I remember the period in my biology career when my government bosses began to realize I was far more capable of telling stories with a camera than accumulating data and writing scientific papers. It was a shift in thinking I welcomed, having already realized that relatable, emotional, visual stories would help broaden the appeal of the science we were working so hard to produce. So it was that they invited me to join an expedition in the Canadian Arctic alongside Dr. Francois Messier. Our two-month task was to traverse many thousands of miles of sea ice and determine the feasibility of sedating polar bears by snowmobile versus the more invasive, traditional approach that required helicopters. We were fortunate to have the guidance of Inuit elders – without their wisdom, we would not have survived, let alone succeeded.
The first several weeks were relatively uneventful. Day and night blended into one as we tagged and photographed every bear encountered in our travels. My role was to gather imagery that would help hunters discern between males and females, as the knock-on effect of killing a single female polar bear was known to reduce the overall population by about thirty bears over the course of her breeding lifetime. Whenever we stopped to rest, -40º air burned our lungs as we endeavored to stay warm inside thin tents that provided only a scrap of relief from the biting cold and endless day. We occasionally endured windchill in the -50ºs when traveling by night, knowing that polar bears are more active during the colder evenings.
Then, one evening, we stumbled across two white wolves out on the sea ice in Eureka Sound near the northern end of Ellesmere Island. They stood, crouched over a bearded seal carcass that some polar bear had likely left behind after gorging itself to the limit. At that moment, I was sure a more perfect composition, mood, and moment had never existed – the sun hung low on the horizon, haloing the wolves in gold light and casting cold, blue shadows that danced across the sea ice as they feasted. Behind them, ancient and majestic Arctic fjords soared into the sky like the jagged skyscrapers of a forgotten civilization.
The wolves were utterly relaxed with us, even as we slowed to a halt only a hundred yards away. It was an incredible opportunity to capture what I knew would be the most beautiful and poetic images of my budding career. I reached for the 500mm lens buried in my bag and quickly mounted it on my tripod before framing up a shot. Just as I pulled the wolves into focus, there was a thundering crack, and the female fell to the ground. I snapped my head around to see our guide lowering his rifle.
My heart collapsed inside my chest as he approached her with his skinning knife, steam rising from her fresh wound. Overcome by sadness, I quietly struggled to come to terms with this way of life that had existed for over 20,000 years in the Canadian Arctic. Worse still was the discovery she had been carrying pups. I could not bear the distraught howls of the male, who had retreated farther onto the ice. "If you're going to kill the female, kill the male as well," I faltered. "No," he replied. "I only need one."
I had always felt conflicted about hunting, even when I had participated during my childhood and adolescence in the Arctic, but this was neither my community nor my place to judge. I remained sitting on the ice as he rolled up the pelt, placed it onto a sled, and sped away with the scientists in pursuit of the bears that had abandoned the seal carcass. As they vanished into the distance, I felt a sting from the tears that had frozen on my face.
For part two of this story, read An Education by Adrenaline.