Face to Face With A Wild Polar Bear
My face was a few feet away from the face of this beautiful wild polar bear.
She was curious about the tundra buggy, like an alien ship landed in her backyard, that I sat in the back of, outside on the observation deck. I was in her territory, on the shore of Hudson Bay in Canada's subarctic, and she slowly sauntered over to me, looking deep into my eyes.
We were so close I could even see the shape of the scar on her nose and wondered if she had been swiped in defence by a seal, or fought with a male bear, or slashed by a slab of ice. She looked up at me, and I felt for a moment that I was an alien in this world, that was rightly hers. I shivered, but my heart warmed with the resilience that emanated from her and this place.
And I was curious too. Curious about how these animals survive in the harsh arctic habitat. Amazed at how powerful and vulnerable they are at the same time. I felt like a mama bear, wanting to protect her from the harshness of life.
We watched each other for a minute that felt like forever, and then she seemed to sigh and left as casually as she came, meandering back to the slushy shore to munch on some kelp. Waiting for the ice to freeze to find seals to feast on. The bear is famished after fasting for over 3 months.
I suddenly felt oddly apologetic, like telling the bear I was sorry that she wasn't able to eat me.
Her life is being pushed closer to the edge of survival as climate change melts the ice she depends on to hunt seals. She hovers by the water of Hudson Bay in Churchill, Canada, waiting longer each year for the ice to invite her home.
A snowy owl sat on a rock nearby, and she lunged at it, reaching with her paw to hook a feather in hopes of a snack. The bird escaped, and I realized that she would eat anything that moved near her. I stood frozen in the safety of the tundra buggy, relieved to not be within reach of her giant paw.
Each day that we toured the tundra, there was something to be delighted by. Following the tracks of an arctic fox, or maybe it is an arctic hare? Then, a wolverine bounded across the frozen lake, a rare spectacle—a bird perched on caribou antlers half-buried in the snow.
There is a quality of pure patience on the spacious tundra, of submitting to settling in. Waiting. Always waiting. For ice to freeze. For a polar bear to grace the landscape where she is Queen. For nature to move in her perfect pattern. For a moment, I was there, and the place branded itself into my life story.
And then, like an alien, I went back to my own world.
There are experiences in life that are singular, like gazing into the black pool of a wild polar bear's eyes. I will never forget the face of that bear, with the scar on her face that was a badge of her resilience.
I will remember that scar when I buy carbon offsets for my flights or choose to ride my bike rather than drive. I will think of her when I buy local food rather than fueling industrial agriculture. In her honour, I'll turn off lights more often and use electricity less. That thousand-pound bear is my beacon now for a lighter footprint; her scar is a call to action for us all to heal our relationship to the Earth.
If she can bear the weight of this world, we can lighten it for her.