Quirks and Quarks

Ice Walker — a mother polar bear's precarious existence in the changing Arctic

Naturalist James Raffan's new book is a fictional account of real risks face by bears

Naturalist James Raffan's new book is a fictional account of real risks face by bears

Polar bears face many new challenges in a changing Arctic (Submitted by James Raffan)

For thousands of years, polar bears have coexisted with humans in the Arctic. But that relationship is in danger of fracturing due to climate change. The northern world is changing for humans, but even more so for the bears and they're now facing challenges they've never known before. 

Their struggles with the changes brought about by rising temperatures and disappearing sea ice are well known, but these are only the beginning of the challenges they'll face.

There are more obstacles to overcome; ones that even their special adaptations to a harsh environment can only help with for now. We need to pay attention as we will all face the same challenges in time.

That is the focus of a new book by writer and geographer, James Raffan

It is the story of a female polar bear named Nanu and her two cubs. It documents their often difficult life over a period of two years.

Nanu is not a real bear, she represents every polar bear. But her struggle to find her way in the new north is very real.

"Ice Walker," the new book by James Raffan, chronicles the story of Nanu, a fictitious bear who faces very real challenges. (Simon & Schuster)

Bob McDonald spoke with Raffan about his new book Ice Walker: A Polar Bear's Journey Through The Fragile Arctic. Here is part of their conversation.

You tell this story from the bear's perspective, which is a unique way to talk about natural history. What did that allow you to do in the book? 

Well, change the channel on climate change is my hope. We're awash in beautiful science of what we're doing to the Earth, but it doesn't seem to register. So I have an affection for bears. I have an affection for the North, but I also have deep concerns about what we're doing to the planet. And I wanted to find a way to craft a story that would engage the hearts as well as the minds of readers. 

So I thought if I could write an intimate story that would engage people at a number of levels — on the science level, yes, but also on the level of the mother bear Nanu, and allow some of the sensibilities that I have learned from Indigenous people throughout the circumpolar world through 40 odd years of life and travel there — and work those into the story in a way that wouldn't be co-opting voices or stealing thunder that needs to come from elsewhere. 

When we first meet your polar bear Nanu, she's pregnant, but then she suffers a miscarriage. So what's the connection between this event and the changing climate?

Well, you need to be a healthy organism to successfully rear or fledge offspring. So bears only hunt on the ice where the seals are at the flow edge, and that season of being on the ice is getting shorter and shorter.

When bears go off the ice onto the land, it's not like they flip to another food source. They're not getting any of that fat for six months of the year.

So if a mother doesn't get the amount of energy she needs to go ashore and not eat for that length of time — and in the case of a pregnant female bear that goes ashore, not only needs energy for her own metabolic needs, but she also needs energy to bring her pregnancy to a successful conclusion. Then she needs to feed these young ones that have a yawning need for energy as well. 

Changing ice conditions in the Arctic is making it difficult for polar bears to hunt the seals they so heavily rely on for their survival (Submitted by James Raffan)

Eventually, Nanu does have two cubs. What are some of the challenges facing a mother in a changing Arctic? 

The kinds of knowledge that a parent would hold for a certain set of conditions.

It really is pretty clear to me that the conditions are changing so quickly, especially in the Arctic, that if you were to refer to an internal manual of motherhood for solutions to problems that maybe you encountered as a cub with your mother — the rules or the lessons, even in the in the 25 or 30 year lifespan of a polar bear — those rules might have changed. 

With all that open water that the Arctic is now experiencing in the summertime, there's more shipping. And another story in the book is one of the polar bear cubs is exposed to an oil slick. How likely is that in today's Arctic? 

Well, shipping regulations are as tight as they can be. But in addition to being a writer, one of the things I do in the north is work on ships. And I know that from time to time, the fuels and the lubricants of the ships get in the water.

The fact that bears are going to encounter oil is something that research has been interested in as well. 

With the shorter seasons on the ice, Nanu the polar bear is forced to spend more time on land in forests exposed even to the growing tourist industry. How are the polar bears like her adapting to this change? 

Well, polar bears are sentient beings. They're curious, they're smart and they're really in tune with their environment. So if you drive a tundra buggy through their world and they don't have anywhere to go, for example on the ice, they're just hanging about.

There seems to be a detente between the operators of tourism and the bears themselves, particularly in the area around Churchill. And I've got to commend the people who are running those operations because by and large, they are fantastically caring individuals who actually build and teach an ethic about human animal interaction.

And when you think of it from the bear's point of view, they're so good at looking and seeing and analyzing threats. It's pretty clear after the first rumble or two, and a few clicks of a camera, that there is no threat here to the immediate safety of the bear.

James Raffan has spent more than 40 years writing about, and travelling in the Arctic (Submitted by James Raffan)

You talk about this connection between humans and bears and that we need to rekindle the knowledge we've lost to progress. What do you mean by that? 

The Arctic is a people place and there are 4 million people who live at or above the Arctic Circle. And people, particularly Indigenous people, in reference to keeping bears and people separate would look at me and say, 'You know, we were bears once and we will be bears again'. And when you start to sit at kitchen tables and read and listen to the mythology that's going on there, 'bears' and 'people' in an Indigenous sense are far more fluid categories than ours. 

One of the things that many things that we have to learn from northern people is that the bear is integrated into their lives and in a way, people are integrated into the bears lives.

So if we were to think about preserving environment, preserving the bears, I don't think we can really do that in a comprehensive and effective way until we start thinking about including people. And that includes us in the algorithm of the solution. 

Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Produced and written by Mark Crawley.