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How I stumbled across my first 'wild' polar bear Add to ...

To celebrate Parks Canada’s 100th anniversary, we asked for your stories and photos. Reader Katherine Suboch writes:

Torngat Mountains National Park is one of the most spectacular wilderness areas in Canada.

Located at the northernmost tip of Labrador, facing Greenland to the east and Baffin Island to the north and sharing an inland boundary with Quebec, it’s a sublime mix of landscape, human history and wildlife. I first visited the Torngats before its designation in 2008, and have been drawn back again and again for weeks of hiking, photography and exploration.

However, a wildlife encounter on my first trip was especially memorable. This is the story:

“Look down,” whispers Fred, my normally mellow hiking partner, his voice hoarse with excitement. We had scrambled up a small rock knoll to scout potential landscape photos. Now crouched between large boulders, I look across the narrow Nachvak fjord where steep scree slopes rise to a cloudless blue sky. It’s midafternoon on a hot, windless July day. Even the black flies seem stupefied by the heat, making only a half-hearted attempt to sneak down my shirt collar. All seems calm, except for Fred.

“There!” he frantically points. My eyes drift down to a small patch of green grass among jagged rock. Simultaneously my heart skips, stops and rapidly accelerates. I am looking at a mountain of white, a huge polar bear, flaked out for a nap. His eyes are closed, his massive head rests on top of neatly folded huge furry paws. But his ears, like little radar dishes, twitch, ever listening. We are close enough that I can see his bulk rising and falling with each long leisurely breath. Transfixed, I hardly dare breathe.

Suddenly, a violent snort – and those black licorice nostrils flare. Startled, I jump back, dislodging a tiny pebble. “SSSSHHHHH!”

But it’s too late – the bear sits up on his hind quarters, eyes wide open, head swivelling this way and that, nose reading any scent carried by the still air. I stand frozen and will myself to stone. Belatedly, I wonder, “If I can see him, can he see me?” Images of newspaper headlines flash through my brain: “Ontario hikers eaten by polar bear.” Time stretches to eternity, but only seconds have passed.

However, we are well hidden and have the advantage of surprise, having spotted the bear first. Will his nose be more sensitive than our eyes? We wait, barely daring to blink for fear the tiny movement will give us away. With a loud harrumph, the bear heaves onto his feet. Instead of charging up the rocks to pounce on us, the bear slowly stretches: first one front leg, then the other, just like a dog waking from a nap. With a single mighty shake, his shoulder muscles ripple his long fur, and he starts to move between the rocks.

We sink back down to our haunches, silent, absorbing what we have just observed. In such a tense moment, we neglected to pull out the cameras – the noise certainly would have given us away. Peeking up over the rock, I watch the polar bear as he lumbers away, clambering over huge boulders with ease before plunging into the water. A powerful swimmer, he leaves a distinct wake behind as he crosses to the other side of the fjord.

That was my first sighting of a wild polar bear. The year was 2000 – the fear, the awe, the wonder is just as fresh today.



For more photos of Ms. Suboch’s trip visit tgam.ca/torngat.



Share your pictures and stories about Canada’s national parks at tgam.ca/yourparks.

 

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