Michael Engelhard: A Beast for the Ages

can spend much time in the North’s backcountry without ever bumping into some
of its more secretive denizens—lynx, wolves, or wolverines. I’d like to use
this opportunity to share my encounter with an Arctic critter I had never met
face-to-face until recently:
, the polar bear. It happened in 2010, on an 11-day rafting trip
on the Canning River (the western boundary of the Arctic National Wildlife
Refuge) that I was co-guiding for Alaska wilderness outfitter. The encounter
was not exactly face-to-face, rather binocular-to-face, but nevertheless,
life-changing. Here is what I wrote, to give you a taste of the experience:

coffee in the morning’s quiet, looking south from the top of the bluff where we
pitched our
tents, I notice a white lump on the bench below muscling
toward camp. I cannot believe my eyes. A polar bear! The clients pop from their
nylon cocoons when I alert them—one clad in boxer shorts and a down jacket. We
stand and watch the bear sniff and root around. To this carnivore, accustomed
to fatty seals and other marine mammals, the only morsels of interest here
would be ground squirrels, foxes, or birds—none of which could satisfy the
hunger of this blubber-burning powerhouse.


Without a care in the world, the bear lies down for a nap
halfway up the bluff’s slope. What is there to fear? We sit and keep our
binoculars trained on the pile that could easily be mistaken for a limestone
boulder. Occasionally, the bear lifts its head to sample the air. We crouch
downwind from it, and it remains unaware of our presence.
Before long, a Golden Eagle strokes past. Mobbed by some
songbirds but still regal in its bearing, it scrutinizes the bear, which sleeps
on, unconcerned. Then I catch another bright spot heading downstream. A scan
with my glasses reveals a white wolf. Indifferent to our attempts to make sense
of it all, the wolf approaches the sleeping bear. Casting sideways glances and
giving it a wide berth of respect, the wolf saunters over a ridge, out of sight
but already etched into memory.

Because the bear is not moving much and poses no immediate
threat, I have breakfast and break down my
tent. Then I act as lookout while the rest of the group takes
their turn and loads the rafts, shielded by the bluff and prevailing wind . . .

obviously came as a total surprise, and, at the time, was the southernmost
sighting of a polar bear inside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—almost 30
miles from the coast. It was only one of the many highlights on this trip,
which to this day stands out as one of the best ones I’ve been on. Everybody
was awe-struck, but for me the encounter sparked, what for lack of a better
term might be called an obsession with polar bears. (Ask my wife. She’ll tell
you how I can hardly talk about anything else these days.) I’ve been a bear
enthusiast for decades, but seeing this animal, “out of place” and without bars
between it and us, kicked my obsession up to a new level.

started to read up on polar bears and on 8,000 years of shared history between
them and us and was amazed by some of the things I learned: That Vikings traded
live cubs to European royalty. That Roald Amundsen tried to train polar bears
(with the help of a circus man) to pull sleds to the pole. That, on
hand-colored Renaissance maps, they sometimes are brown. That a long wooden
staff wielded effectively can deter nosy polar bears. (Don’t try this yourself,

was so intrigued and amazed by what I found, and much of the information was
sort of obscure, that I decided to write my own book with everything I ever
wanted to learn about the charismatic carnivore. Now, there are quite a few
books out there about polar bear biology and so on—but I wanted to know what
lay at the root of our fascination with this animal, how we relate to it.

making of this book, like many an Arctic trip, has been quite a journey. And
like all journeys, it needed some funding. It still does, as many of the
illustrations I hope to round up require licensing or processing fees that go
to museums or special collections libraries. So I began to crowd-fund the project, and you can find the link here. I hope that this animal and its home will affect
others as it has affected me and
the Great White Bear will continue to grace both, our internal and external
landscapes for thousands of years to come.

Michael Engelhard lives in Cordova, Alaska and works as a
wilderness guide in the Arctic. He has been obsessed with bears for decades
now, despite the fact that he almost got mauled by one last summer. He has
written several books and articles for numerous publications, and edited four
anthologies of nature writing. The canyon country of southern Utah and northern
Arizona is his other favorite region.

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