In the Jaws of a Polar Bear

As two Arctic kayakers were sound asleep, the polar bear that had picked up their scent began lumbering toward the camp.

Polar Bear© 2011 Steven Kazlowski/alaskastock.comAt 11 years old, the polar bear was 800 pounds, and nine feet tall.
The massive polar bear lumbered along the rocky shoreline, just a yard or so from the stormy waters of the Arctic Ocean. Occasionally it raised its head to sniff the Arctic air, hoping perhaps to pinpoint an easy meal of a washed-up ringed seal or walrus carcass.

It was late July, and in this uninhabited part of the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, high above the Arctic Circle and just 600 miles from the North Pole, much of the drift ice had melted. This made hunting for seals—a polar bear’s favorite meal—nearly impossible. Although huge, the bear was desperately hungry.

With a westerly wind at its back, the male bear continued to patrol the shore. Then, perhaps catching the scent of something unusual, it stopped dead in its tracks. It sniffed the air, and steam billowed out of its bright black snout. Following its nose, so sensitive that some say it can smell a decaying whale carcass from 20 miles away, the bear suddenly turned downwind and inland. Its paddle like paws dragged, leaving deep tracks in the sand. The predator was closing in on its prey.

It was to be the adventure of a lifetime. For almost two years, longtime friends Sebastian Plur Nilssen and Ludvig Fjeld, both 22, had been training for this two-month-long kayak expedition. Hoping to follow in the footsteps of other Norwegian explorers such as Roald Amundsen and Thor Heyerdahl, the two were attempting to become the first kayakers to paddle around the entire Svalbard archipelago, a trip of more than 1,100 miles through one of the world’s most remote regions.

To get fit, they had donned dry suits and kayaked through the ice-filled rivers near their hometowns outside Oslo, pulled heavy kayaks over ice floes, and jumped into the freezing waters to toughen themselves.

Lifelong hunters, they honed their marksmanship by sprinting up hills, loading their rifles, and pulling the triggers. As many Arctic experts had told them, if they needed to defend themselves from a polar bear, they’d have little time to think. Each carried a rifle in a waterproof bag lashed to their kayaks. Holding steady, controlling their breathing, aiming, shooting: It all had to be second nature.

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