Location: Resolute Bay
Temperature: min minus 31°C – max minus 20°C
Distance Travelled: 0 kms
My second night camping in the arctic was hundreds of times better than the first…but it was still a miserable experience. I made several adjustments to my sleeping arrangements including wearing a neoprene Hannibal Lecter mask to cover my face and nose. This was meant to keep me warm and it did for a while, but then the moisture from my breath started to build up on the surface and this eventually froze, making my nose even colder.
In the end, I had to admit defeat and decided to bury my head in the sleeping bag. We’ve been warned repeatedly about not doing this as the moisture that doesn’t freeze making the surface uncomfortable, goes into the down filling and balls up the feathers decreasing the heat retention efficiency, and making the sleeping bag useless.
In the end, even my sleep-deprived brain realised that I only needed the sleeping bag for a few weeks, but I might need my nose a lot longer. After that I slept well – in fact too well. I rolled from my sleeping mat onto Clare’s who gave me a sharp kick to return me to my rightful place, and then in my sleep rolled onto JP’s mat and he put me back with a well aimed shove.
Waking is not my favourite time of the day at the best of times, as many family members, and flat mates will tell you. Most have their own personal incredulous story, which usual starts or ends with me being fast asleep. My mother even resorted to throwing water on me, which after the initially shock, I found a way to carry on sleeping rather than get up.
For some reason, despite the fitful sleep, cold and discomfort, I was soon joking and laughing with JP and Clare, although admittedly we were laughing at my misfortune…but the point is we were in good spirits despite it all.
As usual we started the day with the customary debrief, which is an integral part of the learning experience. Every person is constantly experimenting with the best way to get through the hardships, and we all learn a new trick of two, including the instructors. Living in the arctic is such an extreme experience that there isn’t a big enough body of knowledge or experience for mankind to have learnt most of what is needed to survive comfortably. And this is the part where I pay close attention as I try to pick up every heat saving tip.
After that we had shotgun training and so trekked out to a secluded gully and fired some rounds down the range. All this is in aid of a polar bear encounter. Most encounters will result in the bear running away, but just in case, it pays to be ready.
The procedure on spotting a bear is to keep an eye on it while backing slowly away. If it sees you, then it may get on its back legs and try to sniff you or go downwind to smell what you are. Its head will be up and its ears will be pinned back. If it becomes curious and starts a slow unhurried approach, then it becomes time to get in a group to look bigger, talk low and slow, wave and try to look like anything except a seal! It even helps to move upwind so it can smell you are human, and after 8 days camping, smelling pretty unappetising. The key is to stand up to a curious bear, so it doesn’t become more curious.
Generally, the Inuit say there are 3 types of polar bear approach. The first is if it is curious, and generally this can be a harmless encounter. The second is if it is scared, if for example you walked to near the baby polar bears. Normally they will make fake runs, but turn away after a brief sprint. The body language is also different. They will make noises to scare you away, as if you needed encouraging! Also its head will be lowered and swinging with ears pinned back
The final approach is the aggressive approach, or more simply the attack. This is where the real trouble begins. There is no point in trying to out run a polar bear, as they can run faster than any human, but fortunately I don’t have to outrun the polar bear…just the slowest member of my team!
Seriously, being the best skier and shot, I am entrusted with the shotgun and the last place when trekking. When a polar bear attacks it normally attacks the rear member of the team, so if I come back with a rubber neck, it’s from constantly checking my back!
As well as slugs that can stop a bear, we were also given noisemakers. These are exceptionally loud flash bangs designed to scare a polar bear away. Whilst practicing, we had a misfire and the pellet got stuck in the breech. We were all standing within 5 metres of the firing point and when it went off we all had ringing ears.
They are time delayed so when fired they don’t flash or bang for about 3 seconds. It is a real art to judge the distance as one team can attest. They were approached by a curious bear and once it entered the 100 metre danger zone they fired a noise maker…which landed right behind the poor polar bear. It got such a fright, as you can imagine and ran directly away from the noise…and directly towards the team trying to scare it away.
As mentioned before, although weighing over a tonne, these bears can really move, and before they could reload the shotgun, the bear had already covered the 100 meters…and run straight past, still petrified from the flash bang!