Last Letter from Longyearbyen

Dear friend. No, that’s not right. Any friends I had are long gone by now. To whom it may concern. That’s not going to cut it either. No one’s concerned about me. How about this: To whomever finds this letter. Yes, that’s a more appropriate start to these scribbled words.

The wind howls outside my hotel room and the temperature hovers around zero, but nothing can stop me from setting out first thing in the morning. And to the person who finds this letter – you won’t be a friend and you won’t be concerned – but please deliver these last words to the local authorities. I don’t want there to be any mystery about my fate. All I ask is for forgiveness. And to be left in peace. But first, I need to write down my tale, a tale that began where it will end – in the arctic north, in Svalbard.

It was a little more than a year ago, on a gloomy summer morning in the land of the midnight sun, when I first set sail from the town of Longyearbyen with two dozen or so other passengers aboard the Endeavour. Longyearbyen has long been a coal-mining outpost, though it now serves mostly as an arctic research hub and embarkation point for cruise ships exploring the far north. Our journey would take us for ten days through the Svalbard archipelago on a quest to observe polar bears in the wild. My tale of fame, or should I say infamy, takes place in this frozen land of desolate beauty where tourists come from around the world for an opportunity to catch a glimpse of one of the world’s most magnificent creatures – the arctic ice bear – in its natural habitat.

“We’ll do our best to find them,” said expedition leader Bud Wilcox during his short “Welcome Aboard” speech to the passengers, “but there aren’t any guarantees out here. It’s not like going to the zoo.”

During our first three days at sea, it seemed as if Bud’s words might be prescient. Those early days took us through a winter wonderland of ice, glaciers, and cliffs that were home to thousands upon thousands of screeching, squawking sea birds: gulls and terns and guillemots, to name a few. Like others onboard, I spent my days braving the cold, windy conditions on deck using my binoculars to scan for bears. We spotted all kinds of birds, and herds of arctic deer, and packs of walruses. And even a pair of arctic foxes hopping through the snow. But no bears.

Things would change dramatically in the early-morning hours of our fourth day when a soothing voice came over the cabin intercom system. It was Bud. “Wake up,” he whispered through the static, “and come to the forward deck.” I checked my watch (it was five o’clock in the morning) and fell back asleep. “Wake up,” Bud said more forcefully, “if you want to see some large, furry, white creatures.”

It took a few seconds for the words “large,” “furry,” and “white” to penetrate my sleep. When they did, I scrambled out of my bunk and made my groggy-eyed way to the deck, where my fellow shipmates were watching a large bear and two cubs not more than twenty-five feet from the bow.

“Spectacular!” I said, keeping my voice down as we’d been instructed by our guides.

“She smells breakfast,” whispered Bud, pointing at the large bear.

Just then, I caught a whiff from the galley, where our kitchen crew was busy preparing our standard morning fare of scrambled eggs, grilled sausages, roasted potatoes, and coffee.

“With the ice melting so quickly, it’s harder for them to find food,” Bud explained. “They’re coming closer to our ship every year and adapting – or trying to – by putting on a show for the tourists.”

Bud patted my shoulder and crossed the deck to chat with some other passengers. I remained glued to the spot, watching the cubs roll down a short incline, like rambunctious schoolchildren at the park. It went on like this for about twenty minutes before the bears walked away, realizing we weren’t going to feed them. Bud signaled for the captain to move on to our next destination.

“Can’t we leave something?” I asked as the ship began plowing through a cluster of sea ice.

“I’m afraid not,” Bud explained. “We’re here to observe and not interfere.”

From that point on, we spotted bears regularly. Large bears. Small bears. Bears playing on the ice. Bears swimming in the open water. And, sad to say, many more bears begging for food. On the afternoon of our tenth day, as we prepared to leave Svalbard, we notched our thirty-sixth bear sighting. It’s been such an amazing journey, I thought, while standing alone at the rear of the Endeavour to get my last look at the archipelago. It was then that we came upon another ship, the first vessel we’d seen since departing from Longyearbyen.

The captains, standing outside the bridges on their respective ships, hailed one another and began sharing pleasantries and comparing notes about the weather. But my attention was drawn to the stern of the other ship, where a young girl stood by herself at the rail.

“Hello,” I called out, raising my hand to wave.

“Hello,” she replied, waving back and smiling.

How lucky you are, I thought, to visit this magical land at such a young age. I wondered, would this trip to Svalbard leave a lasting impression? Would she come back often? Would she grow to care about the arctic? About nature? About polar bears? As my thoughts wandered in this vein, something caught my eye to the left of where she was standing. A grey seal slowly emerged from the still water, poking its head above the surface and staring at me with large, shiny black eyes.

“Look,” I said, pointing at the seal.

The girl – I still see her so clearly – clapped her hands together and giggled, which caused the seal to turn its gaze in her direction. How beautiful, I recall thinking, is the arctic landscape and the natural joy of the innocent, young girl appreciating the scene in all its glory. But things changed in a hurry, and my eyes were drawn to a spot about ten yards away from the ship where a large, white mass, just beneath the water’s shimmering surface, was moving quickly in our direction. It was a bear, and it was swimming straight for the seal.

A voice in my head pleads for me to stop writing. Why put yourself through the torture all over again? Still, as difficult as it is, another voice urges me to carry on, to describe how the fast-moving bear veered away from the seal and swam straight toward the other ship. Then, with what seemed like supernatural agility, the massive creature scaled the steel hull, grabbing any hand- or toe-hold it could find, until it reached the deck – until it reached the girl!

I stared in stunned silence, paralyzed by fear I suppose, as the bear extended its paw and flung the girl like a ragdoll into the icy water.

What if I had shouted earlier? I’ve asked myself. What if I ran to the captain or someone else for help? What if I jumped overboard and pulled the girl to safety? What if the bear took me instead? These scenarios and others have played out over and over in my mind. Instead of doing any of these things, however, I leaned back from the rail as if I could hide from the nightmare occurring before my eyes. And it was only after several precious seconds passed that I mustered the strength to call for help.

As passengers and crew members from both ships scrambled to see what was happening, the bear plunged into the water, taking the flailing girl in its powerful maw before disappearing beneath the dark, freezing current. There was a frantic search, but it didn’t take long for the grim reality to sink in. I stared out at the sea, hoping beyond hope that she might surface – and that I might redeem myself by jumping in to save her. After a few minutes, I became aware of a loud commotion. People were shouting all around me. Did they see something? I wondered, straining to look in every direction. Was there hope of finding her after all? No, that wasn’t it.

“You,” someone yelled. “You lured the bear to the ship!”

“You should have jumped in!”

“You could have saved her!”

“You! Coward!”

“You! Murderer!”

As the accusations rained down, somewhere in my gut I knew my torture was just beginning. No charges were filed by the authorities in Longyearbyen, but my guilt was sealed in the court of public opinion by endless newspaper and television reports describing how I cowered at the rear of the ship. I won’t dwell on the abuse I suffered when I left the Endeavour, or when I returned home, other than to say it never stopped. My friends shunned me. My co-workers harassed me. Even my family stopped talking to me. It got so bad that random people would blame me for the girl’s death. One young couple, pushing a stroller toward me on the sidewalk, stopped as I approached and lifted a blanket to show me their baby. Only it wasn’t their baby; it was a glass-eyed doll spattered in fake blood. “Murderer,” they shouted as I fled down the street. “Murderer.”

It was after this encounter that I began to think seriously of returning to Svalbard, though not for vacation this time. No, this time my ultimate destination is the wilderness itself. I will set out toward the mountains in the north. Maybe I’ll starve or freeze to death at the end of my journey. Or maybe I’ll come face to face with a ravenous bear. Wouldn’t that be poetic justice? In any event, I’m finished writing now and ready to venture forth into the arctic wild. Once again, I ask you – the person who finds this letter – to honor my last wish. Pass these words on to the authorities, but don’t follow my tracks. By the time you read this, I’ll be well on my way to finding peace in this vast, remote wasteland at the frozen edge of the world.