar bear sightings (August 3 to 18, $13,990;

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