This is an excerpt of the e-book Meltdown: Terror at the Top of the World. Click here to read the entire e-book.
By Sabrina Shankman
With shotguns slung over their backs and radios strapped to their belts, Maria Merkuratsuk and her older brother Eli hiked to a ridge and looked down at the clearing. They were perched at the edge of Nachvak Fjord on the Arctic tundra of Labrador, on the lookout for polar bears.
The view was at once familiar and new. It was the same bountiful land they remembered from their childhood, when their family of 12 spent summers there with other Inuit families, hunting, fishing and foraging during the months when the sea ice melted and allowed their fishing boats to enter the fjord. And yet, it wasn't the same.
The Torngat Mountains, which cut a steep path down to the fjord, had been covered in gray and brown when they were children. But now the landscape was blanketed in green—new growth that has appeared in recent years. Maria Merkuratsuk, 58, swatted occasionally at the flies and mosquitoes that swarmed around her as she walked. Those were new, too.
And the ice—the dependable barrier that bound them to their home in Nain for most of the year, releasing them in the spring to return north, to Nachvak—was no longer something they could count on. It was freezing up much later and melting much earlier, the warmth of summer lasting longer than ever before.
As Merkuratsuk absentmindedly grabbed a few blueberries from a low bush at her feet, she saw what appeared to be a large, white rock in the clearing below. In one motion, she dropped to her knee and swung her shotgun into position. As she peered through the scope, the rock began to move. A polar bear.
In all her years here as a child, she had seen only a handful of polar bears. Now she rarely ventured into Nachvak Fjord without seeing one.
Eli Merkuratsuk headed down to scare the bear away, firing flares as the animal ambled on all fours into some tall willows nearby. The idea wasn't to harass the bear, but to make sure it learned to fear interacting with humans. It was one of many ways he did his job as a bear guard. As the Merkuratsuks knew, they were just visitors here. This land, this fjord, belonged to the bears.
Eli Merkuratsuk drew closer and the bear—large, with a thick, white coat—left the willows and walked toward him. Instead of running away, it rose onto its hind legs and stood there a moment, showing its height and towering over him. Then it dropped down onto all fours and walked slowly back into the bush.
The ad in a fall 2012 issue of Sierra magazine promised the adventure of a lifetime: two weeks trekking through the untouched lower reaches of Canada's Arctic tundra, with the possibility of seeing the world's largest land carnivore, the polar bear.
Participants must be fit and experienced hikers, the ad warned. They would also have to accept an element of risk, including lack of access to emergency medical care. But the payoff would be big.
"If you dream of experiencing a place that is both pristine and magical, a land of spirits and polar bears rarely seen by humans, this is the trip you have been waiting for," the ad said.
Two seasoned Sierra Club guides, Rich Gross and Marta Chase, would be leading the trip. Gross, now 61, worked for a low-income housing nonprofit in San Francisco but since 1990 had spent a week or two each year guiding Sierra Club trips in remote parts of the world. With short, curly gray hair and an easy smile, Gross lived for these adventures. Chase, 60, was a medical diagnostics consultant who'd been leading hiking trips since she was in high school. She and Gross had guided 14 trips together.
It was Gross's idea to go into the Torngats, one of Canada's newest national parks. He'd never seen a polar bear in the wild and was drawn to the spiritual appeal of the mountains. The park was named after Torngarsuk, an ancient Inuit spirit that appeared as a polar bear and controlled the lives of sea animals. The terrain itself has a mystical appearance, with sharply peaked mountains and fjords cutting into the land from the coast of the Labrador Sea. Only a few hundred people venture there each year, and Gross wanted to be part of that exclusive group.
Chase wanted to see the park, too. But she worried about hiking in polar bear country.
Polar bears sit at the top of the Arctic food chain. A large male can weigh as much as 1,700 pounds and stand 10 feet tall. Unlike black bears or grizzlies, polar bears are carnivores through and through—they can't survive without meat. They live most of their lives on sea ice, lurking near holes, watching and waiting—sometimes for hours, sometimes for days—for their favorite prey, the ring seal. When a seal surfaces to breathe, the bear pounces, grabbing it by its head and crushing its skull.
Polar bears typically stay clear of humans. But if there were a time and a place to see one, the Torngats in mid-summer would be a good bet. That's when the sea ice melts for a while, forcing the bears onto land.
To ease her concerns, Chase studied websites, talked to experts and read books. She knew Gross was obsessive about safety, but both of them were responsible for keeping the group safe and she wanted to be prepared, too.
In New York City, 65-year-old Larry Rodman signed up the same day he saw the ad on the Sierra Club website. The walls of Rodman's midtown Manhattan law office were adorned with photos of wildlife and scenery he'd taken on past wilderness trips, including one with Chase and Gross. But he'd never seen a polar bear. The timing of the trip was especially good, because he was pondering a big life change. He had decided to leave his law partnership and apply to Yale's environmental policy program.
Marilyn Frankel, a 66-year-old exercise physiologist from West Lynn, Ore., had traveled with Gross and Chase many times before, and they were close friends. After some years away from backpacking, this would be her first trip back—and one of the most remote and intense of her life.
Rick Isenberg, a 56-year-old Scottsdale, Ariz. physician who does clinical research and regulatory work, signed up because he wanted to get away—not to be alone, necessarily, but to appreciate being small in the vastness of wilderness. This would be his third Sierra Club trip but by far the most adventurous and extreme. He hired a personal trainer and began taking long hikes in the Arizona heat.
Matt Dyer, a 49-year-old legal aid attorney in Turner, Maine, was dreaming of adventure when he filled out the forms for the trip. He wouldn't have considered spending so much money—$6,000—on such a luxury, but he was at a point in his life where he could afford it. He'd always wanted to go to Labrador, because his family roots traced back to the province. And getting to Montreal, the starting point, wouldn't be too expensive.
But Gross was concerned about Dyer's lack of experience.
"This trip requires backpacking experience and I don't see any on your forms," Gross said in an email to Dyer. "This is a particularly tough trip since it is all off trail and packs will be quite heavy (50+ pounds). The area is remote and evacuation is only by helicopter."
Dyer told Gross he was in good shape and had been hiking and camping in New England for years, including some trekking with the Appalachian Mountain Club.
"I'm not a city person (I grew up on an island about 8 miles from the mainland) so being away from the [7-Eleven] is not going to bother me," Dyer wrote. "I totally understand that you don't want to wind up a thousand miles from nowhere with a problem, but I think I can do this."
Dyer agreed to follow a strict training plan, and Gross agreed to take him.
As the hikers prepared for their journey in the fall of 2012, University of Alberta and long-time Environment Canada biologist Ian Stirling had just seen the publication of his most recent paper, a review of dozens of scientific reports that explored how climate change was affecting polar bears.
Stirling has devoted 40 years of his life to studying polar bears, and many consider him one of the preeminent biologists on the subject. His long-term studies in Canada's western Hudson Bay had helped establish the link between polar bears and climate change. That link is now so strong that the bears have become one of the most visible symbols of global warming.
Stirling had written this new paper for the journal Global Change Biology with Andrew Derocher, one of his former PhD students who is also a leader in the field. The long-term picture they painted is bleak.
Temperatures are climbing faster in the Arctic than anywhere else in the world, leading to a substantial decrease in sea ice, where ring seals and the bears' other prey live. In September 2012, the Arctic sea ice level was 49 percent lower than the historical average from 1979-2000.
The southern parts of the Arctic, including the Torngats, have had an ice-free summer season throughout modern times. But the ice-free period is growing longer. Since the late 1970s, the number of ice-free days in the area around the Torngats has increased from 125 days to 175 days.
In the not-so-far-away future, the Arctic could look much different than it does now. In a worst-case scenario in which carbon emissions continue to rise, midsummer is projected to be completely ice-free by the middle of this century.
"If the climate continues to warm and eliminate sea ice as predicted, polar bears will largely disappear from the southern portions of their range by mid-century," Stirling and Derocher wrote in their paper. Bears would probably survive in the northern Canadian Arctic Islands and northern Greenland for the foreseeable future, but their long-term viability, they wrote, "is uncertain."
The scenario they laid out was straightforward.
Less sea ice means polar bears must spend more time on land, where their specialized hunting skills are useless. To survive, they live off the body fat stored from their earlier kills on the ice. As the period when they have to live off that reserve grows longer, some eat goose eggs, grasses or berries. But their foraging goes only so far—they can't survive without the fat they get from seals.
"As the bears' body condition declines, more seek alternate food sources so the frequency of conflicts between bears and humans increases," the scientists concluded.
After all, to a starving bear, a human is just meat.
Matt Dyer lugged his 50-pound pack into the Quality Hotel Dorval in Montreal on July 18, 2013. To save money, he'd taken a 12-hour overnight bus from Lewiston, Maine, and then spent the morning wandering around Montreal. He ate two breakfasts and killed time by napping in a park, feeling "kind of like a bum." By the time he could check in, the afternoon sun was hot, and he was tired.
Larry Rodman walked in at the same time, fresh off the airport shuttle bus after a quick flight from New York City.
The two men dumped their bags, got some lunch and started talking. Rodman, the big city law partner, and Dyer, the legal aid attorney with the scraggly gray ponytail, hit it off immediately. For Dyer, especially, that was a relief. He'd been less concerned about the arduous journey than about the people he'd be trapped with in the wilderness. When you're paying for the trip of a lifetime, you want to enjoy the company.
"Watch "Polar Bear Man," the documentary by VICE in collaboration with InsideClimate News.