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Ice Ghost

Cover photo © Rickmcmillin | Dreamstime.com

I knew that polar bears tore apart cabins every winter, so the first crunch—the sound of a large animal stepping carefully in deep snow—stopped my breath. The second crunch tripped a dozen primal alarms, jolting me out of my sleeping bag to stand with the cocked twelve-gauge aimed at the door, the plywood cabin’s weakest point. A month before I couldn’t have found the gun’s safety switch, much less brandished the big Remington like Rambo, but when you go to Alaska, alone, in winter, you learn about guns. It was nearly 40 below, but I didn’t move for the next ten minutes as the crunches slowly circled the cabin. It knows I’m trapped. It’s patient. I have to do something. I have to act.

When I’d arrived in Barrow to begin my month-long winter expedition on the North Slope, everyone—from visiting sea-ice scientists to native hunters—had warned me about polar bears. And everyone had different advice: they hunt at night, they hunt in the day…they don’t go inland, they go inland all the time…you can deter them with a warning shot, no, they don’t care about guns, they just keep coming. The only consensus was that polar bears were smart—smarter than a lot of people.

One Inupiat hunter, Billy Leavitt, swept aside all speculation as we tore down an ice road in his battered pickup. The 60-below wind-chill roaring through his window cooled Billy nicely but just about froze me solid.

“Nanuq—the polar bear—does what it wants,” he explained, smiling as he spoke in the long vowels and soft consonants of Native American English. “You can’t predict it. Nanuq doesn’t speak. If it wants to eat you, it don’t matter ...