Close encounters

I was woken up by the cabin roof hitting my face. It took me a few seconds, but I realised something was jumping on the roof, trying to get in. And it could only be a polar bear.

Author and producer, Fredrik Granath has been documenting polar bears in Svalbard for more than 15 years. But it is this moment, on his first expedition, that he had remembered most. Until a couple of years ago.

The best memories are often the ones we share with those closest to us. In 2016 Fredrik took his partner, Melissa Schäfer, who’s also a photographer, with him to Svalbard. They returned to Mohnbukta, the area close to that now infamous cabin and once again, a polar bear paid Fredrik – this time with Melissa – a visit.

Melissa Schäfer

We saw a footprint and I started to freak out. I kept looking around, thinking it must be behind us. But I couldn’t see it.

Melissa Schäfer

Despite their hulking size, polar bears are well camouflaged in the Arctic and it took a while for Melissa to make out a large, white blob hunkering towards them from a distance of 2km or so.

When I saw the polar bear, which we later named Helen, I was both terrified and happy. It was a lot of mixed emotions. But with Fredrik beside me I never felt that close to danger. Well, maybe just for a second.

This at-a-safe-distance encounter was in stark contrast to Fredrik’s first meeting in the same place 15 years previously.

The ramshackle cabin is located in a region called Mohnbukta. It was built in 1928 by a hunter and is part of a network of hunting cabins spread across the winter whites of Svalbard. “It’s a tiny thing,” says Fredrik. “It’s the size of a bathroom with nothing but a small stove, a table and a bunk bed. But it’s cosy; no matter how freezing it is outside, you can always heat it up to sauna temperature in a matter of minutes. And it has the walls and a roof that keep polar bears out, just about.”

On that first night in the cabin in Mohnbukta, Fredrik had gone to sleep exhausted, after a 15-hour snowmobile journey across barren ice fields, where distance is judged by the clock, not the odometer.

Fredrik Granath

“I came to this tiny hunting cabin and decided to take shelter there to go to sleep. So I locked up the cabin and covered the windows. I crept into the top bunk, which was slow close to roof it felt like a coffin, and instantly fell asleep. I was woken up some time later by the roof hitting my race and I realised there was something on top of me on the other side of the roof. I started to make a whole load of noise, banging on the walls, hitting the pots and pans. But polar bears are smart. They search for weak spots. So the bear spent the next 30 minutes or so looking for ways to get in. All of a sudden it became silent, so I thought it must have left. I waited a few minutes and then I opened the door and looked out. A huge polar bear was ready and waiting, standing right in front of the door. That was my first experience with a polar bear close up.”

Last year Melissa and Fredrik returned to the Mohnbukta once again. And this time they’d both spend the night in that notorious cabin. Thankfully, there were no scarily close encounters. But Mohnbukta does seem to be a honey trap for polar bears. After hours of waiting, Melissa and Fredrik were treated to not just one, but three polar bears; in fact, they saw a mother and her two cubs.

“Fredrik saw something far, far out on the ice. So we drove towards it on snowmobiles. After a few minutes we stopped and took out the binoculars and yes, it was a bear,” said Melissa. “We drove a bit closer, but the bear didn’t react at all. She seemed to be hunting. She was standing beside a seal hole. But then we saw something next to her. At first I thought it was a fox. But then I looked closer. It wasn’t a fox. It was a bear cub. Actually, there were two of them.”

At first Melissa was nervous. The mother bear could have believed Melissa and Fredrik to be a threat to her cubs. And nobody wants to rile up a 250kg polar bear! But Melissa couldn’t take her eyes of the little family, especially when the babies started to tussle into a ball of fluffy fur.

Fredrik constantly checked behind us for more bears. I’m so happy that’s not my job. If I have a polar bear mother with cubs in front of me, there’s only one direction I want to look. We were both very happy humans after that encounter.

“It was amazing for me to share this with Melissa. Mohnbukta is now just as special for her as it is for me. We can share this place and the memories we made there,” says Fredrik.

Fredrik and Melissa are returning to Svalbard in March in search of more polar bears and magical light. They’re currently finishing off a book documenting their moments in Svalbard, including those enjoyed in Mohnbukta. As soon as we have more information on that, we’ll let you know.

You can read more about Melissa's experience at Mohnbukta on her blog here:

Images: Melissa Schäfer


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