Northern Journal, Canada, Day 2: “Dancing Bear Waltzes to a Tune Only He Knows”

Rareș Beșliu, a photographer in love with nature and animal life, starts the photographic project North of words, a parallel between the Arctic regions and the impact of climate change felt in Romania. He went on a series of expeditions to the coldest areas of the Planet – Svalbard, Greenland, the Canadian Arctic Archipelago – and his stories and photos, collected under the Jurnal de Nord hat, will be constantly published on and in ” Weekend Truth”.

Dancing with the polar bear. PHOTO: Rareș Beșliu

Day 2, December 4

It wasn't even 7am when I slipped out of my polar bear patterned bedclothes (obviously) and tried as much as possible to keep my eyes open at the meal prepared by our host.

At 8 o'clock sharp I set off, after a hearty portion of omelette with bacon. It was still dark when we got into the tall car, ready to scale the snow mountains and the unseen roads hidden in the slush. From the house, I made two trips with the equipment to the car. I don't think it was more than 20 steps back and forth, in all, but it was enough time to freeze my bones, and my thoughts, and my senses.

By the time I warmed up, I was almost praying we wouldn't see an animal soon so I could sit in the comfort of the car a little longer. Be careful what you wish for, it might happen to you… After a few hours, I already knew the main road by heart and all the roads to the bay, along and across it. Our eyes were almost glued to the window, desperately searching for any form of life. Without success. I haven't even seen seagulls, although they have accompanied me on all my expeditions so far, even to the top of the world, at the North Pole. And as I still wanted to stay in the warmth of the car, we got stuck on a path with snow up to our knees. Here the roads are made by rangers or bear hunters like us, so you have to risk and drive into the mud to make your way for the rest of the days. I think events like this are the order of the day, because the driver in the other van was prepared with everything and got us out of the mess right away.

Photographer on duty.

Photographer on duty.

The first stop was around 10, near a frozen lake, where we saw bear tracks. I counted 25 steps, then lost them in the blizzard. Where did everyone go right now? This is one of the most active periods, as well as the last week when tourists come here. In a few days, only the memory of the bears will remain at Churchill.

At lunch, we took a coffee break at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, where there is also the only toilet on the route. I understand that we will stop here every day for a few minutes. Otherwise, we will be in a continuous search. It's a place I want to explore more before I leave and enjoy all the information that a research center studying climate change, polar bears, arctic birds and the northern lights can give me.

The first bear seen today was a sleeping one, somewhere on some rocks in the distance. I waited for him for about 30 minutes, but he didn't even turn around. We got into the car resigned and happy with the warm, conditioned air. I know I can handle the cold here, and when I can't take it anymore, I can always get in the car. I'm not allowed to go more than a few meters away from her because I risk bumping into Fram. But I'm thinking with horror what I'll do in Svalbard, in March, when the temperatures will be even lower, and I won't have the comfort of the car, but will feel the wind directly in front of me, from the snowmobile.

Prison of polar bears.  PHOTO: Rareș Beșliu

Prison of polar bears. PHOTO: Rareș Beșliu

My dark thoughts are over once our guide starts telling us about the polar bear prison. I thought he was joking or exaggerating, until I saw the other colleagues agreeing with him and filling in the information. Then we pass it and I realize it's real. I understand that there are currently 4 bears locked up – they disobeyed the authorities, got too close (or too often) to town, so they were sent to correctional facilities until the bay freezes and they will be released. The Polar Bear Holding Facility is called the prison and has 28 cells, some individual, some for mothers and their cubs. While they are here, the bears get no food, only water, snow and air conditioning when it's hot outside. They must understand that it is a punishment, and the lack of food does not affect them much (they go without food for months anyway, but it is important not to associate food with the presence of people).

It's unreal to me what these people do for bears – everything so they don't have to kill them. They have understood for years how important the role of animals is in the life of the community, so all their efforts are directed towards protecting them. They learned to live together and understood that they live off of them, thanks to tourism and those who come to see them year after year, so they don't give up even when it comes to spending tens of thousands of euros to keep a bear in prison. I know it's worth it, I'm just in the polar bear capital of the world.

In the afternoon, on the same lake where the morning tracks were, I also saw their master: the dancing bear. He was gliding on the ice and you could swear he was waltzing to a tune only he knew. It was hard to follow him. Not only was he moving, but the wind was so strong that it was “flying” my lens like a feather. For the first time, I wished my Canon was heavier.

On the way back, I saw a black eye in the snow and I immediately realized that it was a “willow ptarmigan” (I don't know if it has a translation in Romanian). It's a kind of partridge, only it's white from head to toe, minus the beak and black eyes. I had known about her for a long time, since I had noticed her on Instagram, but I did not imagine that I would find her at Churchill from the first day. She sat motionless in the picture, as if sedated. It's just that he chose to roost like a hen right in the warm rays of the early sunset. And as much as I love photographing in the sunset light, I dreamed of finding her against a background as white as her feathers, without a hint of color or contrast.

Churchill partridge.  PHOTO: Rareș Beșliu

Churchill partridge. PHOTO: Rareș Beșliu

We let the bird camouflage undisturbed and ended our day at the restaurant, with a rather small portion of “arctic char” (a Nordic fish, which we also saw on most menus in Iceland).

At 8pm I went to bed, exhausted from the cold and the time difference. But I'm going to beat the Svalbard cold: I'm going to buy battery-powered gloves like Bill and Jerrilyn have.

There's a chance of an aurora tonight, and the problem is that I don't feel up to waking up. I chased her so long in Iceland without success that I ended up feeling duped by her. I'm afraid that I'm ruining my sleep (and such a fool), and she will make a figure and hide behind those “low clouds” through which the colors no longer pass. Or that it will be so faint that it can only be seen through a phone or camera, after a long exposure.