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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Up North In Search of the Polar Bear

Air Date: Week of September 23, 2011

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Writer Mark Seth Lender traveled to Hudson Bay near the Arctic Circle this summer to view wildlife and hunt with native Inuit. LOE called him up while he was there. Lender tells host Bruce Gellerman that his encounters with polar bears and beluga whales were life changing.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: Mark Seth Lender is a prolific writer, photographer and audio producer who likes to get up close and personal with nature. This summer, he traveled to the far north to Hudson Bay near the Arctic Circle. There he got a rare view of the wildlife and the people who call the place home. We caught up with Mark while he was in Arviat - Mark, where in the world is Arviat?

LENDER: (Laughs) It’s an Eskimo community, 61 degrees, seven seconds north on the northeast corner of Hudson Bay.

GELLERMAN: Ooh, you’re way up there. What does Arviat look like?

LENDER: Way up there. Well, it's very flat and the area has been scraped and ground by glacier after glacier. So, there’s just not much here but flatness. And there’s a rich ground cover, many different kinds of berries this time of year, there are flowers towards the coast called Fireweed, which are a really beautiful purple. And occasionally small trees, because we’re really away from the taiga here - it’s really just open tundra.

GELLERMAN: Why did you go to the Arctic? Its gotta be cold, even this time of the year.

LENDER: The short answer of why I came is polar bears, because, you know, you usually visualize - think of them - on ice, and I wanted to see them in fields of Fireweed and out on the green and doing what they do this time of year.

GELLERMAN: So, you brought along some audio equipment with you; what did you record?

LENDER: Well, perhaps the most stunning thing to date was a polar bear hunting. I was standing on the far side of a small inlet on Hudson Bay and I saw a bear come across the mudflats, work his way up onto the beach, and he vocalized:

[SOUND OF POLAR BEAR VOCALIZING AND CHIRPING BIRDS AND BUZZING INSECTS]

LENDER: ... which, unless there is another bear or a reason, they don’t usually do. And then he moved off into the grass, and for a moment I couldn’t see what he was after and then it became clear. There was a pair of Sandhill Cranes on the other side of the grass, and they had a young flightless chick, and he wanted that chick.

And so he was trying to scare them off. And they kept quiet - probably hoping he would miss them. And then he came through the grass - I could hear the grass rustling - and he came within sight. And at that point the cranes began leaping into the air - first the male, then the female, then male again, back and forth and back and forth, and vocalizing their alarm calls.

[SOUNDS OF SANDHILL CRANES]

LENDER: What’s really amazing is that they were able to dissuade the bear. Sandhills - like most wading birds - have a very long, sharp beak, and that is their defense. And the bear took a look at that beak and how small that chick was, and he just decided it wasn’t worth it.

And then he went off through the grass, deeper into the tundra. And as he went, you could hear other birds giving their alarm calls until finally everything went silent and the bear was gone.

GELLERMAN: So, did the bear spot you? Did he see you as being maybe an appetizer, or next on the menu?

LENDER: Certainly the bear saw me. And in this area, the bears are somewhat used to seeing people really everywhere. They mostly don’t want to tangle with us. But I spoke to a man yesterday who punched one on the nose.

GELLERMAN: Who won?

LENDER: (Laughs) Well, he told me this story, so I think it’s somewhat self-explanatory. He woke up in the middle of the night and looked up, and there was a full-grown polar bear in his tent, standing on his gun. And he remembered what an Inuit elder had told him, and that was: the bear has a very sensitive nose. And if all else fails, you hit him in the nose as hard as you can.

So very quickly, he yelled and hit the nose - full closed fist, - and I’m sure there was enough adrenaline running it was the hardest punch he ever threw. And the bear just ran away.

GELLERMAN: Hm. So, Mark, did you bring your hydrophone with you to record underwater?

LENDER: I wanted to desperately, but it was one piece of gear too many. It was another 30lbs of gear. I will be back here, and I’m hoping to change out some of the gear, and get some hydrophone recordings of the belugas. And - they do talk to you, and if you sing at them - which I did - they will come up to you and roll on their sides and look you right in the eye and swim along with you and they sing back. And I want to tell you, that was one of the great wildlife experiences of my life.

GELLERMAN: Oh, boy, talk about getting up close and personal!

LENDER: First name basis!

GELLERMAN: (Laughs) Yeah, you could kind of shake hands!

LENDER: Well, something very unusual happened while I was in the water with them. One of the whales came up and took my fingertips of my left hand in its lips.

GELLERMAN: Whoa!

LENDER: Just for a second, and it looked at me, and then it swam off.

GELLERMAN: Wow, that’s incredible, Mark.

LENDER: Yes, and this is a big animal. This is not a, you know, it’s not a dolphin - it’s really a whale.

GELLERMAN: So, Mark, I understand you sent us a piece of audio. I want to play that and tell us where you are and what’s going on. What are we hearing here?

[BIRDS CHIRPING]

LENDER: This is a little pool out on the tundra and it’s filled with Least Sandpipers. You see quite a few of them in these little tundra pools, and they’re feasting away on some little insect and talking to each other and just talking up a storm. Every once in awhile one flew by me. They’re quite tolerant. They really didn’t seem to notice my presence. They were very busy doing what they were doing.

[SOUNDS OF A TUNDRA POOL FILLED WITH SANDPIPERS]

GELLERMAN: So, where are you off to next?

LENDER: Well, tomorrow, if the weather holds, we’re out looking for foxes and caribou. They don’t, so much, have anything to do with each other - this is not Rocky the Flying Squirrel and Bullwinkle - it’s just that they’re both likely to be in the same area of the tundra.

So, I’m going off with an Inuit hunter, and we’re going to see if we can find some caribou. And, this afternoon, I’m very privileged to going to be going to meet an elder who is an Inuit throat singer. And I’m particularly interested in that because as far as I know, the only other place on the planet where throat singing is done is in Mongolia.

And so, there is the intimation of a connection that goes back many thousands of years.

GELLERMAN: Oh, I’d love to hear that. Be sure and record that, ok Mark?

LENDER: I will do my best!

GELLERMAN: (Chuckles) I’m sure you will. Well, Mark, I am so jealous - have a safe and terrific journey, and I hope to see you when you get back.

LENDER: Me too, Bruce. Thank you, and listen, if you want to come help carry the gear, come on ahead!

GELLERMAN: (Laughs) Next time, I’m there, Mark.

LENDER: Sounds like a plan. Thank you!

GELLERMAN: Talking to us from Hudson Bay, Canada is Mark Seth Lender. His latest book is called "Salt Marsh Diary: A Year on the Connecticut Coast."

 

Links

Where in the world is Arviat? Find it on a map of the Arctic

Mark Seth Lender’s website

Read Mark Lender’s blog “North Knife – An Expedition to Hudson Bay”

 

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