“See the polar bear?” Chelsea yells back at me through the cold wind.
We’re paddling down the Colville River Delta, just a mile from the Arctic Ocean, bobbing in the swells between the gray water and the gray Arctic sky. Through the rippling sea mirage on the far bank, a white shape resolves in the flickering air. With its nose held high, swinging from side to side, the polar bear lopes purposefully down the bank, scouring the air for the scent of food. We watch it from our boats in a kind of stupefied nervous awe. Before this trip, in what had seemed like a moment of unreasonable pre-expedition paranoia, I’d googled “kayaking around polar bears,” only to find that nobody on Ask.com or Yahoo Answers had ever had this special concern. There’s no guide book to tell you what to do when you’re in a 5-pound inflatable boat and you cross paths with a polar bear, the largest land predator on Earth. And one with a reputation for occasional nastiness. And fast swimming. And cunning. And able to ambush prey in water. The water that you are now sitting in.
Its back begins to turn toward us as it walks up the bank; then it twists in the glassy air and suddenly disappears. There’s a moment of confusion as we realize what’s happened: that it’s not on land anymore, it’s slipped into the water with us.
Our trip began a month earlier and some 299 miles away, on the side of the Dalton Highway in the heart of the central Brooks Range. A team of four scientists and one media professional, we’d set out to cross 300 miles of the Alaska Arctic by foot and packraft. The Arctic is entering a period of intense transformation, swept up in accelerating climate change, economic and industrial development, and geopolitical tension. Yet for all its growing importance and potential, the Arctic remains a far-off place, largely absent from public understanding or imagination. The North Slope Borough alone is larger than 39 US States, yet few people outside of Alaska would even recognize that name. We wanted to see this land from eye-level to understand and appreciate the radical transformations occurring.
Our expedition took us over snow-scoured passes and glaciers in the Brooks Range, into remote villages, and past massive oil facilities towering over the tundra on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. We paddled through fierce thunderstorms on the remote Anaktuvuk River, and found dinosaur fossils with a group of paleontologists below the coal-seamed bluffs of the Colville River. We had dozens of eye-opening conversations with people who work and travel through the Arctic, and others who call the Arctic home.
As soon as we realize that we’re no longer on the top of the Colville River food chain, we paddle quickly -- very quickly -- for the riverbank. We haul out on a little strip of mud about 100 feet from shore and scan the cold, gray water. Polar bears are hungry and lean this time of year as they wait for the ice to reform. The rapid disappearance of the polar ice that will facilitate oil exploration and transpolar shipping has also meant longer waits for polar bears. The last thing we need is a hungry polar bear.
The bear emerges from the water on our side of the riverbank some distance away, shakes itself off like a huge dog, and, to our relief, continues across the delta. Soon we can only see its head, floating in the air above the gray sand, and then it too flickers out, leaving us behind.
Though the Arctic may seem distant, there are political, environmental, and industrial forces are pulling it closer to the rest of the world every day, and its importance in human affairs will only grow. We hope that our media projects can give people a sense of what’s there, what is changing, and what stands to be lost if ignorance or indifference lead to mismanagement of one of the Earth’s great places.
Paxson Woelber was an organizer of the 300-mile Expedition Arguk. Additional information is available online.
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