Fear and Polar Bears

I woke up to the sound of Tim’s hushed voice.

“Kory…did you hear that?”

My brain was sluggish and my vision blurry at 4am. I poked my head out of my sleeping bag — I hadn’t heard anything out of the ordinary, and indicated so with a mumble.

“I think I heard something brush against the tent.”
The roar of the waterfall below us masked any sounds we might have otherwise heard. The group of eight 16 and 17-year old guys we were leading were fast asleep in the tents around us. We were about 50km from Hudson Bay, on the North Knife River, in polar bear country.

“I think we should check it out”

My brain was slow to process what “checking it out” could entail.

I sat up in my sleeping bag to listen…It was dusk, just light enough to see in the tent. The dull roar of the river below the hill we had camped on set the tone of the morning.

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Dawn.

Okay, let’s check it out.

I pulled my shirt over my head, breathing in the smell of a few weeks worth of dirt and sweat, coming to my senses.

“Do you think we should bring the gun?”

Yeah.

Tim picked up the .12 gauge shotgun that was sitting at the foot of our tent.

I slowly unzipped the door of the tent and crawled over the gear in our vestibule to unzip the rest of our temporary home. Although there were a few hundred mosquitoes perched on the underside of our rain fly, only a few ventured into the cold morning air.
Churchill, Manitoba is the polar bear capital of the world, and was the nearest town to us at this point on our 650 km paddling journey. Naturally, the bears come into the town in search of food during the summertime. Jack Batstone, the wildlife management official in the region and a veritable badass, is in charge of dealing with these “problem bears”. He tranquilizes the bears that enter the town and takes them a few miles outside of town to the “polar bear jail”. The bears don’t stay long before they are tranquilized again, and airlifted by helicopter to be returned to the wilderness. Jack usually drops them off around 50 km away from the Bay, somewhere near a place called Teepee Falls, or so I’d been told.

“Let’s check on the kitchen”

Our cluster of tents was set about 100 yards upstream of the river and on a hill away from where we stored our food for the night. We made our way quietly through the trees towards the river bank below Teepee Falls. The fog was dense enough to obscure our view of the river.

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TeePee Falls

We crept along the banks of the river towards the rock outcrop that housed our kitchen from the previous night. My heart rate was elevated, and my eyes darted with every sound from the woods. Tim had an iron grip on the .12 gauge as we approached the base of the falls.

The image of the 1500-lb polar bear we had seen swimming in the river the previous day kept flashing through my mind as we rounded the corner of a large rock outcrop. I felt as if I was in a heightened state of awareness, my ears sensitive to the softest sound, my eyes darting, searching for the smallest movements. This was fear. My brain had snapped out of the 4am fog and was running through worst-case scenarios left and right.

I could feel the cold morning dew against my legs as we brushed through the ferns to a knoll overlooking where we had cooked our last meal.

Tim and I each stood there in our boxer shorts and light jackets, cold and nervous, and looked down to see our gear exactly as we had left it the night before.

What the fuck, man. You’re just hearing things!

We had a laugh, although it was nervous laughter, and made our way back to the tents. Unable to go back to sleep, we woke up the guys and broke camp.

***

It’s nice to be writing about this experience from the safety of my home in Austin, 3 years later. Of course, it turns out that my home has its own dangers that come in the form of leaking gas fixtures that aren’t up to code. Maybe I could have died in my sleep from natural gas poisoning, but the universe loves me enough to have sent someone along to say “hey, you have a gas leak and that’s probably why you’ve had a headache for the past week, let’s fix that”. Thanks Miguel! Gotta love when you have someone come to fix your air conditioning only to discover a bigger problem!

We live in a society where fear is often an automatic response to trivial events in life. Most of these things, however, are intangible. Fear is what holds us back from approaching the opposite sex, or quitting a dead-end job to pursue what we really want to do with our lives. Why are we afraid of these events? Can they hurt us? Physically, they can’t. We often know that taking action would be good for us, yet we remain paralyzed by irrational fears.

I believe that this is one of the few times in my life that I have experienced fear that was at least somewhat rational.  In fact, I might argue that it was one of the only times I have experienced true fear as nature intended. Fear was designed by evolution to be useful to us. Animals respond based on fear when threatened by a predator: they take fear-based actions that give them a chance to avoid being eaten by the predator.

Polar bears are known to hunt humans. We had already seen 2 polar bears prior to that foggy morning on our canoe trip. There was a possibility for real danger there. But that’s just it, it was the fear of the unknown. That fear was further amplified by the dulling of the senses we experienced — the noise of the river, the fog. The same concept is what made the movie Jaws so successful: you didn’t actually get to see the shark until halfway through the film! Not to mention, my then-19-year-old brain came up with some crazy, man-eating polar bear scenarios to fuel the fear.

So, learn to recognize those events that conjure up irrational fear. When you’re thinking about doing something risky, ask yourself, what is really the worst that could happen? Most of the time it isn’t so bad. Most of the time, you won’t get eaten by a starving polar bear!

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