Monday, August 10, 2009

Wildlife Encounters Are Likely

I've already shared with several of you the story of our unfortunate encounter with a starving polar bear on our first day in the Torngat Mountains National Park in northernmost Labrador. Here's the story for those of you whom I have not yet spoken with.

On our first day in the Torngat Mountains, we were ferried from the base camp of the park out to the North Arm of Saglek Fjord aboard a long-liner fishing boat. When we arrived at our destination three hours later it was approaching 10:30 PM. Although it is still twilight at that hour in the far north, we decided to remain aboard the Robert Bradford, rolling out our sleeping bags on the deck and bedding down for the night.

The next morning, after a breakfast of eggs and bacon prepared by the crew of the boat, our gear was brought ashore in a motorized launch. We set about the task of setting up the electric bear fence around the campsite. Within minutes, Ches, the Captain of the long-liner shouted from the boat: "Bear in the water!"

Out in the North Arm we could distinctly see the white head of a polar bear as the bear swam toward the boat, leaving a long wake as it paddled through the water. Perhaps having picked up the scent of frying eggs, it was intent on having a morning meal. The Captain fired a warning shot in the water to dissuade the bear from coming too close and it veered off toward the shoreline. Meanwhile, several of us had climbed aboard the launch and went out to photograph the bear, assuming that it would soon be changing course and heading back out the North Arm to the bay beyond. Instead, it continued toward the shore and emerged from the water, making its way to the beach just below our campsite situated on a grassy plateau at the top of a steep bluff.

John Merkuratsuk, our Inuit guide and bear monitor, fired warning shots at the bear's feet with his rifle, all without effect. Greg Shute, with us from the Chewonki Foundation, threw a flare down onto the beach, again in hopes of dissuading the bear from approaching further. The bear ignored these deterrents and methodically climbed the bluff into the camp. Several of us who had been in the camp, beyond the sight of the bear, had run to the edge of the grassy plateau into a low-lying stand of willow shrubs. Aware that the bear could not be persuaded to depart and was showing signs of predatory behavior, Ches shouted ashore: "Shoot the bear!"

John, ever calm and collected despite a rifle that jammed repeatedly, shot the bear. Now wounded, the bear ran from the campsite. When it was clear, John shot again. The bear collapsed thirty or forty yards beyond. John followed, got down on one knee and, taking careful aim, shot again. When he had confirmed that the bear was dead, we followed behind.

Park officials arrived within minutes, by boat and helicopter, having been radioed by Ches aboard the Robert Bradford. They assured us that, despite our having been traumatized and grief-stricken by an outcome that, moments before we could not have foreseen and certainly did not desire, we had followed the right course of action. This was the first such incident within park boundaries.

Later examination of digital photos revealed that only 18 minutes and 34 seconds had transpired between having first seen the bear in the water and its death on the plateau above the beach. A subsequent postmortem of the bear at base camp provided evidence that the bear had, in fact, been starving--its stomach was empty, with only a few tape worms found. There was no meat on its bones and its fur was falling out in hunks. Other signs suggested that she was five or six years old and had previously given birth to at least one litter of cubs.

Before she was taken aboard the Robert Bradford to be transported to base camp, we gathered around the bear in a circle, feeling the need to offer a ceremony of some kind and to mark what had just occurred. In turn, we each spoke of what was on our hearts. Steve Hyde bent down and touched the bear's head in blessing. I followed and did the same, feeling the warmth still in the bear, the life force seemingly still lingering.

In coming to the Torngat Mountains, we entered a wilderness landscape largely untouched by humans. We were aware of the risks that the terrain, remoteness, and wildlife represented. We were mere sojourners on the land, visitors passing through. I have never before had the experience of such a vast wilderness in which we humans are passing over, passing through, touching down, but never staying for long. It makes sense that the Inuit were themselves nomads, settling in for a season, then moving on, leaving only traces, and their dead in stone cairns; the land and its creatures are always predominant, no mere backdrop for human agendas and schemes.

There is no subduing this land, no domesticating it, and therein resides its sacredness. This wild terrain is a force to be reckoned with, a "place of spirits", that which we may approach, but reverently, and with suitable awe. It is the "mysterium tremendum et fascinans" of which Rudolf Otto writes in his book The Idea of the Holy--that which at once attracts and compels, as well as fills one with a sense of overwhelming mystery, even if at times a dark mystery.

The bear humbled us our first morning on the land. There is that which we cannot foresee nor adequately plan for. And my life is forever changed. It is an experience that doesn't--even now, safely back at home-- rest comfortably with me. It continues to haunt me and to have its own life. It beckons me on toward I know not what.

Photo Credit: Don Hudson The Bear Making its Way Along the Beach Toward Camp


Sukie Curtis said...

The sadness of this story does not diminish for me though I have heard it now several times. The photo only adds to the poignancy. That, and my dream.

The night before David and his fellow travelers were to return from Labrador I dreamed that they had arrived home bearing the dead body of a woman, emaciated and stiff with death. Somehow in the dream I had received some word from them while they were in the wilderness, so that I knew about this woman and her death. I knew nothing about who she was, only that she had wandered into their campsite, had been "ready to die, and that they assisted her dying" out there in the wilderness. I could see on her forehead a smudge of some kind, and I knew from that mark that she had been duly honored in her death.

Whatever else the dream may have to say about me and my own psyche, I am still stunned at the way my dream echoed the tragic story of the polar bear, indeed a "woman" in some ways ready to die whom they assisted, even if not in a way any of us would have wanted. I am especially moved to read that Steve made a gesture of blessing on the bear's forehead--like the mark I saw in my dream that reassured me she had been honored.

David Heald said...

Thank you, Sukie. I am startled, although not surprised, by your omen dream...

Homer Fountain said...

An incredible story! The bear's color appropriately representing the message she brings ...