In Search of the Great White Bear
Up until 1973 men hunted mercilessly for polar bears in the Arctic. Today, the only hunting we do for this symbol of the climate crisis is with binoculars and cameras.
It's almost like a dream – finally on my way to a place and a life that I've read read so much about. Even a few years ago, I couldn't have dreamed that I would have a chance to take a trip like this.” - Polar bear hunter Knut Bjåen, 1946. From Birger Amundsens' book Without Mercy, on hunting in the arctic.
We are at Gnålodden, Hornsund, southwest of Spitsbergen, known for its population of sea birds and polar bears. Four hundred meters in front of us a nesting rock rises high in the sky. Thousands of sea birds have just arrived. Auks and sea gulls shriek and sing from there, the sound reminds one of loud complaints.
A small hut sits atop the stones and snow, only a few square meters in size, wood panels made gray by time and weather. This is one of the polar bear hunting sheds of Wanny Woldstad. She lived here during the 1930s for stretches with her two sons.
In 1934, she described the hunting life on Svalbard to Tromsø magazine:” Wonderful! Despite the danger, tension and difficulty, it's ideal. I wouldn't trade it for anything…Svalbard is in my blood.” The hut is still standing. The beds are there. We can see into the past, but can't really imagine how her life was in this place.
We head east towards the fjord. Suddenly, we see tracks in the snow, large tracks, gray shadows in the powder. We stop. Four human feet can fit in one track. The trail leads east, over the ridge, where an Expedition team member holds watch. A polar bear track. It has been here, right here, where we stand. A powerful feeling rises. This is no Discovery or National Geographic channel. This is real.
Some hours earlier:
"There! A polar bear!!" We gasp and point. Hurtigruten goes slowly into a fjord on the southwest side of Svalbard. We have been through a storm on the Barents Sea, but now the waters are calm, shimmering silver. We stand together with the crew on Hurtigruten and look out towards land.
"By those dark fields where the mountain sweeps down to meet the edge of the sea. That must be a polar bear!" we say, with binoculars held tight to our eyes. Manuel Marin, ornithologist and Hurtigruten expert in the polar regions, doesn't even raise his binoculars before he shakes his head.
"You´re looking at a stone!" He says and grins. "The art of seeing has to do with the ability to identify unnatural shapes and colours against the background. That is much too dark against the white background."
"Listen to Manuel! He was raised by eagles!" shouts one of the ornithologist's colleagues.
The sea ice lies thin and white 200 meters out from land. And there are seals, and therefore, probably polar bears. We glide as quietly as a hunter into polar bear land. The senses sharpen. More are drawn on deck. The arctic wind meets faces and fingertips. With binoculars and long photo lenses, we scan jerkily, meter by meter, over the white landscape, searching for yellow-white movement.
Then something happens. Movement on deck. A low cry from someone. Something has been seen. From the loudspeaker, a voice: "Ladies and gentlemen, on the portside, at 11 o'clock, we have…a polar bear. Right to the left of the small island in the ice, you can see blocks of ice. One meter to the right, a polar bear is lying and sleeping. He just moved!"
We don't know which foot to stand on, should we move there, look through a camera, with our eyes…people with binoculars gasp and laugh: There! There!! We stare out. Where is it? We try to think like the ornithologist: look for forms and colors that stand out. And then we see it. A little gold amidst the white, a weak yellow rise above the flat ice. It is far way, maybe 300 meters. One man loans us his binoculars. And there…the polar bear fills our entire field of vision.