Eli Merkuratsuk looks out over Nachvak Fjord. Credit: Sabrina Shankman

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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. 

Next: Chapter 1