Chapter 2

Hiking near Nachvak Fjord on July 22. (Courtesy: Marilyn Frankel)

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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.

Gross and Chase had flown in a day earlier to buy supplies and make last-minute arrangements.

Chase’s husband, Kicab Castañeda-Mendez was there, too. Chase had introduced him to hiking when they were in their 30s and since then the 64-year-old management consultant had joined all of her Sierra Club trips, pitching in with the planning and playing the default role of group photographer. On this trip his presence was even more reassuring. In June, Chase had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was told she needed a mastectomy.

Petite and fit, Chase was shocked by the news. At first, she assumed she’d have to cancel the trip. The idea of backing out compounded the blow of the diagnosis. But when her doctor assured her that postponing the surgery for a few weeks wouldn’t matter, she decided to go.

Over the years, Chase and Gross had developed a division of labor for their trips. Chase handled logistics like transportation and meals. Gross handled park permits and the route, poring over maps and plotting out the various options for getting from A to B. Each year they alternated who took the lead on research and outreach. For the Torngats trip, it was Chase’s turn, although Gross continued to read up on staying safe in polar bear country.

Chase studied the website for the Torngat Mountains Base Camp & Research Station, which Canada’s parks department had opened in 2006 in the Nunatsiavut region. This autonomous area in Labrador, includes five small Inuit communities plus Torngat Mountains National Park. In 2009, the Canadian government transferred ownership of the Base Camp to the Nunatsiavut government. The camp sits just outside the southern limit of the park, on Saglek Fjord.

Chase sent an email to Base Camp, thinking it might serve as their entry point to the park. When she didn’t get a response, she contacted Vicki Storey, an adventure travel agent in Alberta who’d been booking travel to the Torngats since before it became a park. Storey sent Chase to Alain Lagacé, who operated two camps that offered guided tours, fishing expeditions and wildlife safaris.

Lagacé knew the area well, Storey assured Chase. He’d been arranging trips into the Torngats for decades. He was also a good choice for a trip like the ones Chase and Gross specialized in, minimalist expeditions in which they acted as their own guides. There would be no planned excursions or activities on this trip, just unadulterated backpacking.

In emails and phone calls over the course of months, Chase and Lagacé shaped the trip. The group would fly from Montreal to Kuujjuaq, the largest Inuit community in Nunavik, the Inuit region of Quebec. Then they’d take a small charter plane to Lagacé’s Barnoin River Camp and spend the night. The next morning a floatplane would deposit them in the Torngats, where they’d be on their own for 11 days.

“The thought of polar bears is still a concern to me,” Chase said in one of her emails to Lagacé. “I have experience with black and brown bears but not with polar.”

Guns are generally prohibited in Canada’s national parks, but in 2011 Parks Canada broadened the rules for parks with polar bears. Researchers, guides licensed by Parks Canada, and local, native Canadians were allowed to apply for gun permits for those parks. Guns could also be carried by Inuit “bear guards” who have taken a polar bear safety course and been licensed by Parks Canada.

“Polar bears are present in ten of Parks Canada’s northern national parks and there is a documented history of human-bear interactions in many parks,” Parks Canada said in a document explaining why the regulations had been loosened. “The impacts of climate change on sea ice may result in changes in the density and behavior of polar bears on land in these parks. These factors bring an increased risk of dangerous human-bear encounters.”

For visitors who didn’t qualify for a gun permit, Parks Canada’s website for Torngat Mountains National Park “strongly” encouraged—but did not require—hiring a bear guard.

“The accompaniment of a bear guard will allow you to relax and enjoy your hike, but will also give you the opportunity to experience the park with the help and guidance of Inuit who truly know the land,” the website said.

The Base Camp website also addressed the issue of guns and bear guards:

“Visitors should note that it is illegal to carry a firearm in the national park. You are required to be familiar with the use of bear deterrents, and to bring approved deterrents with you. Alternatively, we recommend engaging the services of an Inuit guide for the duration of your visit. Inuit guides are permitted to carry firearms in the park and are well-trained in visitor safety procedures.”

When Chase asked Lagacé whether they’d need a bear guard, she said he told her that no one who traveled through his camp used bear guards, and that there had been no problems, provided they took other precautions.

“Regarding the safety against polar bears, we have it all,” he wrote. “The 12 gauge magnesium frare (sic) gun are working extremely well, plus we have the pepper spray, and the pepper spray greanade (sic) and electric fence. These have worked very well in the past but there are always precautions to be taken. Never cook food in your tent, don’t leave trash around your camp site, avoid camping along the shore of a coastal lake, etc.”

Chase and Gross decided that flare guns, bear spray and electric fences would offer them the protection they needed. Although Chase still had a sense of foreboding about the bears, she felt they’d done their homework and would be safe. Lagacé clearly knew what he was talking about. And none of the Parks Canada employees she and Gross had talked with had even mentioned bear guards, she said, let alone recommended that they use one.

Chase and Gross arranged to rent two flare guns from Lagacé. They would carry four shells for each gun.  

Gross picked up two electric fences from the Sierra Club—one to encircle their campsite, the other to protect the area where they would cook and store their food. The instructions were missing, and the pieces were wrapped haphazardly. So Gross asked a close friend who is an electrician to help him practice setting them up outside his house in San Francisco. 

Because the fences hadn’t come with any instructions, Gross didn’t see the warning they contain: “This product is a bear deterrent which may protect users in some unexpected confrontations with bears but may not be effective in all situations or prevent all injuries or damages.”

Each fence stood about three feet high and consisted of three parallel wires suspended from four-foot posts. Although the wires looked flimsy, they carried five to seven kilovolts of charge—not enough to seriously injure a bear, but supposedly enough to send it running.

Gross emailed a picture of the fence in his front yard to Castañeda-Mendez.

“What’s the polar bear supposed to do? Die of laughter?” Castañeda-Mendez wrote back.

They’d also take bear spray, which they had carried on previous trips to ward off grizzly bears. Should something go wrong, they would have a satellite phone to call for help.

For more information, Lagacé told them to contact Parks Canada, which manages Torngat Mountains National Park.

A Parks Canada employee told Chase that anyone entering the park was required to watch a DVD on polar bear safety. Parks Canada agreed to send the video to Lagacé’s camp, so they could watch it right before they entered the park. The employee assured them they were in good hands with Alain Lagacé.

Parks Canada also discussed options for their backpacking route. They decided to start at Nachvak (pronounced Nock-vock) Fjord and move inland, packing up camp most mornings and working their way toward Komaktorvik Fjord, where they’d be met by a plane from Lagacé’s camp. It would be a tough trip. They’d be carrying their 50-plus pound bags for about six hours each day, stopping in mid-afternoon to find a place to camp. Halfway through the trip, Lagacé would send a plane to drop off the rest of their food.

As the group gathered in Chase and Castañeda-Mendez’s hotel room in Montreal on July 18, Gross and Chase felt confident about their preparations. They double-checked each hiker’s gear and divided their food supplies into baggies labeled breakfast, lunch and dinner. Then they packed the plastic bags into bear canisters—portable lockers designed to keep food from attracting unwanted attention while they hiked—and stuffed them into the hikers’ packs.

The conversation about climate change and its consequences often revolves around abstract concepts—sea level rise, ocean acidification—but that’s not the case with the melting of the sea ice. In the Arctic, the consequences are more tangible, more immediate.

Using yearly averages taken throughout the Arctic, NASA scientist Claire Parkinson has reported that about 695,000 square miles of sea ice have been lost since 1979, when satellites began recording images of the region. To put that into context, that’s roughly the same as if the western portion of the United States—California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Utah and most of Idaho—had disappeared.

The Arctic’s thick white expanse of sea ice resembles land but for the fact that it moves with the ocean below it, shifting along fracture points called leads. In the northern regions of the Arctic, the ice gets thicker and stronger from year to year. In the southern regions, it melts in the spring and then builds up in the fall. Initially it appears like a greasy stain on the ocean’s surface, quickly growing to a foot thick, often in just a matter of days. In the course of a single week, open ocean becomes a hard surface, a habitat capable of sustaining an entire ecosystem. 

Illustration by Catherine Mann

Parkinson specializes in sea ice at NASA’s Cryospheric Sciences Laboratory, where she is a climate change senior scientist. She explains that sea ice has a symbiotic relationship with climate change. It’s not just that the ice is melting—but also that its disappearance is exposing the dark ocean below. A surface that once reflected the sun’s radiation is being replaced by a surface that absorbs it, further warming the ocean and leading to even more sea ice melt.

This process, called “ice albedo feedback,” contributes to a phenomenon called “polar amplification.” It refers to the increased rate of warming near the poles in response to rising temperatures, which are precipitated by greenhouse gas emissions.

In a study in Geophysical Research Letters, published in June of this year, Parkinson analyzed the satellite record and found that since 1979 there has been an average of at least five fewer days of sea ice per decade in areas with seasonal ice.

In some areas, the decline is much steeper.

Parkinson looked at the number of ice-free days in the Davis Strait, which is part of the eco-region that includes Torngat Mountains National Park. She found a decrease of about 15 days per decade—or roughly 50 days since 1979.

Reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) earlier this year also quantified the sea ice loss. It said that Arctic sea ice has disappeared at a mean rate of between 173,000 and 196,000 square miles per decade since 1979—a loss larger than the state of California every 10 years. The ice is disappearing even faster in the more southern areas of the Arctic—between 280,000 square miles (California plus Arizona) and 410,000 square miles (California, Arizona and Colorado ) per decade.

It wasn’t long ago that scientists who came out with such alarming findings faced skepticism and ridicule.

In 2006, Cecilia Bitz co-authored an article in the journal Geophysical Research Letters that projected the Arctic would have its first completely ice-free period by the end of the summer of 2040. Bitz, a physicist who studies sea ice and does climate modeling at the University of Washington, said some media panned the paper as the work of “these crazy climate scientists.” The Village Voice ran a cartoon mocking the findings.

Even Bitz had trouble internalizing the magnitude of what she had learned.

In the summer of 2007, she was teaching at the International Polar Year Summer School in Svalbard, which is Norway’s Arctic archipelago. Since she does her climate modeling work from her office, it was her first visit to the Arctic.

In retrospect, she says she should have been shocked by the unseasonably warm weather she encountered and by the fact that she could go for a run wearing shorts. But when the readings of 2007’s sea ice extent came out, she, like many of her colleagues, was caught by surprise. By mid-August of that year, the sea ice minimum had broken every existing record—and there was still a month to go before it hit the annual low-point.

By the time the ice melted to its minimum that year, it was almost 40 percent below the 1979-2000 average.

“To be that fooled by what came to pass was really shocking to me and a big wake-up call,” Bitz said. “I think the whole community felt that way. We were startled.”

The media called on Bitz again, this time requesting interviews that could help put the record low in context. For Bitz, it could have been redemptive, were the facts not so disheartening.

In the years since, Bitz has been part of a worldwide effort to improve sea ice modeling. When the next record-breaking low came around, in 2012, Bitz and other experts were less shocked.

Another 300,000 square miles of sea ice had been lost—more than the state of Texas.

Sea ice melts at different rates each year. Sometimes the pace picks up, sometimes it slows. But Bitz says the key isn’t what happens in an individual year. What matters is the trend—think climate, not weather—which has been persistently downward in the past few decades.

As the melting continues, a ripple of change reverberates through the flora and fauna that rely on sea ice as their habitat—the capelin and other fish that harvest the plankton along the ice’s edge, the narwhals and beluga whales that swim below, and, of course, the polar bear, the king of the Arctic, sitting patiently on the shrinking ice, waiting for its prey.

Next: Chapter 3

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