Life & Death
On our first morning in the Arctic, Charly wakes me up early. He leans in the door of my room in his long johns and non-chalantly asks “Wanna see a polar bear?” F@$% yes, I do.
From the kitchen window he points to a cream colored dot moving across the sea ice at the edge of town. I throw on winter clothes, grab a camera with a long lens, and head outside. I have gone from fast asleep to absolutely wide awake in seconds. Seeing a polar bear has been a dream since I was small. From a snow bank on the edge of town I spot the bear laying near the tall wooden snow fence that slows the wind from the east. I snap several frames, wonder about moving closer for a better shot. But before I can fold the legs on the tripod, a snowmobile approaches the bear. Polar Bear Patrol. They are tasked with keeping bears away from town, trying to prevent the increasing likelihood of negative interactions between people and bears as deteriorating sea ice conditions push more of these arctic giants onto land.
Patrol fires a bean bag that startles the bear. He rises and initially starts towards where I’m standing. My right hand goes automatically to the handle of the pistol on my belt, my fingers brushing the grip just to check that it’s there. The other keeps training the camera on the moving bear. The patrol member pursues the bear on a snowmachine, turning him out and away from town toward the barrier islands that separate Kaktovik’s lagoons from the open ocean. The bear disappears beyond the gravel bar into the jumbled, broken ice of the Beaufort Sea. I’m elated.
Day two in the Arctic and I’ve seen a polar bear. Albeit at a large distance. But I got a quick glimpse and somewhere at the end of those tracks is a bear. That’s a place to start. This simple sighting, a relatively common occurrence for those who live here, is the fulfillment of a childhood dream for me. A polar bear in the wild. Among other tasks that day we find time to walk out on the ice, find tracks before they drift in, fresh scat. I take bearings and triangulate a position on my map.
The next morning I wake on my own. 4:45 am. I dress and head outside; start walking toward where I can pick up tracks from the day before. Before I even get to the mark on my map, I cut a fresh line of paw prints in the snow. Even with a dusting of new flakes and a breeze they haven’t drifted in. These are fresh, less than an hour old by my guess. I follow them back across the sea ice, back to the corner of town. They lead between two buildings and up to the front steps of a small house. And there in the front yard is a man skinning a polar bear. My heart drops.
I try to hide the disappointment on my face. I say hello and ask if I can join him for a little while.
George is gracious and invites me to touch the bear, to watch what he’s doing. I pull off my mittens and kneel in the snow. The bear is still warm, his ears impossibly soft between my fingers. I roll back his thick rubber lips, slide my fingers over his teeth, smell the last fading whisper of his breath. I am trying not to cry.
George is working with a traditional ulu, turning the thick, dark hide back and away from the flesh. Knuckling out the massive paws to keep the huge arching claws attached to the skin. Carefully parsing the tissue that holds the ears to the skull. His wife, Reeanin (this may be a misspelling of her name, if it is I apologize) joins him, working side by side in the early, warm light of the morning. I ask if I can take photos and they both say okay.
They roll the bear to it’s side, slide the knife along the bone and separate the hip at the joint. It’s a young male—three, maybe four years old, and a little more than 8 feet long. While they work George tells me that this bear has been spending more and more time in Kaktovik, particularly here in his yard where town meets the sea. Reeanin tells about the dog it mauled a few weeks ago that miraculously survived after being flown out to the vet. George talks about stepping out to walk their daughters to school and being surprised by the bear laying in their yard when they rounded the corner of the house. This morning, the bear coming up his front steps—exploring the door of their home—is the last straw. He opened the kitchen window and shot it at close range, knocking it down. I realize his gunshot is likely what woke me up.
I can tell he’s choosing his words and stories carefully, gauging my response. He’s waiting now to see how I’ll react. I tell him I understand; tell him honestly that I would do the exact same thing. I try to imagine what it means to be have a bear at the door with small children in the house. I lift the edge of my parka and show him the Smith & Wesson .44 loaded with high-grain hard-cast rounds that I’m carrying in case something exactly like this happens to me. He seems relieved that I’m not upset with him.
George has a right to take a bear if he wants to, and not just in self defense. Provisions under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the law that governs the hunting of polar bears, allow for harvest by Alaskan Coastal Natives. But George makes a point to say that this wasn’t hunting. This was done out of necessity. A bear that’s too comfortable around people is dangerous. George and Reeanin have little kids. Something had to be done.
I agree with all this, but there is still grief resting like a stone in the pit of my stomach. A graceful, wild light has been put out. I understand that this is the way of things here. The Arctic is a place where life and death are always walking side by side—wherever you find one, the other is close at hand. This is true in many wild places, but even more so in the far north where human interference has not blunted the knife edge on which survival balances. From top to bottom the food chain is intact; a powerful, beautiful magic that is still often bloody and brutal to observe. And people, though dominant here as they are everywhere around the globe, are not as far removed from that chain as they are in lots of the modern world. Subsistence hunting is a very real part of life in this place and big predators are sometimes taken in legitimate acts of self defense. I know this. But I still can’t set aside a feeling of loss.
I snap a few more photos, thank them for their time, and spend the next half hour walking around town alone. I’ve just taken what will be, to me anyway, the most striking images of my trip, but they’re of something I never wanted to see. What do you do with that? I’m both disappointed in the outcome and humbled to have been there to see it. As a photographer I’m sad to know that the bear I was tracking—along with the chance to get more photos of him alive—is gone, but relieved as a person that no one has been hurt. I’m still trying to sort out exactly how I feel about all of it.
But here’s what I know to be true: polar bears aren’t declining on the Beaufort Sea because George had to shoot one at his door. Polar bears are declining on the Beaufort Sea because millions of people in the United States drive SUVs to soccer practice. That’s obviously a vast over simplification, but you get the point.
It would be easy to blame George, instead—to blame other coastal natives who have harvested polar bear, sometimes in self defense, sometimes as part of a hunting tradition that dates back to the earliest human inhabitants of this continent. I’ve been reluctant to share this set of images for exactly that reason—struggled with how to go about telling a story that is only partly mine because I see how easily it could be misused, misinterpreted. My fear is that someone will paint George as the villain. He is not. I hope, instead, that you see the complicated truth: we are all to blame.
Our failure to address climate change in any meaningful way is causing unprecedented changes in the Arctic—changes that are forcing bears onto land, away from their preferred food sources, and drastically increasing the likelihood of negative interactions with people. That’s our fault. Plain and simple. Much like my previous posts, I’m not trying to point fingers here; my actions contribute to the problem too. But I also want to talk about solutions. Putting our heads in the sand is not a viable option anymore.
The problem is admittedly daunting. And while I won’t pretend to have all the answers, I know that they lie in working with the rest of the world, not against it. The United States needs to return to climate discussions, and not just as a silent sulking presence in the corner. We need to take a leadership role, one befitting of our out-sized role in causing the problem. To do that we need to push aside any politician (would-be or incumbent) who is too dim to understand or too arrogant to recognize the enormous body of scientific evidence outlining the perils of a changing climate and our role in causing it.
Now as time and distance soften the memory of that morning, I’m trying to hold on to that bear; an enduring image of what is at stake if we fail. I bury my bare hand in his coat, his body still warm against my palm. I commit to memory the weight of his massive paw, turn it up with both my hands to see the black pad ringed in brilliant white fur. Brush the ice back from his muzzle where his last breath froze. This is why. This. Remember this. And do everything you can.