– March –
Crunch, crunch, crunch.
The heavy crust of the frozen surface of fresh snow crumbles and gives way as Pearl’s massive paws and her 180 pound frame leave deep tracks behind her. But as Pearl crunches through the snow, she’s not thinking of any of that. She’s thinking one thing: food.
Pearl stops and scans the icy terrain. Desolate. Jagged tips of snow and ice dot the barren landscape. The only sound, is the noise of crunching snow behind her…and an occasional grunt. Looking over her shoulder, her sister Sharp Eyes meanders towards her. She comes up to her shoulder, offers a grunt, and playfully pokes her nose into Pearl’s ribs, letting her know she’s getting a bit too lean.
Pearl and Sharp Eyes are three year old Canadian polar bear sows. Just teenagers in a polar bear’s lifespan. The females sustain themselves on the succulent fat and blubber of seals, whales, and other arctic animals that make this harsh climate their home. Unfortunately for the two sows, their thinning frames are a result of many unsuccessful hunts, and perhaps why they haven’t found a boar to mate with yet. Male boars can be nearly twice the size, and judging by the immense belly on the last male the two sisters encountered earlier this winter, he was much more skilled at catching food. Sharp Eyes had growled to her sister, he’s too chunky, and they both moved on from the potential mate. Sharp Eyes, perhaps has a reputation for being a bit too snobbish around the local boars. What they wouldn’t do for a tasty seal now.
In the arctic circle the oceans freeze into giant masses of ice and snow. And with these blocks of ice come seals. A polar bear’s favorite meal. Calorie dense with thick blubber, a polar bear can sustain itself for a week on just one. As the two sows standing on the edge of an ice peak, Sharp Eyes sees it first.
Jagged peaks and ice mounds cascade downward, sloping gradually into the ocean where several blocks of ice have cracked and broken apart and lay floating in the ocean. It gives the icebergs a wonderful deep blue color as they emerge from the water, gradually fading into a snowy white surface gleaming in the sunlight. And perched on that surface is a large seal, resting after a morning swim. It’s large body splayed across a particular ten foot block of sea ice. By all accounts, alone too. Ripe for the picking. Sharp Eyes always sees the seals first. Ever since the sows were little cubs.
Now it’s Pearl’s turn. While Sharp Eyes might be able to see things better, Pearl’s furry coat, seems to naturally stay a whiter and purer color, which is ideal for sneaking upon prey in a mostly white world. But she wasn’t in the right place. It would take her most of the afternoon to circle around the seal to get downwind. Finally, within striking distance, she dips into the icy water; her thick white coat matting down in the water to keep her insulated. She paddles slowly, cautiously. Her large, webbed paws churn underneath her, silently moving closer and closer. At last, Pearl is at the far edge of the block of sea ice. Her heart beats faster, as she flexes her jaw and the extends her toes in preparation for the attack. At the tips of her toes are thick, curved, non-retractable claws used for traction and to catch her prey.
The seal pokes it’s head up. It’s large black eyes begin scanning the blocks of ice. It can still smell the faint scent of Sharp Eyes off in the distance; no danger there. What it hasn’t detected is Pearl hovering in the water directly behind it. Several painstaking minutes click by, the seal still scanning, but it’s smooth body still reclined, splayed on the ice after a long swim.
In one giant push, Pearl’s front paws extend up, her claws grip hold of the ice like ice picks as she heaves herself up. The seal, completely startled, jolts up. Pearl is three feet away, within closing distance. But her left hind paw slips on the edge as she gets out of the water. She’s been weak with hunger and the slip delays her only a fraction of a second. But the hesitation to regain solid footing is costly. The seal steals that precious moment and darts forward toward the other edge of the ice, rolling and scooting toward the water and safety.
No! she thinks, lunging forward her hind paws dig into the ice, she makes a powerful leap at her prey. But that little slip is all the seal needs. It splashes into the water. In vain, Pearl continues to the chase, diving in only a moment after, trying desperately to catch something in her massive claws. A piece of flesh, something. But the black, icy water is the seal’s territory. Blindly batting her paws, the water swirls around her. She continues her dive, but the seal is now out of range. Pearl’s lungs tighten; she needs air. Dejected, she pops up out of the water, and lumbers back onto the same ice block that the seal once occupied.
Her fur hangs heavily at her side as the arctic water drips off. Catching her breath, she can’t seem to shake the empty feeling at pit of her stomach.
– June –
The past few months have not been kind to sisters. They’re now starving.
In the arctic, the ice melts earlier and earlier, and the summer months stay longer and longer. When the ice retreats, the two sows find themselves returning to familiar environments. Land where they grew up when they were both just bear cubs: Banks Island in the Canadian Arctic.
In the early nineteenth century, only a few brave souls would venture this far north to challenge the deadly arctic temperatures. One such adventurer was Sir William Edward Parry. Exploration was Parry’s profession; his great goal to travel to the North Pole. In 1820, while on one of his expeditions, he discovered a landmass amongst the frozen ice and snow. He would go on to name the large island Banks Island, for British naturalist, Joseph Banks. During the winter, it’s hard to call it much of an island as the Canadian archipelago freezes into one giant, frigid mass of ice. During the summer, the ice gives way to a treeless, rocky terrain. But this is not a desolate place. It teems with caribou, muskoxen, and of course, polar bears.
The older, wiser polar bears will not do much; operating in what is called walking hibernation. But if you’re like Pearl and Sharp Eyes, you’re foraging for food. By now, the ice has broken and melted into the Beaufort Sea to the west. So the sisters desperately push inland, the permafrost having retreated up the rocky landscape. And for the two sows, each step expends energy and burns valuable fuel.
Pearl splashes through a small depression with water. Walking along the northern part of the island, they are only 30 miles to the Thomsen River where they hope to find food. The Thomsen River starts 50 miles to the south, as several small streams and tributaries in Alukavin National Park. Then, it snakes it’s way northward down the mountains and emptying out into the M’Clure Strait and finally the Arctic Ocean.
Sharp Eyes is grunting louder and more often now. Her heavier breathing a sign of the exhaustion. Pearl is hungry too. They need something to eat. Days pass along their journey as they make their way along rocky and treeless hillsides, until finally the rippling sound of the Thomsen River could be heard. They had made it.
Approaching the riverbank, Pearl and Sharp Eyes make another discovery. Further downriver, where the rippling water widens into a wide shallow area, both sisters watch a familiar sight. It is a male polar bear splashing through the river and studying the flowing water. Although glad to see one of their kind, the boar is much larger, close to 300 pounds, almost twice the size and could probably become quite aggressive if agitated. Standing silently upstream, the sisters watch as the boar intently stares down between his feet, following the flashing and darting movement in the water. It is a school of arctic char, a type of salmon, that spawn in the waters here. Adult arctic char are almost 10-12 inches long, their grey scales speckled with white spots, which has caught the young boar’s eyes. He pounces again and again, missing the fish as they darted away, as his paws sink deep into the brackish riverbed. At that moment, his nose sends him a signal and he freezes to sniff the air, finally catching the scents of Pearl and Sharp Eyes.
Curious, the young male sits up on his haunches, lifting himself to an a impressive eight feet in the air, his dirty paws are brown and dripping from his fishing expedition. A fully grown adult, he’s still young, probably into his fourth winter.
Pearl can’t resist. She begins to slowly saunter her way toward Dirty Paws. Sharp Eyes reluctantly follows. Dirty Paws drops back down onto all fours and continues scanning the river for fish. In the several minutes it takes for the girls to close the gap as they cautiously approach; Dirty Paws splashes to a fro, stabbing with his claws, trying to get just one of the juicy fish.
At last! Success! Dirty Paws finally catches one, the arctic char thrashing about, blood seeping from it’s side. He then clamps his prize in his mouth and lumbers toward the edge of the riverbank where he can feast without it slipping away. As Dirty Paws digs into the scales and flesh of the char, Pearl is no more than ten feet away, Sharp Eyes not far behind. Pearl sniffs and offers a friendly grunt. Well, someone had to say something.
Dirty Paws looks up, a bit of scaly flesh and bone sticking out of his teeth. Pearl’s stomach lurches at the sight. She is so hungry. She takes a hesitant step toward Dirty Paws and his half eaten fish. Just then, Sharp Eyes lets out an angry growl and nips at Pearl’s neck.
Pearl growls back. He has food!?
We don’t know what he has. Sharp Eyes growls again, displaying her sharp teeth and circles in front of Pearl, getting between her and Dirty Paws. She turns toward Dirty Paws growls again, this time sending a warning to the dumbfounded boar. Peering around her sister, Pearl’s heart begins to sink as she sees Dirty Paws gather up his fish and begin to retreat, not wanting to get in between this family feud. By the time dusk comes, they could no longer smell Dirty Paws and they rest beside the river. Pearl sits, crouched on all fours, still steamed at her sister, grumbling every so often. She falls asleep to the familiar sight of Sharp Eyes, laying on her side, breathing heavily.
Nighttime in the arctic is beautiful. The stars wink into existence and spread across the dark sky. The aurora borealis, or northern lights, create a sort of a light show of greens and blues that dance and swirl brilliantly through the windswept landscape.
In the morning, Pearl wakes to the faint smell of muskoxen, an animal prevalent on Banks Island. With her eyes still closed, she’s imagining the feast a muskox would bring. While a typical muskox weighs on average 500 pounds and reach up to 8 feet long, much of the hairy beasts weight comes from it’s dense, thick fur and large dangerous horns that sprout from the top of it’s head and curl around to the front. Her stomach growls just think of it.
But just then she hears an unfamiliar sound. Lapping and slurping. So close to her head her ears perk up. In horror, her eyes fly open and her pupils dilate. It’s Sharp Eyes. She’s sitting on her hind quarters, leaning down over the shallow running water of the Thomsen River, lapping it up hungrily.
This is not good.
A polar bear’s body is tightly regulated and has adapted over centuries of evolution. Unlike other animals of more temperate regions, they are not required to drink water to survive. Their biosystems are able to pull enough water out of the food they eat. Sharp Eyes is so hungry that her last resort is drinking water. In the arctic, it is like a death sentence.
Pearl jolts up and growls angrily at her sister. Sharp Eyes stops, looks up at her younger sister, and holds her head in shame. She knows it too. They are both passed the point of starvation. The two sisters set off further east and turn south, inland, in search of the scent of the muskoxen. But in their weakened state the scent gets faint as the herd migrates faster then they can move. Throughout the day, the only trace of their existence are piles of dung left behind.
As night approaches again, still without food, Sharp Eyes looks worse then ever. Her ribs fully visible, her bony frame is all that’s left under the matted white fur. Pearl doesn’t look much better. The sky is not as clear as previous nights, perhaps a storm is rolling in. Within a few moments a fine powdery snow begins to fall. It’s a reminder that winter will return as well as the seals. If only they can hold out a little longer. On this night, Pearl can’t help but to dream of seals and the slippery feeling of their flesh rolling across her tongue and down her gullet.
In the morning, Pearl is the first to wake. The snow has fallen throughout the night, creating a white blanket across the land and the two sisters. She shakes off the snow and nudges Sharp Eyes, but she doesn’t move. Still covered in a fine layer of snow, Sharp Eyes lay motionless, her labored breathing has stopped. Pearl grunts and growls, pawing at her sister’s face. But Sharp Eyes still doesn’t move. Her once razor-sharp eyes just stare blankly back at her. Sharp Eye’s mouth hangs strangely open, exposing her white teeth and large tongue that has fallen limply out of the corner of her mouth. She wasn’t waking up.
Sharp Eyes is dead.
Pearl backs away, hesitates, and pushes on Sharp Eyes still body one more time. Her paws making tracks on her sister’s body in the fresh snow that accumulated from the night before. Finally, she turns away. Grief stricken, she has to move on. She must find food, or she will share the same fate.
By the afternoon she catches a strong scent of the muskoxen again, but by the time evening arrives, she is more exhausted and hungry, and the herd is nowhere to be found. However, her nose draws her to a large brown hump that looks out of place in the barren and flat landscape. It was a dead muskoxen, still warm, having only died recently. This muskoxen was lean and bony, and not the preferred food of polar bears. But it was life-sustaining, and that would be enough. Pearl didn’t even think twice as she sinks her teeth into the side of the beast, tearing it’s insulating fur and digging into it’s interior. A few spurts of blood hit Pearl along the bridge of her nose and eye. She blinks, but she doesn’t care. It was food. Hopefully it would be enough to satisfy her stomach and get her to winter.
– September –
The sea ice has begun to return; starting as small icebergs then growing larger. Soon the ocean will harden, and the massive chunks of ice will create a perfect haven for the returning seals to rest and relax. And then to be eaten. The seals have already arrived, barking and playing, new pups slithering on the ice and diving into the ocean.
Amidst a blustery snowfall, a solitary, gaunt-looking polar bear has been lumbering west, returning back along the Thomsen River and hugging the shoreline of the island toward the Beaufort Sea.
Pearl is still alive.
Having operated in survival mode for so long, her foraging along the shoreline has brought another stroke of luck. A dead beluga whale. Presumably beached after having been trapped in the shallows from the changing water levels, it has been dead and picked over for weeks. But Pearl greedily tears morsels of flesh that manage to cling to the carcass.
Polar bears are the apex predator of the arctic circle. The largest mammal in this region and of the entire Canadian Archipelago. But Pearl, near starvation for all of summer, has been reduced to the lowest animal on the food chain: a scavenger.
Next morning, Pearl catches a pungent scent that sends her in the direction of a large rocky outcropping along shoreline that juts into the ocean for several yards. She stops, heaves up onto her hind legs, and can’t believe her eyes.
An entire group of walruses have beached on the rocks, relaxing from an early morning swim and taking care of their young. Another stroke of good luck; she’s already downwind. If she enters the shallow water and approaches parallel to the shoreline, she’ll catch them by complete surprise.
Pearl slips into the chilly water and sinks in until only the white top of her head and back are visible as she begins to paddle toward the rocks jutting out of the surf. As she approaches, the group of walrus’s appear to have grown. She can see even more; first over two dozen, now clearly almost fifty walruses dot the coastline.
This is a dangerous gamble for Pearl. One walrus can weigh over a ton. Sticking out of their mouths like two sabers, are sharp tusks nearly 2 feet long. While one walrus may be no match for Pearl and her knife-like paws, a whole group, with large pointy tusks can be a powerful deterrent for any attacker. Any serious injury like a broken bone or being pierced from a walrus tusk can lead to infection and death. It is unwise. But Pearl must take the chance. She is hungry for the thousands of calories that a walrus’s blubber contains.
Closer and closer. Fifty yards away. Now twenty. She stops. Something has agitated the group. Several bark and growl a warning.
Pearl pauses. Who do they smell? Not me.
In an instant the large adult walruses began to circle their young, using their own bodies to create a thick brown wall of blubber and hide that even Pearl’s teeth and claws can’t penetrate. Slowly but deliberately, the herd begins moving toward Pearl’s right and a few splash into the safety of the water.
No! She thinks. Not now. Not when I’m so close. The dangers levels have increased now that the group of walruses are agitated and fleeing. How could I have startled them? Two more powerful pushes with her paws and she’s a mere ten yards away. Close enough now to see what the walruses are fleeing from. Above the rocky ridgeline another polar bear bounds into view, moving quickly down the slope. It’s head is nearly twice the size of Pearl’s. A male boar. The walrus’s are in full panic-mode, some staying to fight and slash at the polar bear with their tusks.
This was her chance. At last Pearl’s paws touch ground. Exhausted from her swim, she steals another look up the ridgeline at the other polar bear. It’s now firmly attached to the thick hide of a hapless walrus, but unable to pull it away from the group. It’s paws are stained brown.
It’s Dirty Paws!, she thinks. The same boar from the river all those months ago. Not only that, but the herd’s attention is so fixated on Dirty Paws, that Pearl managed to gain landfall without much detection. In fact, the herd is moving her way! Seeing a golden opportunity, Pearl plunges head long into the mess of walruses, knowing full well the risk she is taking.
Growls, barks, and yelps erupt from the walruses around her, sensing the new threat. It’s the sound of a young yelp that Pearl fixates on. In three steps she’s on top of a young walrus, sinking her teeth around it’s stunted neck. It yelps in pain.
Pain erupts down Pearl’s side as the mother walrus stabs at Pearl with her tusks, connecting with her ribs. She tumbles to her side, lets out a growl, and loses grip on her prey. The large mass of walruses splash through the shallow water leading to the open ocean and safety.
No, not again! Pearl hauls herself back up and sees the injured walrus pup rolling and scooting along the rocks, making a mad dash. The mother walrus makes another attack, tusks flashing white in front of her eyes, but Pearl avoids it. With a quick slash of her right paw she connects and cuts into flesh. The mother walrus is stunned, barking in pain. That gives Pearl the opening she needs. In an instant she bares down on the pup, and closes her mouth around the back of it’s neck.
With her powerful jaws, the pup goes limp and no longer yelps.
The mother walrus, sensing her loss, now retreats with the others into deeper water and the safety of numbers. Pearl hovers over the dead calf until all the danger subsides. She looks down. Blood begins to dribble out of the puncture wounds from her teeth, and pools around the calf’s lifeless body.
At long last…Pearl gets to eat. Nosily chewing the fat and blubber that will sustain her. Satisfied and exhausted, she looks up from her meal. The white silhouette of Dirty Paws looms along the ridgeline, looking curiously at her. The young boar has a kill as well. Bright red blood staining his snout and flecks of pink blood drip down to his soiled feet.
The sun will set soon and Pearl will no longer go to sleep with an empty stomach. She lumbers toward Dirty Paws. Surviving the last few weeks without Sharp Eyes has taken it’s toll. Her sister gone, she finds comfort in companionship, and perhaps it’s time for another partnership.
As Pearl comes snout to snout with Dirty Paws, she licks the pink blood from his face. Perhaps, Pearl will no longer have to roam the Canadian Arctic alone.
As a child, I once read an obscure book titled Raptor Red, about the life of a female Utahraptor living in the Mesozic period. No dialogue. Just a descriptive narrative and the occasional thoughts from her perspective. I thought that was a novel idea. Years later, I had a work colleague that had an absolute love of polar bears. On her desk, she had a little toy polar bear named Pearl. That was all the inspiration I needed to try to create my own survival story, told from a polar bear’s perspective.