A Surprise Encounter

It was 1959, and I was on Ice Station Charlie in the deep Arctic, doing research on ice drift, melting and refreezing. During the summer, aircraft cannot land on the soft undependable sea ice riddled with melt ponds, and we were too far from land for helicopter delivery of supplies. So the only possible delivery of needed food, fuel, medical supplies and other necessities was by parachute drop. We had a team of USAF experts to receive these drops, and when one occurred, they were prepared with a smoke pot and tarpaulins laid out for wind information and to provide a target. The aircraft borne folks then had to gauge just when to push out the drop to hit the target, and hope that the parachutes would open, which they normally did. Everyone was out in the open watching the drop, in case any chutes didn’t open. And, of course, on one occasion that happened, and I carefully watched as it plunged to the ground and disappeared behind massive pressure ridges far from its intended target. I soon found out that the cargo in that now likely pile of rubble was bread, but it was also rumoured that it contained a stash of Scotch whisky, a much-prized delicacy on an ice floe not that far from the North Pole. How great it would be to recover even a small amount of the vagrant Scotch. So off two of us went, in search of the prize. It was a long way, and difficult, climbing up and down pressure ridges that could be 30 to 40 feet high, and finally we reached our destination – but we were not the first to get there. A polar bear had found it and was hungrily devouring – well, the bread, and what else? Polar bears are the absolute top of the Arctic food chain, have no natural enemies, are totally fearless, and are always hungry. He was either preoccupied with his find, or hadn’t spotted us, or I wouldn’t be telling this story. We carefully, slowly backed up and over that last mountain of ice, and when completely out of his range of vision, we made a very fast retreat back to the camp. No, we never went back to see if the Scotch whisky had survived, just happy with the fact that we did.

D Gerson

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