How we survived a polar bear encounter

‘Did you see a polar bear?’ It probably has been the most frequently asked question since we came back from our kayak expedition in Spitsbergen. When we cautiously nod and tell them we encountered  a female polar bear and her two cubs from up close, curiosity gets high. Our encounter with one of the world’s most dangerous predators is a great story to share. So great we wanted to write a separate travel story about it.

I spotted my first polar bear during my sailing expedition in Spitsbergen, a few days before Linsay arrived in Longyearbyen. It’s easy to imagine how she envied me when I told her I did not only see whales, reindeer, arctic foxes, walruses and seals, but I got to see a polar bear as well, one of Svalbard’s most difficult animals to spot. I have to admit, spotting that polar bear on the rocky peninsula in front of the Nordenskiold glacier was a fluke, on a moment we didn’t expect it anymore and from a distance we needed binoculars to get a good view at it. Still, pressure on me was high. That the kayak expedition and the polar bear watch would be an arduous undertaking was a fact. Now, I needed to ensure the reward of seeing wildlife would be presented in return. Not just beluga’s, seals, whales, reindeer and foxes, but if possible a polar bear as well. We were fortunate to spot the first five animals during the first days, and how! But the polar bear? No we didn’t see any sign of him. Or did we?

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Polar bear spotted during sailing expedition

Paw print

We were on our way back from Pyramiden, an abandoned Russian mining settlement in Billefjorden, where we did a late evening session of urban exploring. We had wandered for hours through the decayed buildings in what once was one of Svalbard’s most prominent mining towns. At times, adrenaline was pumping. Not just because we were entering buildings that had seen better times, and in the dark, but mostly because behind every corner there might been a polar bear sleeping. These oversized white stuffed bears love to use the dark places of the abandoned buildings to have a snooze. The fact that we only had a small flashlight enlighten our path just a few meters, made the experience quite thrilling. Still, our first encounter with polar bears was two days later, when we went to shore at Kapp Ekholm, to put up our tent.

‘Linsay, take a look.’

I point to a paw print on the ground. The size of the print leaves little doubt that it is the paw of a polar bear. Five toes and razor-sharp nails are easily recognizable and as we look further we see a whole trail.

‘I think we better look for a different spot to put up our tent.’, Linsay says.

I don’t respond and suggest to follow the trail for a while, to find out which direction the polar bear went. Shortly after, we see the trail leading along the shores in the same direction we travel. ‘I think it might be safer to stay here.’, I contradict. To ge tan impression on how old the prints are, I suggest to compare them with my own, since two days ago I went ashore just a bit further to get water. A short walk brings us to my own traces of two days ago. Comparing them would be easier than imagined. The same huge paw prints swiped away mine. ‘The polar bear has passed here less than 36 hours ago.’

Polar bear paw print

Encounter with a female polar bear and her two cubs

That we didn’t see a polar bear last night at Kapp Ekholm, didn’t bother Linsay. So far, it has been an amazing trip in terms of wildlife spotting and the impression the paw print left us, is huge. And admittedly, after nine days of paddling and keeping polar bear watch, fatigue has struck us. We were relieved not having to do a watch the following night, since we could have a long night sleep in a cabin at the beginning of the Billefjorden. The location of the cabin we knew all too well, since we passed it on our way to Pyramiden and already spent a night in it. Sixteen hours of sleep later we were all set for our crossing to the Sassenfjord, our last stop before returning to Longyearbyen.

Our departure routine ended with doing the dishes at the shore. It was the perfect timing to discuss whether we would begin our crossing or not. An emerging wind made Linsay doubt, while I saw the blue skies as a good sign to commence our twelve kilometers crossing.

‘I really want to wait till the wind has dropped.’, Linsay emphasizes once more. ‘Why can’t we just wait a little bit longer?’ The fatigue (despite the sixteen hours of sleep) of the last ten days and the accompanied irritability, was the initiator for a starting fight, but even before it could reach a peak, the look on my face changed.

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Polar bear wandering into our camp

‘Polar bear.’, I whisper, while I spot a polar bear wandering over her shoulder, only seventy meters away. Before words passed my lips, I added with a frightened tone: ‘Three polar bears.’ I get the flare pen out of my pocket and ask Linsay where she’s put our rifle. While Linsay is loading the rifle, I’m charging my pen to scare off the polar bear if it would come in our direction. It get’s obvious quickly, the bears have no interest in us, but are heading for the cabin. ‘We’ve been careless.’ Our stuff and some food is laying just next to the cabin. Besides that, we’ve left the cabin wide open as well. ‘I think she will destroy it all.’ Seconds later, the polar bear sticks her head in one of our bags and hurls it in the air. Meanwhile we’ve assessed the situation well and decided to stay near the shore. If she would get a sudden curiosity for us, at least we would have an escape route.

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Our kayaks seemed the safest option

Over half an hour we saw the polar bear and her two cubs go through our drybags, based on the scent of food that used to be in it. To our surprise, she succeeded in squeezing her huge body through the small door opening of the cabin. It comes clear that the small amount of food is running out. ‘But what’s next?’, we wonder. We decided not to wait for the answer and pushed our kayaks in the water. We don’t take time to put on our drysuits. Just in case we would look to similar to a seal, you know? Seconds later we are in our kayaks on a safe distance from shore. Safer, so we think, cause despite polar bears being excellent swimmers, the odds seem in our favor that she won’t leave her cubs behind to chase us. Our decision seems the right one, cause another half an hour has passed when we see the polar bear wander to the shore, sniffing our cooking pots who had just been cleaned. Clearly, she noticed that no food was left, throws us a glance and continues her journey alongside the rocky shoreline. Her two cubs strolling behind. We have been able to avoid a real confrontation. Fortunately. Not only because we would have to fear for our lives, but mostly because we didn’t have to disturb them by shooting. A dead polar bear is the last thing we would have wanted during our journey in Spitsbergen. But especially not a mother of two cubs.

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