Polar Bears International

3/11/2014 2:20:28 PM

Frozen Fingers and Polar Bear Dens

When I write about the experiences I have on Alaska's North Slope doing polar bear research, I find that I write about the cold a lot. That's mostly because the cold just about consumes your every thought when you are outside in the Arctic. We were out for the better part of the day yesterday, and the windchill was -60, so I thought about the cold quite a bit.

BJ Kirschhoffer and I took an 80-mile drive on gravel and ice roads, and then a two-hour snowmobile ride into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to place a camera on a maternal polar bear den. When you are searching for a radio-collared bear like we were yesterday, you get to do a fair amount of fiddling around with electronic equipment, and in conditions like we experienced, your fingers bear the brunt of that work. Nimble and well-trained digits start feeling like a clump of frozen hot dogs. Luckily, the suffering we did in the cold was well worth the sense of adventure that comes from the chance to monitor a den in such a remote and pristine location.

Radio telemetry is a funny thing when you are searching for a large apex predator. Polar bears would have no problem making a light snack out of a 145-pound scientist who has no hide, claws, or tusks. When working out there, we're vulnerable, pink-skinned morsels who rely on an antenna and a receiver to bring us closer and closer to a mama bear that has been fasting for months. It's hard to wrap your head around the fact that at the end of the radio's "beep, beep, beep" is an animal that has been feared and respected for millennia. It's a sobering position to be in. But there we were, purposely doing the exact opposite of what thousands and thousands of seals are doing on a daily basis. I truly love my job!

Taking snowmobiles into the ANWR is a highlight of the several years of field study that I've done on the North Slope. When you are so isolated from the comforts and safeguards that most of us have become accustomed to, you often feel a sense of connection with your environment that can be difficult to perceive otherwise. These kinds of experiences help me nurture a part of the human spirit that sometimes can feel very suppressed in a modern world. Whether it is a simple day hike in my native Montana or searching for polar bears on a snowmobile in the Arctic, experiences in the wilderness have done a lot to shape my thoughts and ideas. I'm lucky enough to have a job where I can spend time working with an animal that is completely dependent on a wild and pristine environment.

Today a good friend sent me a quote that got me thinking even more about the study we are doing here:

"In wildness is the preservation of the world." -Henry David Thoreau.

A concerted effort to preserve wilderness is the only hope that polar bears and other creatures have for the future. In protecting their vital habitat, we can also safeguard the important connections that we have as humans to nature and to wild places. I hope that the research we gain from this project and other similar projects will aid in the preservation of one of my favorite species and an important wild place. I also hope the feeling will come back to my fingers. 

Read more about working on the North Slope and the maternal den studies.

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