I Saw A Bear

People ask me if I see polar bears on my trips. I do. Not often, but they are there now and then, creating realities that pop up unexpectedly in my day dreams, somehow, when I most need them.

Scriver - bear 1

I saw bear scat on a mountain pass, not in the right place. A long way from salt water and a couple thousand feet up. The carnivore’s scat full of sea weed and grass. A free spirit, not even aware there are rules to be followed.

I saw a bear down the barrel of my gun. Too close to camp. A hundred feet away and closing, a handful of lives in the balance. Bangers, rubber bullets, a slug into the dirt. Don’t pass that rock. Please. I’ll have to kill you, I don’t want to kill you. Fuck. Please . . . then … luck. His flank turns, hair ripples like a wheat field in the wind.

Thank you.

I don’t know what I could have lived with.

I saw a bear dancing on a stage of ice. We were preparing for a hike, a route across Ellesmere, not sure if we would be able to complete it. But that bear, she danced across those melting floes, gleeful. No threat, not a care in the world, searching out seals. She was grace and power in one movement that neither began nor ended. Hope. Beauty. She was freedom at it’s most powerful.

I saw a bear dead on the ice. Thirty miles out of town. Skinned out, a carcass, hide destined for a cash market. Blood and future trickle away. Wasted.

It’s true, they do look human without the skin.

WHAT IS THIS! Red anger. But who am I. I feed my kids on the proceeds of an eco show and tell. This hunter, he feeds his children on pure reality. I have less than thin ice to stand on.

Polar bears have become the poster child of climate change. They may be that, but for me they will always be the promise of the best we can be. The promise of grace, strength and a wildness inextricably linked to what it is to be human.

I saw a bear once that wasn’t there. She spoke to me, brought me here. To the north, but more than that. She brought me to a place of meaning, to a place that teaches beauty and peace. To her, I owe the best of who I am.

On a glass shelf in my office, is the tooth of a polar bear. It sits to the right of a carpenters plane that my grandfather made. Sometimes, when searching for an answer, I look to that tooth. More than once, I have carried that tooth, safe in my pocket and urgently caressed by the pad of my thumb, when I knew I needed strength.

Yes, sometimes, when I am lucky, or unlucky, I see bears on my trips. But more than that, I know that they can always be there, and if I reach inside myself, I can find the grace, the strength. The wildness that neither begins nor ends.

This is the bear that I see, that I search for.

 

 

 

Author: Dave Weir      Photo: Mark Scriver

Pondering Alex

My return to Alexandra Fiord this summer was bitter sweet.

On the north east coast of Ellesmere Island, Alexandra lives also in my heart. She introduced me to the High Arctic, and on my visits I have seen life and adventure unfold, tasted my own mortality, and been engulfed by the profound healing power that raw beauty bestows.

slab camp - carswell painting

And she is more.

Alexandra is quintessentially Canadian. Here was Canada’s northernmost RCMP post in the twenties and again in the fifties. Buildings, graves, and tattered documents in a jar under a cairn bear witness to bravado and self sacrifice in the name of sovereignty.

Even this fades.

Thousands of years before Alexandra’s name passed a white man’s lips, the paleo-Inuit made this place their home. Here they laughed, hunted, made love and gave birth. Here they found a way to live with a land at turns brutal and magnanimous. Here they danced the edges of mortal existence, defined a part of what it is to be human.

At a hearth thousands of years old, my fingers explore the texture of the boiling stones. Narwhal blow a misty rainbow, the diffusion of arctic light blurs the border between yesterday and tomorrow. It becomes immaterial.

I am in love with Alexandra. This. Place. I want my ashes scattered from this rock shelf where the walrus dive for sea cucumbers. My soul walks these bluffs and valleys.

In my time here, I believe I have opened some eyes; to the essential contribution the arctic makes to our country, our world, to the way it is slipping through our fingers.

Yet, this summer I could not avert my eyes from an unwanted reality.

Sea ice is dwindling, and with it the walrus. The air is warmer, and mosquitos are here now. The glacier I used to paddle to and touch is inland. This land that whispers a thousand stories is buckling and heaving under the weight of a climate shuddering toward an uncharted reality.

I know I am part of this. The jet fuel burnt coming here, the first world life I live. Even as I love this place, I strangle the beauty that gives me love. Desperate eyes plead.

We Canadians are among the luckiest when it comes to the impacts of climate change. We likely won’t starve, flee a flooded home, or become refugees. Perhaps this is why we continue on, justifying.

Our loss is more ephemeral. We are losing part of who we are. For some, it may go unnoticed. For others it is the aching loss of a loved one.

I say goodbye to Alexandra looking out the window of a chartered Twin Otter.

Goodbye. Thank you. I’m sorry. I wont ever forget. You.

 

 

 

Author: Dave Weir    Painting: John Carswell

 

Of Muskoxen And Sovereignty

I never thought I would have to stare down a muskox. But there I was, confronting a rag tag little herd of one bull, three cows and two calves. Whose campsite was this anyway? Cold winchester steel in hand and sunglasses on the end of my nose, I stood my ground. I’ve been charged by muskoxen before and I don’t take their presence lightly. I wanted them to go, but at the same time on this too warm of a high arctic day I didn’t want to see them run overheating across the tundra. In the end, I lost the battle of nerves and the shaggy beasts lay down to snooze barely 50 feet from our makeshift camp kitchen.

Mike - muskoxen and dave

Thirteen years ago I first came to the high arctic, a place abundantly rich in the archaeological evidence of palaeo-Inuit cultures, the western remains of more recent RCMP encampments, and the more subtle traces of contemporary Inughuit hunters that have ventured over from Greenland. Every year’s return brought evidence of change: glacial retreat, disappearing sea ice, ponds drying up. Here at 79 degrees history is everywhere, time seems somehow foreshortened.

The first peoples to walk through this land arrived 4500 years ago, subsisting by hunting the scarce land mammals. In those days sea level was higher, the land still rebounding from the melt of an ice age. Standing in their campsites, you can still feel their presence, the immense odds they faced as they struggled to squeeze a life from a cold and brutal environment. The prayers sent out for the next day’s hunt hang echoing in the air. Miniature carvings that the archaeologists have found suggest a mystical life: animal spirits, a human face screaming in anguish.

What was the meaning of death then? The life sustaining death of prey animals, hunters drunk on the warm elixir of blood, a kill at their feet. The heart rending slow death of a loved one emaciated by hunger, unable to live through the winter night. The ominous shuddering death of a community’s key hunter, hope for the future bleeding out on the ground.

Life at the top of the world was a vacillating shade of grey. It came and went with changes in climate, improvements in technology, and simple luck. After the pre-Dorset and Dorset peoples had lived in Canada’s high Arctic for an inconsistent 3000 years, the Thule people started making their way west to east from Alaska to Greenland, populating the Canadian arctic archipelago as they went. Change was afoot. Nobody knows what happened to the Dorset as the Thule appeared. Were they killed or driven from the land, assimilated into a technologically superior culture, or did they simply fade into the landscape that had sustained them? The Thule introduced a maritime culture, the kayak and umiak, harpoons, dogs, the ability to hunt seal, walrus and narwhal.

It is easy to understand the advantage that marine hunting would bring. We went for a long wind blown walk on the Knud Peninsula. Hoping beyond hope for the sighting of a caribou or even the now elusive muskoxen, we came foot sore to the height of land as the guttural grunts of walrus teased us from below. Even with a marine advantage, the Thule faltered. Around 400 years ago the Thule disappeared from Ellesmere Island. Looking to the east now on a clear day the shores of Greenland are just visible. Somewhere in the soft arctic half light between here and there is drawn a line between ice floes, sovereign nations staring each other down in a battle of wits. Somewhere in that half light, on the other side of the line, are the closest living relatives of the Thule people that lived and died on these lands and waters, the Inughuit of Greenland.

Not far from our camp the archaeologists have found evidence of yet another culture, the Vikings. A piece of chain mail, wool, rivets and a carpenter’s plane were unearthed amongst the remains of a Thule winter camp. Historians tell us the Vikings didn’t make it this far north, and yet here is the evidence hard and tangible. What was that contact like? Was there hatred and fear, shock and respect, or did they even meet? Did the Thule people simply come across the corpses and remains of a viking ship blown off course, or were these artifacts the result of a trade with Greenlandic cousins?

The next day we paddle off toward a new campsite. As we weave our way between walrus and ring seal, eiders pass us by, each little flock in effortless synchronicity. These waters are a polynya, a place that never freezes, a concentration of year round swimming fat and protein. Landing to stretch our legs on a rocky island, we walk among remnants of a hunting culture that hasn’t ceased. Danish writing on cans of spam points assertively to the fact that this is a hunting ground of contemporary, as well as ancient, peoples. This place has never stopped being a source of life for people as inextricably tied to their land as the ptarmigan we find hiding amongst the rocks.

It was Otto Sverdrup, a Norwegian, that first mapped this land. In the spring of 1899 he passed through here on dog sled, continuing west to a height of land where he saw what he would later prove to be the west coast of Ellesmere Island. Sverdrup was driven, not by the holy grails of the Northwest Passage or the North Pole, but by insatiable human curiosity, the need to explore. It was Sverdrup’s expeditions that gave legitimacy to the Norwegian claim to the high arctic islands called Ellesmere, Axel Heiberg, Amund Ringnes and Ellef Ringnes. In 1930 a $67,000 payment to Sverdrup’s family from the Canadian government extinguished that claim. In the end, the relative lack of human misery on Sverdrup’s arctic explorations overshadowed the fact that he mapped more than any other arctic explorer.

That afternoon we stop in at an old RCMP post from the 1920s. Here the first Canadians stood in a land claimed simply because it lay to the north. It was the muskoxen that brought Canadians to this land. Stirred by Greenlandic stories of hunting trips to the west, the RCMP planted a Canadian flag and set up camp. Here they survived a few years with the help and tutelage of hired Greenlanders. Now all that remains is wind, graves, and the detritus of the past. The post was abandoned and then decades later moved across Buchanan Bay to Alexandra Fiord where the buildings still stand. Abandoned a second time, they stood empty until scientists and the occasional adventurer put them to summer time use.

Whose land is this anyway? As Canadians we scream “it’s ours, it’s ours.” At the old RCMP post in Alexandra Fiord stands a cairn freshly built by Canadian Rangers from Grise Fiord. Built by hands from a community forcibly moved from northern Quebec, abused in the name of Canadian sovereignty, then sent out on a government funded patrol to protect sovereignty. Protect from whom? From the only people that have ever lived unaided in this beautifully harsh land? From oil or mineral extraction companies that woo political favour?

We are our own greatest sovereign enemies. Our own resource intensive lifestyles work toward obliterating the delicate balance of life and death in the high arctic. In the meanwhile we scramble to build political walls to protect what we deem ours, ignoring and ignorant of what we claim.

Since first visiting the arctic I have never wholly left. In bed at night I can watch the terns diving and a solitary polar bear stand up, stretch his back and satiate his curiosity about our campsite. Waiting in a busy airport I can close my eyes and see the soft arctic light, taste freshly hunted blood on my lips. I am haunted by the arctic’s past and unable to distinguish it from the reality of today.

The muskoxen made their statement. They slept for a few hours and then, content that this place was still theirs they wandered off, disappearing into the bleak rocky landscape. We spent a couple of nights in that campsite. We thought ourselves victors in a territorial battle, but clad in our high tech fabrics we always stood painfully out from the landscape. Somehow, the land still belonged to the creatures that live there and the haunting memories of peoples past. And then, we were gone.

 

 

 

Author: Dave Weir    Photo: Mike Jelinski