On Sunday, July 21, a floatplane carried them over the western portion of the Torngat Mountains and then descended toward the eastern shore, weaving between the final peaks. The landscape they saw on the 45-minute flight was desolate but breathtaking—treeless, with ice covering parts of the glassy lakes below. Rivulets of icy water cascaded from mountain peaks that jutted into the cloud-filled sky.
The plane landed flawlessly on Nachvak Fjord, backing into the shore so they could exit without getting their feet wet. It was the kind of impressive maneuvering that comes from using planes the way suburban commuters use cars.
Castañeda-Mendez held onto the plane’s pontoon while the others off-loaded their gear. The pilot said his goodbyes and the sound of the engines receded into the distance, leaving them alone with just the sound of small waves on the shore. The skies were clear, but a cold rain started to fall.
In a place like this, untouched as it was, it was easy to imagine a world before humans. Fjords are usually formed when the ocean pours into valleys left behind by melting glaciers. What was left behind on Nachvak Fjord felt prehistoric—like the end of the Earth, with the long fingers of the fjord reaching into the shoreline.
Chase and Gross left the group on the shore while they scouted for a suitable place to set up camp. Lagacé had warned them not to pitch their tents on the beach. He said they should find a high place to sleep because polar bears are known to come right up the fjord where they had landed.
But when Chase and Gross reached an area that met Lagacé’s criteria—an elevated spot about a quarter mile away—they discovered it didn’t have easy access to drinking water. Further down, a bit closer to where they had been dropped off, they found a spot that looked ideal: flat enough for comfortable sleeping and cooking, with easy access to fresh water. It was still at least 150 yards away from the shore, and people had obviously camped there before. They’d left behind stakes and piles of rocks.
On the shore, the rest of the group was jubilant. To mark their official entrance into the wilderness, they took pictures of each other. As if on cue, a rainbow appeared. Dyer took it as a good omen.
The first thing they did at the campsite was set up their electric fences, using rocks to help stabilize the poles. They wound the wires around the poles, making sure everything was taut.
The perimeter of the sleeping area was 27 feet by 27 feet, a bit larger than a boxing ring. It wasn’t a big space, but it was as far as the fence could stretch. The six tents would be separated by about three feet. Each person had his or her own tent, while Chase and Castañeda-Mendez shared a slightly larger tent.
On every trip, Rodman made a point of finding out who the loudest snorers were, so he could pitch his tent as far away as possible. In this case, he didn’t need to ask around. His new friend Dyer was a serious snorer. Once Dyer set up his tent, Rodman picked a spot in the opposite corner.
They set up their food and cook station inside the second fence, about 200 yards away. The cook tent was shaped like a tepee and could be adjusted to sit a few feet above the ground so air could circulate while they cooked. With blue and gray triangular panels, it looked like a small circus tent.
Once everything was ready, they flipped on the switches for both fences and watched the lights on the battery packs flicker to life. They felt secure, protected—and they were pleased to see that they were in a prime location for viewing wildlife.
“No sooner had we gotten the tents up then we looked down towards the water a ways away and there was a wolf,” Chase said.
From the smallest plankton to the largest marine mammals—whales and polar bears—there’s a chain of connectedness on the Arctic tundra that allows nothing to operate in a vacuum. All the disparate species share the same dynamic ecosystem, and all of them rely on the same habitat: the ice.
The food chain that leads to polar bears starts with phytoplankton, tiny, free-floating, plant-like organisms that live in water and in the ice. In the spring, the seasonal sea ice break-up triggers a phytoplankton bloom, and light green shelves of it swirl into the Arctic Ocean, signaling that winter’s cold grip is fading, at least for a while.
In recent years, however, these blooms have been showing up in places where they haven’t been seen before. In 2011, scientists found whole swaths of the Arctic teeming with phytoplankton blooms.
What’s happening, says physicist Cecilia Bitz, is that old, thick sea ice is being thinned by the warmer ocean temperatures. That allows more sunlight to permeate the ice surface, stimulating the phytoplankton to grow within the ice. Because the blooms are much darker than ice or snow and absorb more energy from the sun, they trigger further melting.
In the southern parts of the Arctic, where these blooms have always been part of the ecosystem, the spring melting is happening earlier. That can trigger an earlier bloom, which in turn sets off ripples that affect zooplankton—miniscule, free-drifting organisms, like shrimp larvae or tiny marine bugs, that feed on the phytoplankton. That affects fish like capelin, a small fish from the smelt family that feeds on the zooplankton.
Historically, this has occurred in spring, when the capelin feast on the bloom along the shelf of the retreating ice. The plankton is high in fat, and the fish rely on it for the growth of their reproductive systems. As the ice melts earlier, however, the timing is being thrown off. The zooplankton isn’t getting to the phytoplankton on time, and the fish don’t have as much to eat.
A 2014 study in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS-One found that as ice retreats earlier, capelin numbers drop off. That leaves the species at the next level of the food chain—seals—with less access to one of their primary food sources.
There are many types of seals in the Arctic, but bears in the Davis Strait and the Torngats thrive on harp seals, whose scientific name reflects their reliance on ice: Pagophilus groenlandicus, meaning “ice-lover from Greenland.”
Each spring, harp seals follow the ice break-up south, to Labrador, Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where they haul out onto the ice and give birth to pups, which can’t yet swim. Polar bears flock to the seals’ whelping patches, because the pups make for high-calorie, easy-to-catch meals at a crucial time, when the bears need to put on weight before the ice-free months.
In some areas, however, the supply of seal pups is declining.
Garry Stenson, head of the marine mammal section at Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, has studied harp seals for decades and oversees a pup population survey every few years. He has found that pup survival declines drastically in low sea ice years. In 2011, 70 percent of the harp seals born in the northwest Atlantic did not survive. The lower numbers are attributed in part to higher rates of miscarriages, called “late-term abortions” for seals. A 2013 study connected the miscarriages to lower biomass among capelin in years with less sea ice.
“These ecosystem changes are predicted to continue,” Stenson wrote in a 2014 assessment of northwest Atlantic harp seals. “Therefore, it is likely that reproductive rates will remain low.”
The world’s harp seal population is so abundant that it can bounce back between low-ice years. But that doesn’t necessarily help polar bears. For the bears, the relationship between seal pup survival and sea ice levels means that in low sea ice years, the bears don’t just lose access to their food—they lose the supply as well.
The Sierra Club hikers planned to spend two nights near Nachvak Fjord, so they’d have a full day to explore the area. On that first night, they clustered behind the electric fence in the cooking area and prepared cream of potato soup and pesto pasta for dinner. Gross and Chase’s trips are known for good food, thanks to Chase’s expertise as a camping chef and her arsenal of delicious, easy-to-prepare recipes.
While they worked, they watched lemmings weave in and out of tall grasses nearby. Wolves occasionally wandered into view.
Other than Isenberg and Dyer, they had all traveled with Chase and Gross before. As they cooked, the old friends told the story of how Chase had earned the nickname “Wolf Woman” on a 2005 expedition to the Yukon.
One afternoon she was walking through a meadow when she saw a pair of eyes approaching her from a pass. Another set of eyes appeared, and then another, until six sandy-colored wolves were staring down the human in front of them. For a moment Chase froze, locked in a staring contest with a seventh wolf, which had a gray coat and the biggest blue eyes she’d ever seen.
She yelled for help. But “instead of coming to her aid, we grabbed our cameras and started taking pictures!” Frankel recalled.
The wolves continued toward Chase, who raised her arms and yelled at them. They parted, ran around her, and continued on their way, leaving Chase behind, stunned by the event.
The group on that earlier trip had encountered more than a dozen grizzly bears. Once, when they stumbled upon a mother grizzly and her cub, the mother bear reared up on her hind legs. The hikers clustered together, raised their arms and started shouting. A few moments later, the bear dropped to all fours and walked away, growling, with her cub.
That night in the Torngats, dessert was blueberry cheesecake. Then the cleanup crew took over, washing their dishes in water from a nearby stream that they heated on their camping stoves.
In small groups, they left the cooking area and headed back to their tents, announcing each time the fences were turned on or off. Rodman, who is tall and lean, could step easily over the fence. For the shorter people, like Frankel, the risk of being zapped wasn’t worth it, so they switched the fence off to get in or out.
That evening, Rodman called his wife back home in New York City on the satellite phone he carried whenever he traveled to remote areas. The scenery was “absolutely extraordinary,” he said.
The sun sets late during the summer in the Arctic. When the sky finally darkened at about 10:30 p.m., they retired to their tents and settled down, the quiet punctuated only by the steady lapping of water onto the shore of the fjord.
At about 4 a.m., Castañeda-Mendez woke up to go pee. Trying not to disturb his wife, he slipped out of his sleeping bag and unzipped the door of their tent. When he stepped outside, he saw that he wasn’t alone.
“Hey!” he called out. “Polar bear on the beach!”
A mother and her cub were walking along the shore in the early morning light. The mother bear’s snout was raised in the air, sniffing out her neighbors.
Chase joined her husband while Dyer and the others grabbed their cameras. Here they were, just shouting distance from some of the world’s most violent predators, yet the scene was overwhelmingly peaceful. Dyer was on the verge of tears as he watched the bears walk along the shore, the cub close on its mother’s heels.
Safe in the confines of their electric fence, the hikers felt a quiet connection with animals they all knew would, in some circumstances, see them as prey. That reality, though, felt very far away. There’s something about seeing an animal with its offspring that made it almost impossible not to anthropomorphize and feel like, Here’s a parent, not so different from me or my parents, taking care of its young and teaching it how to survive. It was a powerful feeling.
They were in awe of their good fortune. They hadn’t even been there a full day, and already they’d had a National Geographic moment.
For mother polar bears across the Arctic range, the summer of 2013 brought particular hardships.
Although polar bears don’t normally hibernate, pregnant bears spend the winter in dens, rather than out on the ice, hunting. That means that in the spring and early summer before they enter the dens, they need to gain as much weight as possible.
But when the ice broke up early in 2012, the spring hunting season was cut short. Pregnant bears had less time to store up calories. When they emerged from their dens with their cubs in the spring of 2013, the last time they’d been able to hunt was in 2012—the historic low point for sea ice in the Arctic.
Studies of the western Hudson Bay polar bears have shown a direct link between the timing of sea ice break-up and the survival rates of newborn cubs. The link extends to dependent sub-adult polar bears, who nurse for about two years, until they are roughly the same size as their mothers.
“Pregnant or lactating females and their dependent offspring have the most tenuous future as global warming occurs,” biologist Charles Robbins wrote in one study, published in the Journal of Mammalogy in 2012.
Elizabeth Peacock, a biologist working with the Government of Nunavut and the U.S. Geological Survey, flew around the Davis Strait in helicopters from 2005 to 2007, locating polar bears and darting them with tranquilizers to measure their vital statistics. The first bear she tranquilized was in the Torngat Mountains, not far from Nachvak Fjord.
In the winter of 2013, Peacock’s analysis of her data, along with 35 years of capture and harvest data from the region, was published in the Journal of Wildlife Management.
Her first finding was, on its face, good news for polar bears in the area: population numbers in the Davis Strait were strong. With more than 2,100 bears, the Davis Strait boasted about 10 percent of the estimated 20,000 bears worldwide. That was in sharp contrast to bear populations in the southern Beaufort Sea and the western Hudson Bay, which are declining.
The density of polar bears in the Davis Strait was also far higher than in other areas with seasonal sea ice. In other regions, you could expect to find an average of 3.5 bears in an area of 386 square miles. In the Davis Strait, that number was 5.1.
One reason for the strong population numbers, Peacock hypothesized, could be the large number of harp seals in the region.
But Peacock’s other findings raised questions about the population’s long-term stability.
The litter size for newborn cubs, called “Cubs of the Year,” was lower in the Davis Strait than in any other subpopulation. “Cub recruitment,” or the survival of cubs into adulthood, was also declining. So was the general body condition of the bears.
“Declines in body condition, reproduction and recruitment are likely to precede declines in survival in a long-lived species, including polar bears,” Peacock wrote.
Peacock didn’t point to a direct cause for the bears’ declining health. But she offered two possible causes: population density, which leads to increased competition for food, or a loss of habitat.
Essentially, Peacock found that while there’s an abundance of polar bears in the Davis Strait, there isn’t enough of their natural habitat—sea ice—to support them. The impact of that stark fact is reflected in the bears’ reproductive systems and general health. In a year with low sea ice levels, that could add up to lots of hungry bears.
On Monday, July 22, after a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, the hikers packed up their daypacks and headed east to explore the area around the fjord. Gross stuck one of the flare guns in his backpack. Chase carried the other.
The weather felt unpredictable, with heavy clouds settling in over the fjord and wind and rain beginning to whip through their campsite. Everyone bundled up. Frankel wore polypropylene long underwear, a fleece vest, a down sweater, a raincoat, a wind jacket, two pairs of pants, a hat and gloves.
The Torngat Mountains are technically sub-Arctic, but they lie along the 58th parallel, putting them above the tree line and within the Arctic eco-region. The group hiked through scrub willows and grassy hills and along the ledges above the campsite. The rain turned to a cool mist then gradually cleared, revealing blue skies and spectacular views of the Labrador Sea.
As usual, Castañeda-Mendez took the lead. He relished the moments alone and allowed some distance to grow between himself and the group. Gross, Rodman and Isenberg typically stayed in the middle of the pack, while Dyer, Chase and Frankel brought up the rear. They bantered while they walked. Occasionally, Gross called out to Castañeda-Mendez. Slow down, wait up. It was important that no one got too far from the group.
As they made their way, they found black bear scat, caribou antlers and what appeared to be a wolf skull—everyday detritus from the park’s regular residents. Dyer tucked a tooth from the skull into his pocket.
After a quick lunch of beef jerky and bagels with peanut butter, honey and Nutella, they turned back. At about 3:30 p.m. they reached a wide stream near their campsite. They sat on rocks and changed to waterproof boots or left their feet bare. The water was shallow, clear and shockingly cold. For feet that had been banging around in hiking boots all day, the cool stream offered quick relief, even through rubber boots.
Castañeda-Mendez was walking barefoot, halfway across the stream, when Dyer saw something lumbering toward them.
“Polar bear!” Dyer shouted.
“Get back here! Get back here!” Chase yelled at her husband. “We have a bear!”
The animal was about 150 yards away and walking toward them. Castañeda-Mendez tromped back through the water and the group clustered together on the side of the stream, following the protocol Lagacé had rehearsed with them before they left Barnoin River Camp: Stand together. Make yourself seem big. Make loud noises, especially metal on metal, like the banging of poles.
The bear was larger and had a fuller coat than the female they had seen that morning. Slowly it walked toward them, nose in the air and tongue sticking out, apparently trying to assess the two-legged creatures it had stumbled upon.
Despite the group’s banging and shouting, the bear kept coming. While Castañeda-Mendez fired away with his camera, Gross pulled out his flare gun.
“I’m gonna shoot,” he told Chase when the bear was within 50 yards.
“I think that’s a good idea,” she said calmly.
The flare shot forward with a flash of light, but the bear kept advancing. It wasn’t until the shell landed in front of the animal, causing a second burst, that the bear turned and took off in a dead run.
The group cheered, clapped and banged their poles together, celebrating their victory. It was like scoring a touchdown at a football game.
But the bear didn’t go far. It settled on a ledge about 300 yards from their camp and lay there quietly, watching them.
By the time they reached the safety of their fence, the rain was coming down hard. Most of the group settled into their tents for a nap before dinner. But Dyer was uneasy. He couldn’t relax with the bear so close.
Dyer stationed himself outside his tent, leaning on his poles and staring down the bear as it watched them. Castañeda-Mendez said he looked like one of the guards at Buckingham Palace. Dyer stood watching the bear for more than an hour, drenched under the dreary gray sky as the afternoon waned.
Finally, the bear and the rain wore him down. Gross and Isenberg were watching the bear from inside their tents, so Dyer retired to his tent, too. He opened “Leaves of Grass”—the only book he’d brought with him—but soon fell asleep.
Next: Chapter 5
Go back to Chapter 3 | Meltdown Homepage