Polar bears in Tasiilaq, Greenland


Nederlandse versie: IJsberen in Tasiilaq, Groenland

August 3 2014, near Tasiilaq, Ammassalik, East Greenland

This is a true story, unfortunately. During an hiking trip in Greenland, I have been attacked by polar bears (an adult polar bear with two cubs) near lake Qorlortoq Sø, north of Tasiilaq. The day after our escape another polar bear was seen in the Flower Valley near the edge of town.

The travel company had said that there are no polar bears: "if you want to see polar bears, you have booked the wrong trip, they are hundreds of kilometers further north near Ittoqqortoormiit. No, night guard duty and a rifle are not necessary" (for warning shots, unless that doesn't work), right...
On day 1 of the trip we are transferred by boat. During this crossing the boatman had shown images of a polar bear to our Dutch guide, the bear was floating on an ice shelf a few kilometers outside Tasiilaq, one week before our arrival. In 2013 a local newspaper reported the same scenario. Our guide however didn't say anything to us, even during the trip he repeatedly told us: there are no polar bears here.

In recent years there has been an increase in polar bear sightings in summer around Tasiilaq and Ammassalik. The local police advises to carry a rifle. Greenland Nature Institute is researching polar bears in this part of Greenland, they also spot them in summer and they always go out armed. Local, Italian and German tour operators do the same. But my travel company hadn't gathered any information and didn't know anything.
The tourist office in Tasiilaq (eastgreenland.com) indicates that, although there have been more polar bear sightings than usual around Tasiilaq in 2014, they do not issue a warning. They want to base their guidelines on "more than one year incidents" because they consider the obligation to carry a gun "invasive in the freedom".

Let my story (see below) be a warning to anyone traveling to this area: carry a weapon for protection and stay alert.

My story

My heart is pounding as I look back to our camp. 'No, not possible', echoes through my mind. In the distance I see three white dots scurrying between our tents. What do you mean, no polar bears in this area! I can see them! Cursing and trembling, I sit down. The sun disappears behind some clouds and I'm shivering in my thin shirt. The initial adrenaline slowly ebbs away. Next to me, the German guy is looking for a satellite phone in his backpack.

S. slowly loses her patience with the two Germans, father and son. The son has finally got the satellite phone to work. Softly and almost timidly, he says: "Hello? Can you hear me? There are polar bears in the camp. Eh, what do we need to do?" "Give me that phone!", S. almost snatches the phone out of his hands. "Hello, we have been attacked by POLAR BEARS, they are in the camp, we need rescue, a helicopter, NOW!" [..] "No, not in twenty minutes, right now!" [..] "Okay.." They will call us back in ten minutes. But after five minutes we call again and pass on our exact coordinates. Please hurry..

I look back at our camp in the distance. The three dots are finished eating near the first tent and now loot the rest of the camp. How much food did we take with us? And what will the polar bears do once they are finished eating? They know which way we went, they can undoubtedly smell us and we have nowhere to go. "Where do we go when they come for us?" The nearest village is Tasiilaq, a few hours walking, but the polar bears are still in the camp, in between us and the village. I look to the other side, on the left a steep mountain hill, on the right a dark blue lake. The lake is no option. Polar bears are one of the best swimmers, but us people will immediately get hypothermia in the cold glacier water. Alongside the lake? The waterfront is littered with loose rocks and bushes. Bears run faster than we can and for them this is easy terrain. Up the mountain? The flank becomes more and more vertical, with debris and rocks at the bottom. I daren't think about whether polar bears are also good climbers.. But it's our only escape route. Plan B is made.

I feel like I'm in a bad movie, with me as protagonist. I shake my head, holy f.., this cannot be true. I feel my heart beating in my throat. Minutes ago we were lying in the sun next to the lake, reading a book! "Who wants to hike Vegas Fjeld today?" our guide had asked only one hour ago. Half our group joins the hike, me and two other women stay behind and look forward to a relaxing day in the camp. Well, why not, after two weeks of hiking in the wilderness of Greenland with a well-filled backpack of approx. 23 kg, wading glacial rivers and getting stiff knees. I'm on holiday. The sun is shining and the lake looks tempting. Aside from the annoying mosquitoes this truly is a beautiful place. "You guys take the satellite phone, nothing can happen to us, we're only staying in the camp." We wave goodbye to the rest of our group, while they toil up the slope.

"Are you hungry yet?" I ask D. and S. while chewing on a Snickers. "First a swim and then an early lunch?" I grab my quick-drying towel and walk to the waterfront on my Teva sandals. I quickly undress and get into the water. Brrrr, my toes are freezing while I throw some water left and right and lather myself in bio-soap. It certainly is refreshing! After all three of us have bathed, we make lunch preparations. Today's menu is WASA crackers, Bever Hartkeks, jam, peanut butter and pate. D. quickly washes a t-shirt. I put sunscreen on and mosquito repellent. Finally: sunglasses, my book, lying down, relaxing. S. lies next to me with her eyes closed. Then I hear something, D. is shouting. I can't hear what she is saying. I lift up my head and lean on my elbows hoping to hear her better. D. comes closer: "polar bear, POLAR BEAR!!" At first I think she must be joking, pointing out a rock with the shape of a polar bear, like that 'cow' in the river earlier this trip. Because, surely, there are no polar bears in this area.

Two black eyes, no six black eyes, rushing towards me. Not more than ten meters away, in full-attack. Snorting and grunting they are coming in my direction. I see the huge paws hitting the stones as if in slow-motion. The adult polar bear and two oversized cubs are charging me. There is no time to think. "POLAR BEAR" I shout and S. startles. We jump up and flee. Panicked, we run alongside the lake. I throw my book away, as if less grams will make me run faster. I look back, "they're coming after us!" My Teva sandals get a grip on the loose boulders. I can't see where I'm going, I run, it doesn't matter in what direction, as long as it's away from here. Where should I go, I cannot escape, they are much faster, I am going to die. We run through the water. Jump over rocks. I look back again. I need to know where the polar bears are! I watch the mother bear dropping on her front paws and turning back. The two little ones follow her lead and scurry through the lunch. "They give up, they're turning around!" I'm still alive, I'm still alive!

We keep on running. There, on the far side of the lake, we had noticed a tent that morning. A tent means people, and help! The distance we had hiked in fifteen minutes that morning, we now cover in a few minutes. Who says we are lazy today? I can still hear the guide's words. "There they are!" Flailing, we run towards the two unsuspecting hikers. They've put down their backpacks and surprised they watch the three shouting women approach. "Help us! Polar bears!" The two men look at each other and us: three panicking women, alone in the Greenland wilderness, no backpacks, dressed in an undershirt and one of them is only wearing a bra.. They are from Germany, father and son. "Haben Sie ein Satellitentelefon oder gewehr?" asks S. The father starts rummaging through his backpack. Panting, we come to a halt. I look back at the camp and see three white dots scurrying in between the tents.

I look back at the camp and see three white dots scurrying in between the tents.

"Your tent, it's been crushed!" says D. next to me. She zooms in with her camera. "Really, it's gone." I stare at the spot where my tent was standing just a minute ago. It now looked like a pathetic heap of green canvas with three polar bears on top. I'd left the WASA crackers in my tent. One cub sticks his head inside my bag, undoubtedly lured by the smell of raisins and chocolate.

"What time is it, have 10 minutes gone by yet?" "No idea, let's just call again." We redial the emergency number. "Yeah, hi, this is the polar bear group, we need rescue, a helicopter, can you please help us?" Okay, they're coming asap, they reassure us. How much time has already passed? Where's the rest of our group and did they notice anything? A deep rumbling sound swells. A red dot appears on the other side of the lake above the mountaintop, the helicopter! I dare not jump up or wave, afraid to attract the polar bear's attention. If only I wore a brightly colored shirt. The chop-chop-chopping is getting nearer. I hope that noise doesn't chase the polar bears in our direction! Fortunately the polar bears don't even look up. The helicopter flies along the other side of the lake before it disappears from view behind the next mountain ridge. "No! They're flying to the wrong lake! Call them back!" Between hope and fear we wait, gazing at the spot where our hope has disappeared.

It takes forever before the crescendo echo of the chopping reaches my ears again. Behind the window of the helicopter, we see the men sitting. They fly low over our camp. The polar bears startle and flee, the helicopter in pursuit. Five or six heavily armed men exit the helicopter. Like a well-trained SWAT team, they fan out, rifles ready. I could really hug those men, I am so glad they are here. And that's exactly what I do as soon as we are back in the camp.

The polar bears startle and flee, the helicopter in pursuit.

The devastation is huge. Clothing, gear and food are scattered everywhere. My tent is completely ruined, the poles are broken like skewers and the fabric is torn. The remains of the crumbled crackers lie next to the pile. The Hartkeks have been carefully fetched from a pocket and devoured. However the salmiak sweets are still there. "Look," I say to S. while showing her my hydration pack. The nozzle is bitten off and the water is spraying in multiple streams down the pack. S. shows a sunscreen cap with drool, also eaten by polar bears. I stuff my gear randomly in a bag. With two armed men on the lookout I feel a lot safer. The German guys help us pack. Bags and sacks are stowed behind a net. I've always wanted to fly in a helicopter, but not like this..

"Normally, polar bears don't attack humans", says the startled hotel manager. I almost get angry, "well, they attacked us!" "However", he continues, "they are potentially dangerous when you are lying on the ground, then they might think you're a seal." "We were lying on the ground!" "But even then, only if they have cubs, they become really aggressive." "The polar bear had two cubs!" S. and I shout simultaneously. He turns pale. When he also finds out that we did not carry a weapon, because 'they are no polar bears in this area', he makes a desperate gesture.

Back in the hotel I feel a little bit safer. Many thanks to Robert Peroni and the two German hikers, whose names I unfortunately don't know.

© MS 2014 / 2015

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