Monday, April 10, 2006

Close Encounters of a Polar Kind

I was once told that in Nunavut I wouldn't have to worry about going out to find a polar bear to photograph......the bears will come find you. I've certainly seen my fair share the past couple years.

The first time I saw them I was actually in a boat with a local wildlife officer so I was quite safe. Most times, the bears were quite a distance away when I saw them in Broughton Island. However, other times........

I was at a staff pot-luck one night when a local came to the door. "Did anyone want to see a bear. There's one down by the breakwater right now." The place cleared out pretty quick. I remember rushing home to grab my camera.....finally, I thought, I would get my Pulitzer-prize winning shot. I recall leaping into the back of a pickup truck along with a couple other teachers and a group of kids and off we sped to the shoreline. Now, I think I was out of the back of that truck before it even came to a complete stop.

A bear was at the shoreline by the RCMP station snacking on some seal that had been left behind by a local hunter. Stealthily, I crept along a row of houses, seeing how close I could get with my camera. It didn't take long before a rather large group of on-lookers had assembled. As I was slowly closed the distance I was startled by a scream coming from the window above me. I looked up to see the shocked face of a lady, awoken from her sleep who said she thought I was the bear.

Undeterred and emboldened by the size of the crowd (hey that thing can't eat all of us in one shot can it?)I crept closer. I got within 30 feet of the bear as a dose of common sense over-powered stupidity. This was close enough boy-o.

It dawned on me I was only feet away from something that wouldn't hesitate to make me an evening snack. The only thing between me and that bear was the local RCMP constable armed with a shot-gun and some bear-bangers (non-lethal fire-cracker devices used to frighten away bears). All I was armed with was my camera.

The bear reared up defensively on its hind legs several times, towering up a good 7 feet. A group hunters pulled up on an ATV with a large box I knew didn't contain harmless bear-bangers. I turned away as I feared what might come next. Fortunately having finished its meal, the bear turned and ran back out onto the sea ice. Of course some might say the bear had encroached on human territory but in reality we had encroached on his.

I felt fortunate to witness such an awesome display of nature before my very eyes but when I returned home that summer I did lay down some money for a very nice zoom lens for my camera. (As it turned out, the my pictures from that night never turned out.....a little justice for the bear perhaps). As I later recounted to a neighbor, who asked me for a quote for his weblog - "My first thought was, man that's a bloody big bear! My immediate second thought was, being here right now is bloody stupid!"