A Polar Bear Plunge
Two lines kept playing through my head as I deflated my kayak.
“Bears seem to find inflatables interesting—perhaps they remind them of seals,” read a tidbit from our tattered guidebook of the Labrador coast. The other? “They can easily overtake a rowed inflatable. You would be very vulnerable in an inflatable.” The words now sent shivers down my back. I squeezed the air out of my kayak knowing just minutes earlier that task could have been performed in far more violent fashion by a 400-kilogram mammal.
My friend Eric and I were anchored in our sailing vessel off Hebron, a former Moravian mission and Inuit community. Little remained of the townsite except a large wooden church that popped out against the treeless landscape. Imported from Germany in 1831, it remained standing after the Moravians left and the federal government forcibly relocated the Inuit families living there to Nain, a town roughly 200 kilometres to the south, in 1959. The church is now designated a National Historic Site.
Buddy and Jenny Merkuratsuk were the site’s guardians. Joined by their sons, they spent the long sunny days enjoying cabin life beside the rocky shore and guiding a steady trickle of tourists on day tours from the nearby Torngat Mountains National Park basecamp through the church’s vast wooden halls. Eric and I visited with them the day before to see the church and we had invited them aboard our sailboat for coffee today.
Waking up that morning to the glassy sea I figured there was time for a paddle before they arrived. Slipping silently into my kayak’s cockpit, I pushed off from our sailboat and was soon gliding—as much as one can glide in an inflatable kayak—towards the far side of the bay. Our chart of the area showed some little islands in the next bay over and I paddled off in that direction. The morning was quiet. A warm and lazy breeze blew off the shore carrying whiffs of juniper, dwarf birch, and Labrador tea. Tidal currents pulled gently at the rockweed below me as I passed. Terns and gulls twisted and turned in the morning light as they hunted breakfast for their young.
As I neared the point to enter the next bay, my idyll was abruptly broken when I saw Eric waving at me to return to the boat. At the same time, an outboard roared to life near the shore. I paddled toward Eric to see what the fuss was all about.
“I thought it was a strange duck,” Eric said in a whisper, as he helped me climb aboard. “But then I looked closer,” he trailed off as he pointed at the polar bear swimming not ten feet away from our boat. We watched the young bear swim past our anchor chain and toward the promontory at the other end of the bay, pretty much the same place I’d been paddling 15 minutes earlier.
As I got my wits together, Buddy, Jenny, their sons, and their dogs were busy shepherding the bear away from their cabin with their aluminum skiff. Placing the boat between the bear and the cabin, they slowed down a few hundred metres from the bear and kept pace with it, gradually nudging it away. It also gave everyone in their boat an opportunity to get a good look at the visitor.
For its part, the bear looked straight ahead, seemingly unconcerned by the commotion it had caused. Reaching shore after a 20-minute swim, it climbed onto the beach and shook, sending an arc of golden water drops across the beach. It looked back only briefly at the pesky humans who’d been following its every movement and ambled off across the low ridge and out of sight.
The Merkuratsuks made a line for our sailboat. It was time for that cup of coffee.