Any member of a geological expedition to Greenland is required to learn the use of firearms. In the US, many will already be familiar with a variety of guns, but in Europe it’s very different.
My training took place one morning at a military base near Copenhagen. On the menu, a powerful Browning pistol and an even more powerful bear gun (I don’t remember the model). I had never held a handgun before. So naturally, the bear rifle knocked me over backwards the first couple of times.
I had managed to stay on my feet by the end, but I didn’t quite progress to actually hitting the target, even at close range. Still, by mornings end it was job done, diploma received and off to meet the bears (sparse) and musk oxen (plentiful) of Northeast Greenland.
The funny thing is that no bullet from a handgun, or even a bear rifle, is ever going to penetrate a musk ox’s woolly coat, designed to keep the animal warm at forty degrees below (Fahrenheit or Celcius, doesn’t matter, same thing). Not to mention if a musk ox is charging at you, which is when you are in most need of self-defence.
We were twelve members of a summer expedition to Northeast Greenland in the late seventies. A motley crew of raw materials prospectors, university academics and students like me. None of us had seen a polar bear all summer. Most of us, a couple of Arctic veterans included, had in fact never come across one. This was pretty much par for the course, despite being bang in the middle of polar bear country. But even back then, before the polar ice began to melt in earnest, bears were still few and far between.
It was the end of August. Two of us, both students working on our theses, flew north from our base in Mestersvig to our last camp of the summer before heading home. Our camp was located in the stunning fjordland of Greenland’s East Coast, the most likely area in the most likely region in which to encounter polar bears. But we didn’t even consider the possibility; such was the rarity of sightings.
Our helicopter was due to overfly a group of three islands en route to our final destination, Gauss Peninsula. The group of islands can best be described like the Inner Hebridies on speed. Each island was about twice the size of the Isle of Mull in all three dimensions. The last and northernmost of these islands was Ymer Ø (freely translated from Danish: Yoghurt Island). Having cleared a small mountain range running along the spine of the island, we were on our descent towards a deep blue sea, sprinkled with ice floes, when suddenly a polar bear came into our view. Even at this considerable distance it looked massive.
For a couple of years in my teens I was a member of a small, fairly unsuccessful athletics club. I wasn’t particularly good at any of it, but it was fun to fool around jumping over things and throwing stuff. I was always first out of the blocks during sprints, but by the twenty metre mark most of my rivals would have overtaken me. If there had been such a thing as a ten metre run, I could have been a serious contender…
As I said, we messed around, Lars, Peter and myself. Twilight was fast approaching when the three of us, all sixteen or thereabouts, were throwing the javelin as far as we could (which wasn’t all that far).
I was on my way to the changing room, watching the last javelin, thrown by Lars, flying through the gathering darkness. It formed a perfect arc, and I expected it to jab itself into the ground at any time. But it never did. It hung in the air as if at the behest of some celestial power.