In this episode we hear more from Bjørn Thomassen, emeritus senior scientist at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, about a close encounter with a polar bear while on field work in east Greenland.
26: Bjørn Thomassen – Stalked by a polar bear in East Greenland
Based on interviews held on September 30 – October 2, 2019 in Copenhagen, Denmark
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I looked up and there was this this big bear standing on a ridge a hundred metres ahead of me and trying to get the sniff of me. And I had no er, no rifle.
Welcome to Polar Podcasts, where you’ll hear stories from geologists who’ve spent their careers, their lives, exploring and studying the remarkable and remote geology of Greenland. Why did they become fascinated with Greenland? What were the problems and the discoveries that drove them? And what was it like working in these remote places, where few people venture, even now? I’m Julie Hollis.
In this episode we hear more from Bjørn Thomassen, emeritus senior scientist at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, about a close encounter with a polar bear while on field work in East Greenland.
We had one encounter at Amdrup Fjord er, south of Skærgaarden in, in East Greenland. And er, the two of us, we were camping, awful campsite at the edge of a valley, which was falling into Amdrup Fjord, a slope two hundred metres down there, but with a beautiful view, rocks all over. But we managed to get up the three tents, again kitchen tent, two sleeping tents. And then, what happened. It was quiet and er, beautiful weather. And then I woke up in the morning early, five o’clock. Absolutely quiet. There was no running water there. And I heard this, somebody kicked a bucket. We have a normal plastic bucket to fetch water. And then, no more. And when you hear such a noise it can be two things. It can be a fox or it can be a polar bear. And you had to get out of the tent. That’s what I decided. I was laying there in my sleeping bag. Because my theory is if the bear start to attack the tent, which has happened, what to do, will you shoot through the, the tent material. That’s not a nice thought. So I had a rifle and er, so I carefully opened the tent, same again, look out, standing up, “Oh, phew,” nothing. It must have been, I don’t know, the wind or a fox or whatever. So I went in again to, to sleep.
And er, it’s a normal day, so we got up and er, made our coffee and prepared for the day’s tour and that day we went down along the coast and we walked together. Yeah, down the slope, two hundred metre slope down er, along the fjord. And there’s a sort of ice foot. There was open water but there was still the ice foot er, which we could walk on. So that was easy walking, some snow on that. And I did my sampling. There was a lot of mineralization of er, noble metals. Of course, in that area you have the large Flammefjeld porphyry system, but that is surrounded by, by high grade vein er, mineralization. Er, I mean high grade that means silver and gold. So, I had a full rucksack and then at some time I discussed with Ditlev, I said,
“If you take all the rocks and head directly back to camp, I’ll walk up and, and check the west side of the valley, and I come back to you later.”
And that’s ok so he got all the rocks and he was young and strong and er, didn’t mind. So he went back. Then there are two stories. I’ll tell my story first.
I finished my business and went back and I thought because we had footprints in the snow and I thought, well, they’ve got very big, those footprints. It must be the sun, you know the sun’s come down and it’s melted that way and didn’t think more of that. And then I started up the, the slope, nothing, came up to, to the valley. And start into the valley. And then I, the ground is covered by, by big blocks. I mean, a metre or two across. So er, but when we had that, that sort of ground, you’re jumping from big rock to big rock. That means your eyes are on your feet, on the ground all the time. And if you want to look around you, you must stop up, and you should do that. But I was looking down. Then I heard some er, noise and beforehand and there was gravel coming down, I looked up, and there was er, this big bear standing on a ridge a hundred metres ahead of me and trying to get my, the sniff of me. He was, you know, standing, moving his whole er, head er, in all directions to get my, yeah the smell of me.
And there’d been one problem. We were operating out of a basecamp in Sødalen. And when we started, for a two man expedition, I always er, order from the equipment department a rifle for the camp and, and two pistols er, one for each geologist. So what I got, when we were handed out our equipment at the basecamp, I got one rifle and one pistol. And I said, “But I ordered two.” And they said, “You can only have one.” So I said well, I’d better give that to, to my companion Ditlev, he’s the youngest.
So when I met that alone, that, that er bear, I had no er, no weapon. So that was very unpleasant situation. And you, at first, you freeze and you get so scared. I always thought, now, next time you meet a bear, remember to take a photo. But, I mean, there was no question of me taking a photo there because you were absolutely scared and I know I was far from the camp and er, so I said, well I had to, I can’t stand there. And he was standing there trying to get the smell of me.
And the next problem was that valley, there was only, there was a stream in the middle. Our camp was er, at the east side. I was standing on the west side. And the only way to cross that stream was a, a snow bridge up in the valley. But unfortunately in the same direction as the bear was standing. I mean, I had to walk at an angle, but getting nearer somehow and to reach that snow bridge. So what to do? So I started out. I was drenched. I didn’t let my water go. Um, and I was moving among those big rocks. So I lost er, visual contact with, with the fellow standing up there. So all the time, I couldn’t know if he was coming for me. Er, but I said, I had to walk and I walked fast, I’ll tell you. I was drenched with sweat. And eventually reached that snow bridge and crossed it. And ok, I looked back and couldn’t see him. And then up the slope, up to the camp. So I said, you made it. Congratulations Bjørn, you made it this time.
Then my next er, fear was of course was that the bear would have gone ahead of me up to the er, the camp and taken Ditlev. So I will come up to a, a bloody camp. When I came up, I saw Ditlev. He was sitting. We had the er, habit to sit after a long field day to make a good foot bath, hot water, and sit out in the sun in a camp chair with our feet in the water. And he described how he saw me come up there totally desperate. Er, and I tried to see that bear. And either it, it couldn’t get the smell of me or it got the smell and didn’t like what it smelt because he disappeared.
So then we started to discuss what, what’s happened. And then he told me, Ditlev told me er, I told of the accident with the bucket in the morning. He said er, “Yeah, I had some very strong wind gust in my tent this morning. And er, I heard the bucket too but then I heard your tent er, zipper go so I thought it was you out to have a pee.” So he slept on. And I said, “Ditlev, there were no wind gusts. It’s been totally calm.”
Then we looked at his tent, er tunnel tent. And we could see the end flap, you know the sort of window over the mosquito net, it was torn away and there were bite marks about one of the er, the bows who support the tent. So the bear has, has bitten in the tent apparently and shaken his head and shaken the whole tent. And that’s what he thought was a wind gust.
And there was no doubt there were footprints too. Er, and when we left, departed down the fjord, he went straight back with the rock and I went up er, he was sitting resting half way up and then he heard me coming, you know when you, when you er, walk or move up a slope there’s stones er, falling, gliding. It can be quite noisy with the rolling stones. So you shouldn’t go beneath each other when you move in that way. So he heard me, well he said, ‘Now Bjørn has changed his mind, he will come after me, following me back’. And he was sitting there and I was not coming. So he thought that was funny. Hmm.
So I found out afterwards that, that bear has been watching us all day, starting in the morning with the camp with, with kicking the bucket er, biting his tent and shaking it, and then lay down and looking and been following us along the coast. Remember when we come back we see big footprints in the snow. And then the bear has been going up the slope er, next to Ditlev. He’s not seen it but heard somebody coming up. And it’s been standing up there waiting for me. And that, that’s a whole day. I saw it. I was on my way back, so normally you, eight hours in the field or whatever. Amazing.
Now, the end of the story is that down there, there is er, the first geologist in, that was Lawrence Wager, quite famous British er, geologist, and er, he had a locality er, a nuntak called er Trebjørnebjerg, that means Three Bears Mountain. And the reason is why he writes reports from that mountain, he saw a, a mother bear with two, two youngsters. So he saw three bears. So he thought I call this Three Bears Mountain. So now I’ve been in this small valley which has no name. And I called it in my report, in my report I called it Two Bears Valley – to bjørne – because there’d been two bears, the real bear and me.
I’m Julie Hollis and you’ve been listening to Polar Podcasts.
In the next episode, we hear more from Agnete Steenfelt about developing geochemical sampling into a Greenland-wide geochemical map – a culmination of over 30 years work.