Tues July 20:
The sun plays cat and mouse on our tent all night: the progressive heating up and then cooling makes for uncomfortable sleeping. At 3am, we are outside the tent, taking photos of the sun hanging low on the horizon. Eventually we sleep, losing all track of time. Its noon when we finally roll out! Living like real northerners, we have tossed any time piece out the door.
We head in the direction of an unnamed tributary, hoping to follow it until we can link up with Truelove River again. Tracing a route uphill is more difficult than expected as the water flow is only a slight hint of a trickle, choked between the snow cover and thick mud. Flat rocks are mud covered and slippery, they sink under our weight. Level terrain should be easy walking but conditions slow us to a snails pace. I give up rock hopping, put on my waterproof overshoes, and make a beeline to the south-east.
Although my eyes are constantly on the ground, I’m not really looking. It a rude jab from my subconscious that suddenly alerts me to an odd footprint. Abruptly, I stop in my tracks and study the 2” deep and dinner plate size track. Alfred notices my concentration and silently we stand together, forming the same conclusion. Without a word, I start following the tracks, noting the large rear hind paw and the smaller forepaw with deep claw marks clearly outlined in the mud. For 15 minutes, my mind is stunned by the obvious, yet want to deny what we see. I say: ‘hey Alfred, wait just a minute’…and then we start to talk.
It’s a polar bear track. Its fresh enough to have crisp sharp edges, no debris yet blown in the hollowed shell of the track. The track I make beside it looks just fresh and ridiculously small in size. We discuss what to do – being armed with nothing more toxic than dried prunes, I feel naked as a sitting duck. With ample polar bear experience under our belts, we don’t like the odds. The decision is made to return back to camp and pick up the firearm. Wasting no time, we prepare ourselves for a long day and trek of some 20 to 23 kms.
My mind replays to the wee hours of that morning…it was wind calm and in my half sleep state, I felt the tent shudder. Thinking that it was Alfred perhaps knocking the tent with his arm, I pay no attention to it. Mentioning this to Alfred now, he said that he thought it was me who disturbed the tent. To a roaming bear, familiar with the unchanging landscape of the flat uplands, the sudden appearance of our tent last night would have certainly prompted some curiosity. It is not unknown for bears to test tents with their paw or nose, and for reasons known only to them, turn away only to unexpectedly reappear at a later time.
Deadly serious, we march at a blistering pace, even conserving energy from small talk. It’s all business now. With the advantage of first hand knowledge, we easily retrace our steps from yesterday, cutting off unnecessary side tracks and inefficient meanders. The large bowl where we lingered yesterday to film and photograph doesn’t warrant a second glance except to check and reconfirm direction. Lunch is a whistle stop, food and water simply fuel for the body to keep going.
Towards the late afternoon, my feet are starting to feel the effects. Yesterday I duct taped my toes, which blister predictably on every hiking trip, given their odd configuration. New hot spots are developing, inside my heels and on top my ankles – more tape is applied. Going down hill is especially hard and the next 3 km are all descent. Tired, a bit hungry, a bit thirsty, the packs feeling heavy, shoulder blades burning, the going is a slog with soft and wet ground, the physical stress mirrors the mental stress. Neither of us relish the thought of spending another night unprotected with the possibility of a wandering polar bear around.
The last few kilometers are deadly. We stagger into camp about 8pm, barely upright. With little appetite, all we can manage is a few hot cups of tea, soup and crackers. I pop a decongestant for my aching headcold, noting it’s the ‘nondrowsy’ formula. Nothing, however, can stop the Sandman from coming, I’m out before my head hits the ground.