In Svalbard the approach to the threat of bears could be summed up as: be alert, but not unarmed.
Visitors are given a map of the areas around the town declared where it’s safe to travel without protection. This zone is three kilometres by two kilometres.
And that’s it.
For anywhere else, take a flare gun at least, but preferably a rifle. Just popping down to the shops can be a minor hassle.
The week before our arrival a large male bear had casually roamed in from the east, by the university, completely undeterred by the flare guns, trip wires and loud noises used as part of the town’s 24-hour bear watch.
The governor’s chopper was scrambled, and after three low swoops managed to drive the bear away.
For those who can’t get to the chopper, however, what should you do?Running is only really an option if you can run faster than anyone with you.
Every June Svalbard hosts a marathon and fun run attracting people from “all over the world” (read: the Netherlands); I suspect in reality the event is for locals to benchmark who they could outrun.
Judging by my efforts at running 10 kilometres, I would be sacrificed early on. Every intake of air was like inhaling a fistful of icicles.
I can now say the experience of running in sub-zero temperatures is akin to inviting a bear home to dinner: something you can only do once in a lifetime.
For the most part, guides downplay the likelihood of seeing a bear, at least in the fjords around the town. “It’s only about 3-5% of tours in the immediate area that see them,” said one guide.
Of course, the bigger cruise ships that sail around the Western coastline have a much greater chance, but given trips start at €5000 you’d expect a bear-sighting as standard.
So what should you do in the event of a bear?
In the guide’s advice, whatever you do, don’t run away: it will quickly catch you and kill you, and only then decides, post-fact, if you were actually a threat. And spoiler alert: unless you’re pointing a gun or a helicopter, you were probably not much of a threat.
All of this was good practical advice. But would we be in the lucky 3% to see a bear nearby?
In four days of tours, we’d seen walrus and belugas, ring seals and puffins. We’d also seen minke whale and reindeer, or as the menu had it, entrée and main.
But the King of the Arctic continued to elude us and now time had run out. What else to do? We cancelled our dinner and booked the last two seats on that evening’s last speedboat safari.