Chosen (by Karen Jettmar)

“To encounter the bear, to meet it with your whole life, was to grapple with something personal. The confrontation occurred on a serene, deadly, and elevated plain. If you were successful you found something irreducible within yourself, like a seed. To walk away was to be alive, utterly. . . It was to touch the bear.”
-Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

Late August cold wind blows
across the reef.
Ice floes rise like cliffs
Fata Morgana
over the Beaufort Sea.

Icebergs stranded on
pebbles smoothed by
a million storms.
Ice particles refract into
fog bow
luminous, arcing over pale
north horizon.

There’s a polar bear track, I say.
Barely discernable
we follow prints down the
beach at low tide.
Find sea lice
glaucous gull wing
footprints in the sand.

How old are they, he asks.
Bears follow the pack ice. They are a
hundred miles offshore now
Maybe two.

We pause;
Old, I say, and
look out to sea, as though
desire will carry us north.

I’ve never seen a polar bear,
not in thirty years living here.
You can see them if you really try.
Fall time
in Kaktovik and Barrow
they come in to feed on
bowhead whale carcasses
left behind by hunters.

One hundred in Barrow last November
Thirty-three in Kaktovik
Getting to be like Churchill. Taxi drivers take
gawkers out to the point.
Bears should be out hunting
on the ice. The ocean stays open
longer now. In winter the ice is
They are

Only twenty thousand on the whole planet

Astonishing seven-degree
increase in average temperatures over
thirty years, says the New York Times.
North Slope oilfields spread over a
thousand square miles,
one hundred-fourteen thousand
tons of methane, an oil spill every day.

Yellow and green tents
tied to silver logs
drifted in from Mackenzie River over in
Birch and cottonwood
Spruce tree snapped off at sixty-five feet. Not a
tree growing for a hundred miles. Snow buntings
flit among driftwood. Lines
of white-winged scoters
skim low across
black water.

In the lee of gnarled stumps
we warm hands on cups of hot cocoa
Exhale vapor

Fog drifts across the spine of the northernmost mountains on the Continent,
Brooks Range rises and rises.

Damp cold signals early retreat into
tents. I nestle deep, arms embrace shoulders,
eyes close against the midnight sun,

I drift into dreams.

Only now —

Nudged from sleep
a shove to my shoulder, insistent, solid
Something large on the other side
of a thin nylon wall
Again —
paw pushes into my hip

Some things you just know:
The ice bear is outside my door,

Mind filled with unrivaled fear, I struggle to find
my own voice
polar bear, polar bear
On hind legs
Creamy white hollow hair
Touches my tent, curious

Polar bear polar bear polar bear I howl
Heart pounding, fingers trembling, I dress: four layers of clothing
hat boots gloves
Out of the tent, the others emerge.
stand tall
Shout —

rocks flying
pots banging

The great White Bear gazes at us.

We band together, minds sharp, focused.
Matches, we shout.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, ripped into
pieces, atop driftwood doused with white gaas. Fire and
a second fire,
a third —
spread across the reef between
lagoon and the sea.

Primordial urge to survive
Hearts are the best weapon of all

Ice bear drifts between beaches icebergs.
We haul wood, feed fires, stay together
White bear just at bay

Wresting with fear
I feel a shift in awareness —

What I have heard:
unpredictable, cunning hunter, fearless carnivore
apex of food chain

What I experience:
light-footed, intelligent nomad, curious traveler
kindred spirit

Touched by the polar bear.

This is an original work posted by permission from the author. This work is not to be reproduced or replicated in any form without the express written consent of the author.


Karen Jettmar is from Anchorage, and is temporarily living in Scandinavia.

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