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(c) Jorge Latre

In the Land of Polar Bears and Arctic Foxes, We Are the Zoo Animals

Island hopping is done: Iceland to Kulusuk, Kulusuk to Greenland. After landing on the East side of Tasiilaq Fjord, we are finally climbing up the hills. A few warm, 40-degree days have unleashed a pesky cloud of mosquitoes. They bite! We don our head nets; We now see the world through a pixelated screen.
We cross the terminus of a small glacier and start walking on dry ice. The crevasses are all clear of snow for everyone to see, so we don’t rope. Meltwater channels noisily feed gurgling moulins all around us. It’s the first time I get to use all these words – terminus, meltwater channels, moulins – while actually looking at the things they refer to. Years of adventure reading turn into tangible reality – at last! A gigantic mouth opens at the top of the glacier. Dark caves give hints of rocks and dusty ice. Water sounds can be heard. We throw a rock in the abyss and we hear splashing water deep in the guts of the Earth. The temperature has dropped and the mosquitos have retired to their summer quarters, wherever they are.
Past some firn at the top of the glacier, we come down a valley that must have been glaciated a long time ago. The ground is strewn with rocks of all sizes left behind by the grinding ice, but time has also laid down a green carpet of lichens, moss, and, here and there, colorful flowers. The side vertical walls look ancient and stark, and their geological layers are tilted at dramatic angles; so much so that some of the summits seem to bend back and hang over our heads. The mosquitoes and the head nets are back.
A gentle stream runs through the valley. A level spot flanked by a large flat-topped boulder are perfect for tents and kitchen. We stop and set camp. We are using Mountain Hardwear Tangent 2 tents, for 2 people and with a door on each side. The ability to enter and exit the tent without disturbing the other dweller creates a virtual and yet very effective level of privacy. The tents are a bit laborious to setup and I would not want to set them in strong winds, but they are otherwise excellent 3-season expedition shelters.
Word in the valley is that polar bears are intelligent and effective hunters, and that we humans are little else than food to them. For that reason, we each carry flares at all times. It works as follows. As the bear calmly and resolutely walks towards you, get your flare box out of your pocket. The bear calmly and resolutely walks toward you. Open the box and extract the flare holder. The bear calmly and resolutely walks toward you. Pull a flare and mount it on the holder. The bear calmly and resolutely walks toward you. Pull back the trigger until it clicks into the armed position. The bear calmly and resolutely walks toward you. Point the holder, flare-end forward, towards the bear. The bear calmly and resolutely walks toward you. Release the trigger. Watch the flare scare the bear. I sense a timing problem in the story above. Reminds me of Sir Lancelot’s endless rush in Monty Python’s Holy Grail
It’d be impractical to do all of the above once the polar bear is sharing the tent with you. We therefore erect a bear fence around the tent camp. When challenged, the fence fires blank cartridges in a last attempt to startle the hairy hunter away and avoid a direct confrontation. Don’t tell the bears, but the polar bear fence market is very small, and so the products on offer leave greatly to be desired. It takes a long time to setup the fence and it is critical that its six posts be supported with large rocks I can barely move. Once the fence is up and armed, we are no longer free to roam around. What happens if “nature calls” in the middle of the night? Two words of advice: pee bottle. Number 2? Don’t heed the call of nature, for it might be a trap…
Inside our fence, we become the human zoo in this remote and untouched land for local animals to visit. No need for “Don’t feed the humans” signs; in a perverse twist, they want to eat us or our food instead. The food is stashed outside the fence, and armed with a “critter gritter” which squeals unpleasantly if and when a crafty arctic fox  attempts to hit the jackpot.
In a dusky night with no darkness, most of us fall asleep…

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