Mom (and maybe any other moms out there), please don’t read this next story.
We had just had a pretty lovely evening watching the aurora at the northernmost tip of land to truly ensure total darkness (not that Barrow really has lots of light pollution). It was a perfectly clear night giving us spectacular stargazing. Having a two jet aurora flickering across the sky really made it magical. Recognizing my inability to take good photographs, I had perched myself up on top of a large snowbank while Rachel fiddled with trying to set appropriate camera settings. Before she was able to capture a good shot, someone came by and asked us to tow them out of a snow bank. Since it was quite chilly, we decided to just head back to our hut afterwards, sadly without a good aurora photo. As I lay trying to fall asleep though, the sudden urge to get at least one good aurora photo kicked me out of bed.
I haphazardly threw on my Carhartt biberalls, my big “aurora green” expedition Canada Goose park, and my -100 degree boots, all half buckled/zipped, but enough to keep me warm. I laid down on the snow right outside the hut, setup the tripod, slowed the shutter speed down to the max of 8 seconds, increased the ISO, and finally thought I was starting to pick something up in the image. Although the aurora was starting to fade, especially right next to the hut, I was starting to get a feel for what was needed. On the other side of the truck, I heard some footsteps. Strange, I thought for so late at night as I continued to adjust the camera and prepare the next photo. With my fingers freezing during the following 8 seconds, a trigger goes off in my mind, alerting me that something isn’t right.
It’s 1:30 am. Our hut is the last building, with nothing but open tundra on one side and on the other, just the road followed by the expanse of sea ice. More footsteps. Rachel is definitely asleep. There’s a chance that Ellyn is still awake, but she wouldn’t be walking around quietly outside. There really is no reason for anyone else to be here. I grab the camera, and stumble over my excessively large clothes to get on my feet. Just on the other side of the truck, perhaps 30 feet from me, are two 8-foot tall polar bears. Suppressing my fear and trying to remain calm, I quickly scan for safe spots: the hut and the truck. Before I even have the chance to observe what type of mood the bear was in (This is not as weird as it sounds. The first thing they teach in bear safety classes is to determine if the bear looks aggressive, surprised, curious, protecting its cubs, etc. as your response will be different in each case), or consider if the bears had been stalking me for dinner as I lay quietly on the ground snapping photos, I’m already inside the truck. I had quickly determined that the hut was too dangerous as it would require me getting closer to the bears in order to reach the front door, while the truck was only a few feet from me. I start up the truck and the engine quickly scare the bears off. Although I tried following in the truck, they are quickly on the sea ice and out of sight before I can get a photo or wakeup Rachel and Ellyn. I’m quickly learning there is a very practical reason that every building in this town has an unlocked mud room.