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Saturday, 25 April 2020

I saw a polar bear....

It had been quite an eventful dog sled excursion out to the ice cave in the glacier in the far north island in Norway. We had been lucky enough to see the sky light up the valley with the northern lights, giving a break to the blackness of the polar night.
My youngest daughter and I were in the lead sled, thankfully driven by the guide.
Suddenly we slowed to a stop. The guide was muttering 'Oh no, oh no, oh no!'
His spotlight swung towards the dogs.
There before us, in the circle of light, pawing at the dogs, was a polar bear.
You could tell she was young but still the size of a cow.
The guide rushed forwards, putting his backpack with the rifle in it at my feet, and ran up to the bear, screaming and waving his arms.
The dogs were at this point jumping and lunging at the bear, who was swatting at them.
The guide rushed back and grabbed the brake rope.
The bear moved to the dogs directly in front of us, less than a metre away from my daughter and I, now trapped in the sled as my husband's sled had crashed into us and his dogs were entangled with us on either side of the sled.
The guide ran back to the bear and screamed, less than an arm's length from the bear, then swung the rope and hit it on the nose.
The bear moved away.

Somehow my husband's sled moved off and our guide raced back and we hurried that last 300 metres to safety.
We ran into the change shed and waited.
The two young children started crying 'from the cold'.
Everyone else kept laughing, a strange nervous reaction.

Eventually we were led up to debrief over brandy.
The governor's helicopter arrived to chase off the bear, a common occurrence in Svalbard.
Everyone rushed outside, including my young daughter. I stayed inside cuddling a husky pup and I'd really seen enough for one day. The thought of seeing the bear, even at such a safe distance scared me.

Here is the strange thing. How it happened in my mind as it was happening.

After the fact someone asked if we had stopped because of the bear or if we were stopped and the bear came over. I didn't know. I had to ask the others. In my head, we were stopped and suddenly the bear was there but I couldn't work out why we had stopped. (I realise now the guide had seen the bear and stopped so the other sleds could get past safely, except when the sled behind us crashed into us, no one else could get past).
When I first saw it, I thought 'That's a big dog patting the other dogs, I wonder where it came from?' and I wasn't scared at all. Then after quite a while, I realised it was a polar bear. Apparently my husband on his sled behind us said to my eldest 'Look, a polar bear!'. My brain heard those words and retranslated the image in my head. (In the debrief, this was explained that your mind flicks through what it knows and gives you the most likely thing, and for me, that would be a big white dog, not a polar bear, even though there is no dog that size).
The Blue light in the Polar Night. When it isn't just black.
I had read enough to know the protocol - when you see a polar bear, you load the gun, then fire a flare in the air to scare it, then fire the gun in the air to scare it and only if absolutely necessary, shoot the bear. So when the guide put the backpack with the gun in it at my feet, I looked at it and thought "What are you doing? Aren't you meant to load that?....Am I meant to load that? ' more curious and confused than panicked. (I am not brave, it's just what your brain does).
I also thought to myself quite calmly "People don't die like this in real life". It was a feeling of disbelief that I was going to die like this. Incredulity more than fear.
When the guide rushed back to get the rope, I quietly asked "What should we do?" and he said "Stay inside" and I thought, irritated "There is no inside! We're effectively sitting on the ground". I had asked what we should do in case I was meant to be loading the gun or running away. (You don't run away because it kicks in the bear's hunting instinct).

When the bear moved closer to the dogs next to us, I remember wondering what I was meant to do when it got to us.

My daughter then whispered "I'm scared" and I replied quietly but in a sing song tone "It's okay, we're just going to sit very quietly and be very still." At this point the dogs behind me crashed into us and I realised we couldn't actually move away anyway and I thought "I'm going to have to stand up and throw (my daughter) away (in the other direction) and jump into the bear". Even then it was sort of sad annoyance rather than terror.

When we all raced back and parked the sleds, I told my daughter to run with the others to the building and I yelled for my middle child who was the last to turn up with the second guide. I probably shrieked hysterically actually.  I almost burst into tears thinking he'd been attacked.  That was the moment that sheer terror kicked in. However, his sled sped in to a stop in front of me and I was flooded with relief.
In true Mum form, I made sure I scrambled behind him to the change room. Not bravery, just reflex. At that point I was really scared. Strangely when I was safer than I'd previously been.

Someone asked me how long the whole incident took. It seemed like a really long time while it happened but in reality, the most it could have been was a couple of minutes.

One very strange thing, as we drove there on the morning of the sled excursion, the van was playing Metallica and I thought to myself "I really hope if we die that this isn't the last song I ever hear". I then laughed at myself for being such a nut. Perhaps a premonition? Who knows?

I think the very beautiful brave dogs and the actions of the incredibly calm and courageous guide Marcel saved our lives. My husband asked him if he’d done that before and he said he’d never seen a bear close up before, only off in the distance. The other guide had only ever seen tracks.

We were left with the most amazing memories and now in hindsight, I really wish I had a photo of it to share!! I tell people we were attacked by a polar bear, because in my head, that's what happened however the proper term is that we had a polar bear encounter.

I can also honestly say, I never need to be that close to a polar bear ever again!

It was reported on the news in Norway and as we left the next morning, we missed being interviewed, much to my daughter's disappointment when she found out the other little girl 'became famous'.

 Linking with #WednesdayAroundTheWorld  and #TravelTuesday

Keep Calm and Carry On Linking Sunday

Musings Of A Tired Mummy

My Random Musings

I find it interesting they said no aggression as it was snarling at the dogs, or at least I definitely saw it baring it's teeth.

Other reports:

Also #SundayCovers is live if you have a post about covers you want to link.


  1. Oh wow, what a story Lydia! I can't imagine how it must have felt to be so close, but I know from personal experience (not a bear) that your mind does some seriously weird stuff in those moments! So glad you had a happy ending and now a great story to tell! #lifethisweek

    1. I always think of that guy on the Qantas plane that dropped thousands of feet suddenly and he thought "I didn't think I was going to die in a plane crash. I guess I am" - at the time I was really curious how he was so matter of fact about it, especially when people were crying and praying around it. I totally get it now. It's not bravery. It's your brain not really processing it in a normal way. And I guess why car crashes go in slow motion etc...

    2. Around him, not it. opps. Brain not functioning now! Ha!

  2. What a story! A once in a lifetime encounter for sure, and it must have been terrifying at the time. I was in fear for the dogs as I was reading.

    1. I think the dogs were all ok. I did message them to check but never heard back. There didn't seem to be any blood, so I guess all was fine.

  3. What an amazing thing to have had happen Lydia. Scary at the time I'm sure, but (in retrospect, safely ensconced inside) so special!!!

    But yes of course, remembering to try to get a picture at the time would be asking too much. Plus the sound / flash might have startled the bear and things could have ended differently.

  4. What an amazing tale!
    I saw a beautiful deer in the snow in Utah years ago. It came right up to me - about a metre away, and just stood there looking at me. It felt like an absolute blessing to experience this in the snow. I still think of it often.

  5. What a story although I can imagine it must have been terrifying at the time! Still, there's not many people who can say they've had a real-life-in-the-wild polar bear encounter!

  6. What a memory, Lydia! Unique, terrifying, surreal all at once.

    SSG xxx

  7. I had to show this to my grandson who is polar bear mad and intent on being an Arctic explorer! How our cuddly friends relate in the wild though is a different tale, the stuff of later nightmares.

    1. I am keen to go back and see the puffins and walruses...and in the distance Polar bears. But Svalbard is an amazing place and I’d go back in a flash. He could also be a climate change scientist or botanist for the seed bank...

  8. What an exciting encounter to have with with a polar bear! I'm glad all turned out well for you and your daughter and the bear. We see black bears here and once one was in a tree with her two cubs as I hiked underneath. After that experience i always look up into the trees when hiking and carry bear spray.

  9. What a story. And what an experience. I find it interesting how much you can recall. I know our brains work amazingly well when we are in stark situations. This was indeed!

    Thank you for linking up for Life This Week. Next week the optional prompt is 18/51 Taking Stock #2 4.5.2020. Hope to see your there too. Denyse.

    1. That might be my most boring post ever! A lot of time on hold with the ATO....hmmm. Hehehe

  10. Oh my gosh! I would never have thought that an encounter like that would happen on a sledging trip out. How special to have been able to see the polar bear in the wild like that. Though I'm not sure I would have been as brave as you. It's really funny how minds can play tricks on us like that. Thank you for sharing your adventures on the #DreamTeamLinky xx

    1. It's not really bravery tho. It's just the way your brain works at the time.

  11. What an extraordinary experience!! #DreamTeamLinky

  12. What an incredible experience. Terrifying but utterly amazing at the same time. #KCACOLS

  13. Wow! What a story! You certainly made memories. #globalblogging

  14. What can I saw, other than wow!#globalblogging@_karendennis

  15. Wow, what a crazy once-in-a-lifetime experience, especially also for your daughter. For sure a day that you will never forget!

  16. Wow, what an incredible experience. I feel for your daughter missing the moment of fame! #globalblogging

  17. What an amazing and terrifying experience. It truly is fascinating how we experience things in reality with emotions often kicking in later. I have had a couple of far less close encounters with a Bear and Lion and they scared me enough there is something about being prey that is a very uncomfortable feeling and whilst amazing to see these creatures up close like you I have no desire to be in that position again. Thanks so much for linking up at #KCACOLS. Hope you come back again next time

  18. I've heard polar bears are very dangerous. We have black bears where we live. They even come into town especially in the fall and spring. Most are not aggressive but of course they can be dangerous to pets and humans if provoked. - Margy

  19. Oh wow what a story Lydia! That must be the most scary experience ever! I don't know what I would have done in your place. But I know I would have been petrified for sure! I am glad you are all safe and okay after that! :) x #kcacols

  20. Wow, it sounds like a lot more than an encounter to me...that's putting it mildly I'd say. What an incredible story to be able to tell. I won't say I envy you the experience and thankfully you all got out of it safely but what an event! That is a story that will never get old!! #globalblogging