Monday, December 15, 2014

Michael Engelhard: A Beast for the Ages

You can spend much time in the North’s backcountry without ever bumping into some of its more secretive denizens—lynx, wolves, or wolverines. I’d like to use this opportunity to share my encounter with an Arctic critter I had never met face-to-face until recently: Ursus maritimus, the polar bear. It happened in 2010, on an 11-day rafting trip on the Canning River (the western boundary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) that I was co-guiding for Alaska wilderness outfitter. The encounter was not exactly face-to-face, rather binocular-to-face, but nevertheless, life-changing. Here is what I wrote, to give you a taste of the experience:

Sipping coffee in the morning’s quiet, looking south from the top of the bluff where we pitched our tents, I notice a white lump on the bench below muscling toward camp. I cannot believe my eyes. A polar bear! The clients pop from their nylon cocoons when I alert them—one clad in boxer shorts and a down jacket. We stand and watch the bear sniff and root around. To this carnivore, accustomed to fatty seals and other marine mammals, the only morsels of interest here would be ground squirrels, foxes, or birds—none of which could satisfy the hunger of this blubber-burning powerhouse.


Without a care in the world, the bear lies down for a nap halfway up the bluff’s slope. What is there to fear? We sit and keep our binoculars trained on the pile that could easily be mistaken for a limestone boulder. Occasionally, the bear lifts its head to sample the air. We crouch downwind from it, and it remains unaware of our presence.
Before long, a Golden Eagle strokes past. Mobbed by some songbirds but still regal in its bearing, it scrutinizes the bear, which sleeps on, unconcerned. Then I catch another bright spot heading downstream. A scan with my glasses reveals a white wolf. Indifferent to our attempts to make sense of it all, the wolf approaches the sleeping bear. Casting sideways glances and giving it a wide berth of respect, the wolf saunters over a ridge, out of sight but already etched into memory.

Because the bear is not moving much and poses no immediate threat, I have breakfast and break down my tent. Then I act as lookout while the rest of the group takes their turn and loads the rafts, shielded by the bluff and prevailing wind . . .

This obviously came as a total surprise, and, at the time, was the southernmost sighting of a polar bear inside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—almost 30 miles from the coast. It was only one of the many highlights on this trip, which to this day stands out as one of the best ones I’ve been on. Everybody was awe-struck, but for me the encounter sparked, what for lack of a better term might be called an obsession with polar bears. (Ask my wife. She’ll tell you how I can hardly talk about anything else these days.) I’ve been a bear enthusiast for decades, but seeing this animal, “out of place” and without bars between it and us, kicked my obsession up to a new level.

I started to read up on polar bears and on 8,000 years of shared history between them and us and was amazed by some of the things I learned: That Vikings traded live cubs to European royalty. That Roald Amundsen tried to train polar bears (with the help of a circus man) to pull sleds to the pole. That, on hand-colored Renaissance maps, they sometimes are brown. That a long wooden staff wielded effectively can deter nosy polar bears. (Don’t try this yourself, though.)

I was so intrigued and amazed by what I found, and much of the information was sort of obscure, that I decided to write my own book with everything I ever wanted to learn about the charismatic carnivore. Now, there are quite a few books out there about polar bear biology and so on—but I wanted to know what lay at the root of our fascination with this animal, how we relate to it.

The making of this book, like many an Arctic trip, has been quite a journey. And like all journeys, it needed some funding. It still does, as many of the illustrations I hope to round up require licensing or processing fees that go to museums or special collections libraries. So I began to crowd-fund the project, and you can find the link here. I hope that this animal and its home will affect others as it has affected me and that the Great White Bear will continue to grace both, our internal and external landscapes for thousands of years to come.

Michael Engelhard lives in Cordova, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic. He has been obsessed with bears for decades now, despite the fact that he almost got mauled by one last summer. He has written several books and articles for numerous publications, and edited four anthologies of nature writing. The canyon country of southern Utah and northern Arizona is his other favorite region.

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