Bely Island is the first place I have ever been in my entire existence, where I actually felt a visceral fear for my life. To date, I have not chosen to walk the streets of East Oakland late on a Saturday night: I have no reason to do so. But I do need to walk back and forth through the swamp on Bely Island to the Aerosol Shed, to check on the Aethalometer periodically. Because of the squishy mud, this takes ten to fifteen minutes each way, and is slow, tiring, hard work. Fortunately, it doesn’t get dark – because that would make the journey almost impossibly scary.
Upon arrival, the Station Chief issued each of us with two “highway flares”, pyrotechnic torches that ignite by pulling off the cap. ‘Most of the time’, that is …. these are Chinese-made copies of something, and apparently they don’t always work. They’re supposed for burn for a minute or two. We were given very stern, strict instructions to NEVER go outside without them.
A polar bear will kill and eat you if it thinks it can. They usually kill and eat seals, but I’m quite sure that I would be less sinewy and just as tasty as a seal. Polar bears can gallop ridiculously fast and are entirely at home in the water or on land. Basically, if you’re out in the open and are suddenly confronted by a bear, you’re its lunch.
When the chief was handing out the flares, someone joked “If it does ignite, you’ve got 2 minutes to make your peace with God. If not, pray fast.” I was not sure how real of a threat this was, and cheerfully squished back and forth to set up the equipment in the Aerosol Shed. This naivete lasted all of a few hours …
That evening, we’re sitting in the station having a really excellent dinner. I had brought gifts, drink, and American cigarettes; and after we toasted our way through first their bottle of ‘Tundra’ vodka and then my bottle of Kentucky bourbon, we were mellow and enjoying a pleasant evening of conversation.
Suddenly, there’s a commotion outside: Botsman, the station dog, is barking at a bear. I look out of the window right behind where I’m sitting. Through the steamy glass, there’s a polar bear no more than twenty yards away.
The station chief jumps up, grabs a rifle and a flash-bang pistol. Botsman does his job
and the bear runs away from the flash. I had brought a bag of ‘Trader Joe’s Special Yummy Dog Treats’. Now was a good time.
We walk back to our sleeping building … watchfully. The next morning, we get up to go for breakfast.
And … no-one’s going ANYWHERE. There are 2 bears just on the other side of the creek.
Here’s an extended video clip.
By this time, the second bear had walked off to the surfline: but it took Botsman a great amount of barking before the first bear finally swam away down the creek. We waited nervously for a good while before crossing the rickety bridge.
The cook was looking out the window too. His job was making meals, not being one.
After breakfast, Yuri Ivanovich and I walk to the ocean beach. It stretches to infinity.
I stand in the water in my rubber boots.
There on the sand, unmistakably, are the tracks of a polar bear.
No, I’m not going for a swim – even though I had brought a swimsuit and towel with me.
A cross memorializes something or someone. I don’t want to be the reason for another one.
Botsman runs up. I give him another Yummy Dog Treat. He likes me. Under the circumstances, this could save my life.
In the past, I was always a “Cat Person”. Times change.