Kindly contributed by Michael Engelhard, this interview is used with permission from Canadian Geographic. The product of meticulous research, Engelhard’s latest book Ice Bear examines over 8,000 years of polar bear history. Whether spirit guide, enemy or symbol of ecological crisis, he argues, the ice bear has always loomed large in the human imagination.
What made you want to write this book?
At the risk of anthropomorphizing—a human tendency I address in Ice Bear—I have long identified with bears. I’ve had a bearish streak since childhood, bearish moods and manners combined with a blockhead that only worsens as I age. If you’ve seen bachelor bears out and about after six months of denning, you know what I mean. I regret not speaking their language, not knowing what they dream about in the winter. I wanted to get to know this remote and reclusive species through its reflection in the human imagination. Books about polar bear biology and ecology tell only parts of the species’ story. I always craved a book that focuses exclusively on human-polar bear history, on people’s attitudes, beliefs, etc. No such book existed, so I wrote my own.
You have a background in cultural anthropology and as a wilderness guide—were either of those roles of greater use or value when working on the book?
My work as a wilderness guide in the Arctic predisposed me to write about the North's most impressive predator, and gave me a hunch that the polar bear’s reputation as a “ruthless killer” is biased and unwarranted. My training as an anthropologist helped me sort through the extensive literature and render complex indigenous concepts regarding the bear (such as those related to shamanism) in language accessible to the layperson. It generally also benefited the cross-cultural perspective of this animal portrait, and, perhaps most importantly, allowed me to look at our own ideas about the bear through an “outsider’s” lens.
Can you tell me about your first and last experience with polar bears?
My first was several years ago, when I was guiding a rafting trip on the Canning, in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We saw a distant polar bear that was coming toward us. This was twenty-five miles from the coast and at that time, the farthest inland sighting documented for a polar bear in the refuge. (I describe the episode in more depth in my new essay collection American Wild—in a way, the two books are really companion volumes: both deal with my longtime obsession for wild, extreme places.) My latest polar bear encounters were in Kaktovik, Alaska, from where I just returned after researching the budding polar bear viewing business there.
What was one of the great challenges in researching and writing Ice Bear?
The wealth of material—of visual and written sources—was rather overwhelming, and many of the written sources were in languages other than English. Also, the book’s structure. I did not want to present the material in a strictly chronological order, as in a history book, but also contrast past and present attitudes toward the bear to show how they’ve changed or, in many cases remained similar. So I settled on mixing chapters that deal with the subject matter chronologically with those that regard the animal in a particular role it played across cultures and time. The polar bear as protector, or as “super-male,” for example.
*An illustration from Jules Verne's short story "A Winter amid the Ice," exemplifying the long-held image of polar bears as ruthless killers. Courtesy of Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Bremen.
*Bears scavenging at the bowhead whale "bone pile" outside Kaktovik, Alaska. Photo by Michael Engelhard.
*Michael Engelhard signing at the Bear Gallery in Fairbanks. Photo by Melissa Guy.