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Special Edition: Into the Arctic ❄️
Excerpt from Lights to Guide Me Home 📖
A special edition of Field Notes 📒 for a special community!
There are many new people on this newsletter since I first sent out an excerpt from my memoir, Lights to Guide Me Home: A Journey Off the Beaten Track in Life, Love, Adventure and Parenting. The book takes the reader on a trip around the world while I chronicle my personal journey through some of life’s major milestones. If you’re not familiar with the book, I wanted to give you a glimpse into what you’ll find inside. Truthfully, it’s hard to choose an excerpt, as no smaller portion of text feels representative of the full scope of the story, but here goes!
I hope you enjoy this sequence about my encounter with a polar bear in the Arctic. 🐻❄️
Excerpt from Chapter 4 of Lights to Guide Me Home
INTO THE ARCTIC
By Meghan J. Ward (Rocky Mountain Books, 2022)
Auyuittuq National Park, Baffin Island, 2011
…Paul and I turned back toward Asgard. We couldn’t see the twin summits, and to get a better look we’d need to climb a moraine and up a glacier that descends from the 6000-square-kilometre Penny Ice Cap. We’d never make it to the mountain’s base that day, but Paul at least wanted a closer look. After strapping our skis onto our packs (fearing they may disappear if we left them behind), we started up the steep moraine. About 100 metres up, I could feel my energy starting to dwindle. I thought about the 15 kilometres we still needed to cover to get back to the Summit Lakes cabin.
“You go ahead,” I told Paul. “I’ll wait here for you.”
I wasn’t thrilled about waiting alone, but I also didn’t like to feel guilty about holding Paul up when he had an objective in mind. Over the years, I’d learned to communicate with him when I’d hit the wall. I also learned that, unless there was an emergency or I was adamant about not splitting up, Paul would continue without me for a little while. There were many times I still willingly pushed myself (now with less resentment than I’d had pushing that bike up Sage Mountain), but there were also times when I put the brakes on when I knew I’d had enough.
“I’ll be quick,” he said, before trudging up the moraine.
As he departed from sight, I pulled out my down jacket and also kept moving. When I felt warm enough, I sat down for a little while then started the process again, moving and shaking to keep my blood circulating, then resting again.
I couldn’t check my watch under my layers of jackets and time was passing slowly. I realized Paul might be waiting for better conditions for photography, seeing as we had lots of cloud cover and the light was flat. I put my pack down and started to do laps in my ski boots up the moraine for 20 metres and then down for 20, up and down again until I had adequate warmth. I windmilled my arms and wiggled my toes, though I also had chemical heat packs in each mitten and boot. Finally, I sat down again with my back resting against my pack and closed my eyes, breathing in the crisp air through my fleece neck warmer.
Still waiting. It had been about an hour, and I wasn’t surprised that Paul was still gone; after six years of adventures with him, I knew he was happy and productive with his photography when he had time to roam and explore his options. I knew the rhythms and what it required to take great photos. But, sitting alone on the moraine, the Arctic wilderness was starting to feel much bigger, more remote and desolate by the minute. I sat staring out at the scenery and down toward the flat surface of the pass below, visible through a wide gap in the moraine beneath me. My thoughts began to wander.
What if he doesn’t come back? What if there was an accident? I reminded myself that I had the satellite phone on me and I was only a few hours away from a shelter with a radio. Our sleeping bags, dehydrated food and stove were in the shelter, not with Paul. I was perfectly capable of handling myself in the wilderness, and had Peter on the other end of a satellite call if I needed it.
But I’d need to carry the barbeque.Now my thoughts wandered to a vision of me skiing through the Arctic with an 80-litre pack on my back, stuffed to the brim, with one ski pole in one hand and a Coleman camping barbecue in the other.
I didn’t let my thoughts wander to what it would actually mean to go home alone.
Down below, a dark figure galloped across the gap beneath me and I snapped back to reality. I had just enough time to acknowledge its presence to see it run the final few metres before the slope of the moraine blocked my view. I quickly replayed the image of it running past, its gait, its four limbs striding by. It looked to be on the small side. A wolverine? I wondered. Do they have wolverines in the Arctic? Yes…but I don’t think wolverines gallop like that. Then I clued into my sense of scale as I sat there, about 80 metres above the pass, and it dawned on me that the animal that looked so small was actually my worst fear of travelling through the Arctic wilderness in the first place: a polar bear.
My heart stopped and my mouth, already pasty from dehydration, went paper dry. I wasn’t sure whether to yell for Paul or stay quiet. Would a polar bear be attracted to noise? Did it know I was there? Of course, it did; a polar bear can smell a seal from 32 kilometres away. Surely it could smell me.
At the very least, I needed to get Paul’s attention and a view of the bear, so I began to clamber up the moraine as quickly as I could, backsliding in my ski boots with each desperate step. I’d decided to stay as quiet as possible until I suddenly let out an involuntary, “PAUL!!”
With no response, I continued upward until I could feel myself sweating inside my jackets. This was also not a great situation to be in while travelling through the Arctic, as sweat can lead to hypothermia when the moisture cools off. But, for now, the bear was a more pressing matter. I turned back and still couldn’t see it, so I waited, holding one ski pole in my hands like a spear, knees bent, ready for battle. After a few minutes, I was confident the bear wasn’t climbing the moraine, but I still couldn’t see it down below or further up the pass. Eventually, I sat down, still gripping my pole in my hand – my only weapon if it came down to it.
Twenty minutes later, Paul arrived; of course, unaware of everything that had transpired. He hadn’t heard my desperate cry, nor seen me scaling the moraine.
“I think I just saw a bear,” I said, my voice breathless, without expression. Exhaustion and depletion had settled in alongside a sense of relief that the immediate threat was over.
“You what!?” he said, in disbelief. We’d been told the bears would be by the floe edge at this time of year. I explained to Paul that the bear, whatever I saw, was dark in colour.
“Maybe it was in a shadow and only appeared to be so dark,” I reasoned.
Still bewildered and apprehensive about descending back into the pass, we slowly made our way down the moraine. There was no sight of the bear. Still, I stopped every ten metres to look around. A cold wind blew through Akshayuk Pass and, apart from the sounds of our boots grinding into the shale as we adjusted our packs, the world around us was completely quiet. The fog we woke up to had yet to lift, and jagged peaks stood out above it on the other side of Summit Lake. I started to wonder if I’d been hallucinating – not completely far-fetched seeing as I was tired and hungry. But, no, I’d been lucid when I saw it run by – cold and uncomfortable but very much aware. I was certain of it.
We got to the bottom of the moraine and there they were: polar bear tracks.
Lights to Guide Me Home is available wherever you buy books (and makes a great holiday gift)! Ask at your local indie bookstore or find an online retailer here.
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Earlier in the book, there is a sequence where our camping stove broke down. To replace it, our outfitter snowmobiled through the night to reach us and delivered to us a two-burner Coleman camping BBQ… not an ideal option for a ski touring trip, but we made it work!