It was a calm night in the camp nearly two hours after midnight Monday. In the 20 tents, students and leaders from Arctic Nature Guide were sleeping. Pete Lambert, 28, a student from England, had only five minutes left of polar bear guard duty. Then suddenly he noticed a bear between 20 and 30 meters away, near the food containers.
"I acted on instinct," Lambert said. "I knew that one teacher was close by, fully clothed, so I told him. Had the instructor's tent not been so close, I probably would have done something myself. The bear looked calm and was focused on the food."
He said the bear must have approached from a small valley.
"The watch rounds included an area where one looks down into the valley, but I was not there yet," he said. "That's why I did not see it before."
Rummaging in the food
A total of 23 students and four leaders from Arctic Nature Guide went to Nordenskiöldbreen last Thursday for what was supposed to be a week-long trip. They had heard from Basecamp there was a bear in the area, but it had been easy to scare. When the group arrived on Thursday it had been in the area, but then swam over to Retrettøya.
While they were on their way up the glacier on Sunday morning, they heard a signal pistol shot.
"We figured it was someone who had frightened Trygve, which the bear was called, because there were a few people in the area," said Ola Einang, the expedition's leader. "There was only one bang, so we heard no more."
Then the Langøysund came toward land, next to their camp, with lots of people along the rail.
The leaders decided to collect the four groups on the glacier and return to camp. They discovered the bear had crossed the tripwire flares at the stores of food and rummaged in them, but it was no longer in the camp.
"We were glad that we had all the food outside the tents," said Sigmund Andersen.
From a height, they observered the bear was between 600 and 700 meters from the camp.
After the polar bear's visit, the instructors made certain there was always a group on guard in the camp, while the others were out and about.
Since it was the first time the course was out in a gathering of tents, the leaders decided that one of them would stay in a turf hut readily available in their clothes at night.
"The students were told that they could only come in if they observed something," Andersen said. "We did it to provide more security."
Shots on shots
Ola Einang was laying on the cot in the hut when Lambert shouted at him and pointed at the bear by the food containers.
"I thought it was an easily frightened Trygve and fired a signal shot straight at him," Einang said. "But he was not light in the head."
The other teachers were notified immediately and, just after Einangen shot, Jens Abild followed up.
"We were keeping up the blows on the bear, but it did not react," Einang said. "After each, Jens concentrated himself on the rifle and was ready with it."
In advance, the students had been told that if there arose a situation, they should stay in tents until they were told to get out.
In one of the tents was Margretha Flatland, 24.
"We heard shots on shots on shots on shots and lots of yelling," she said. "It was a little unpleasant, we realized that it was a real situation and that the polar bear was close. We opened a little on the outer tent and saw the bear was between 20 and 30 meters from us."
When the instructors saw that warning shots, yelling and hammering on the cooking equipment did not work on the bear, they chose to call all the students out.
"We were trying to intimidate the bear with a larger group and knocking on the boxes," Abild said. "When we saw that neither had effect, we brought the students away."
They then tried to intimidate the bear with flares from boats and smoke cartridges, but the animal wasn't bothered. At that point they evacuated the site and let the bear keep what they had in the camp.
"We had always two teachers with weapons clearly between the group and the bear," Abild said. "Across from the students we were clear that we would not put ourselves in a situation where it was necessary to shoot the bear."
"We educate the guides that will bring people out into the Svalbard nature," Andersen said. "We must conduct ourselves in that the polar bear danger is real. It is important for us to create routines that avoids putting human and bear lives at risk."
At 4 a.m. the group arrived at Basecamp's cabin in Adolfbukta, about 600 meters from the camp as the crow flies.
This year the guide program was part of The University Centre in Svalbard's logistics system and they had contact with the duty officer at the university center. The center on Monday redirected the Stålbas, which was out in the bay with a geology field trip, and sent small boats from Longyearbyen.
"The instructors agreed not to return to the camp on foot, but thought it would be nice to be able to check out the camp from small boats," Abild said.
When they returned to camp, they saw the bear about 600 to 700 meters away. Some followed with the bear while others cleared the camp. Then the bear came again towards the tents and it was clear now it would not let itself be intimidated.
On Monday afternoon, the Governor of Svalbard sent a helicopter to the area to get the bear away the tents so the camp could be packed together.
"It was nice to see how the governor worked," Abild said. "They stood with helicopter 300 to 400 meters from the camp over time and the bear did not like that. It slunk away and the governor continued to follow after with the helicopter."
The pilot then put the helicopter between the bear and the camp, and in less than an hour the 20 tents, huts and all the equipment were removed.
Students Lambert and Flatland said they are regarding the polar bear encounter as a good experience.
"I feel more confident about bears and what I should do," Flatland said. "We have been told what to do many times, but now we have experienced a real situation."
"This bear was not easily intimidated either," Lambert said. "We saw the worst-case scenario. I'm glad it went well with everyone in the group – and with the bear also."
See more pictures in the gallery in the norwegian version! Click on the small pictures to the right.