We were bobbing gently in water off Coburg Island in the Canadian high Arctic, way too early in the morning, watching thousands upon thousands of thick-billed murres cling to impossibly high cliffs.
This is one of the Arctic’s best bird colonies, with a blanket of seabirds nesting on thin cracks in the rock. Murres, northern fulmars, guillimots, kittiwakes — the birders were going crazy.
And then we spotted the bear. He was healthy and young, maybe three or four years old. Perched on a thin, crumbly ledge, he watched the birds intently, mouth open, teeth showing as birds flew past. He was raiding the nests for chicks. Every few minutes, we’d spot him with another hapless nestling in his mouth.
The rest of those in the Zodiac boat — the mammal folk among us — woke up in a hurry. The snapping of camera shutters sounded like the paparazzi had landed, as our bear stepped gingerly from rock to rock and at one point, did a bodybuilder pull-up to reach a higher shelf.
“In 30 trips up here, I’ve never seen a bear in a bird colony,” said Matthew Swan, owner of Adventure Canada, the company running our cruise ship, Clipper Adventurer.
Jim Halfpenny, our bear guy, agreed that night during his lecture.
“We think we’re seeing an adaptation to the warming climate. The ice is disappearing earlier and freezing later. The bears normally hunt seals from the ice. Now it looks like they’re going for birds on the cliffs.”
And this was just the start of our nine-day trip through the high Arctic.
We’re talking very high Arctic here — a place where Churchill (the polar bear place) and Yellowknife ( Iceroad Truckers) are considered the tropical south. Our cruise took us to tiny, remote Inuit villages along with all the infamously disastrous sites of failed 19th century polar explorations where one wonders how nations could make heroes out of so many stubborn jerks.
First came assorted islands where all those explorers met such awful ends. There was the expedition of Englishman John Franklin, who was looking for the Northwest Passage. When he failed to return, it was the unsuccessful rescue missions that actually wound up mapping a good portion of the high Arctic.
As for Franklin and his men, it’s thought that lead poisoning played a part in their deaths. Lead was used then as a solder for canned food. Testing many years later showed lead levels 1,000 times what is allowed today. Plus, they simply didn’t eat like the Inuits, so scurvy also played a part. Though they left three graves on Beechey island, the remains of the survivors, who apparently tried to travel by land to civilization, have never been found.
There was also an American expedition, which failed not because the men under Adolphus Greely did anything wrong but because the American military ships didn’t leave supplies as planned.
After not getting re-supplied at their original camp, Greely and his men went south 300 miles to Pim Island in what basically looked like a large rowboat, where they expected to find emergency supplies. But nothing was there.
Pim, a scant 760 miles from the North Pole, is wretchedly bare and windswept, even in mid summer. There’s fresh water and that’s it. No game to hunt, no sheltering cliff. Nothing. The men built a low rock wall with their hands and lived for months under their overturned skiff, eventually, some think, resorting to eating their dead comrades.