Taissumani, May 9
The Bear in the Ice Hole
One of my favourite stories as told by Knud Rasmussen is not a retelling of an Inuit legend — although there are many that are memorable — but rather a recounting of one of his adventures while on a hunting trip.
It took place in northern Greenland. Rasmussen was on a bear hunt with Qulutanguaq, “a celebrated great hunter” from Cape York on Melville Bay at the southern extremity of the Thule District.
Qulutanguaq had had some difficulty with his team, and had fallen a long way back, so Rasmussen was in the lead. His dogs, trained as bear hunters, had scented their prey and had it surrounded.
“Twelve dogs were settling accounts with a mortal enemy,” wrote Rasmussen. “The scene was wild and magnificent.”
But the bear had one last desperate move to try. It was on thin ice, both literally and figuratively. It leapt into the air and dropped to the ice, breaking a hole in the new ice and dropping into the water. The dogs would have to stick to the firm ice.
In the water the bear would have all the advantage against the dogs, but not against a man on the ice. The advantage would disappear when Knud Rasmussen had a chance to fire his gun.
Knud Rasmussen best tells the rest of this harrowing tale:
“The ice was thinner than I had thought, and a very strong current flowed here between the icebergs. The instant the bear smashed the ice beneath it, it sent cracks in all directions, and before I could jump aside I was up to my neck in water.
“In my first excitement I completely forgot the bear. My only thought was to get out again. With my rifle in my left hand, raised high above my head, I worked my way to the edge of the ice and tried to climb up. But the new ice was now wet and slippery and there was nothing I could hold on to; each time I got my chest thrust up above the edge the ice broke under me.
“I was wearing the usual winter dress of polar Eskimos: long boots and trousers of bearskin and a fur coat of reindeer skin; no sooner had the heavy, long-haired skins become soaked than I had difficulty in holding my head above water. At the same time the strong current pressed me more and more under the ice.
“To free both arms, so that I could manage to swim, I tried to throw my rifle across the ice; but my fingers were already so numb that the gun slipped from my hands and went to the bottom. For the first time my thoughts now turned to the bear, which was swimming about in the same confined pool that I was.
“I was quite helpless, and all that I could do was to keep as far away from it as possible. To my relief I soon discovered that it was as afraid of me as I was of it. We were both caught in the same hole; the only difference between us was that the dogs had gathered in a knot around it but left me in peace.
“Now that I had both hands free I again tried to clamber out, but with the only result that I broke off more and more ice and exhausted myself. At every movement I made I kept a close eye on the bear; I honestly admit that I was in mortal fear, expecting every minute that it would fly at me. It did not look pleasant, either; for each time I moved it ground its teeth and snarled, just as if it expected that I too would attack it.
“My excitement did not last long, however; the cold water soon cooled my blood and a singular calm came over me. And without really being able to explain why, I began attentively to study my strange companion. In spite of the dangerous position I was in, I conceived a lively interest in it, and my brain worked quickly and soberly.
“I, who had been accustomed only to kill, had never before known that a bear’s eyes could be so expressive. At first I saw only fear and anger in them, but as it gradually accustomed itself to me in the same way as I had accustomed myself to it, it stopped showing its teeth. I now regarded it even more attentively than before. And it struck me that I no longer looked upon it as a piece of big game to be killed, but as a thinking and intelligent creature that was in the same distress as I was. It was almost as if I could see its thoughts take shape. With its eyes alternately on the dogs and on me, it seemed to be wondering why I too had jumped into the water. It knew now that I meant it no harm. But what then? Possibly I too had taken to the ice hole to avoid the dogs? Itself, it could heave itself out of the water at a bound and throw itself well across the ice, if only it dared to do so for all the baying beasts that wanted to tear at its skin with their sharp teeth. And if it did not do so, was it not because we were both fighting the same fight against the same foe, the dogs?
“Having got so far in my thought-reading, I almost had the feeling that the bear understood me and felt with me. But I went even further in my inferences. I saw that the bear noticed that while the dogs incessantly pestered it and snapped after its snout as often as they could get near enough, they kept away from me, exactly as if they were afraid of me. Could it be that I, more than it, was master of the situation; that I was stronger, more dangerous?
“It now turned its head quite calmly towards me, and I could not help noticing that its expression was friendly. And to my great amazement it began quite slowly to work its way towards me in order to seek protection.
“It was only a couple of yards from me; but though to some extent I felt safe from it, I suddenly became anxious again. The constant attacks of the dogs might so far unbalance it that it might vent a fit of rage on me. Acting on a sudden impulse, therefore, I shouted at the top of my lungs to the dogs, ordering them back. The hunt had now lasted so long they could once more sense that I had power over them; and though it took some time, they obeyed. Snarling with disappointment they drew further back on the ice and stood still at some distance.
“For the first time since the hunt had begun, the bear was left to itself; and now something happened which I shall never forget. It understood that I had frightened its attackers away, and it turned its head towards me; this time I could not be mistaken: there was a look of gratitude in its eyes. It was the same expression I had so often seen in my dogs when I patted them or did something else which made them pleased.
“It is not easy to describe the facial expression of a beast of prey, but nobody who is used to the company of animals will doubt that even wild creatures can show gratitude. This bear, which could have killed me, not only spared my life but approached me in the cold ice hole as a friend who helped it. It is no uncommon thing that men who fight a desperate struggle for their lives are filled in their impotence with good intentions and make promises they say they will keep if they are saved from death. That was what happened to me. I promised that if I escaped from this adventure with my life I would do all that was in my power to save the bear’s life. With my teeth chattering with cold, I promised myself that neither I nor anyone else should kill that bear. If it was left to me, it should be allowed to return to the great hunting grounds it had come from.”
Next Week — The Conclusion