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The Bear MAG
The plane swooped down into a shallow arch, half-sliding, half-skidding to a stop on the frozen arctic runway, and taxied to the only terminal in the airport. I opened the rusty cargo door and jumped out onto the barren field, which was outlined by the town of Charlestown, population 40.
"Hey, watch it, buddy," I shouted to the pilot as he started to throw my stuff out of the plane.
"Bug off," he said in return.
The flight from Anchorage hadn't been exactly pleasant. The pilot, whose name I didn't bother to ask, was an obese, sorry slob, and his piloting skills reflected his personality. It was a gut-wrenching, five-hour trip. But, as I said to myself, the fare was cheap and when you're a second-hand photographer, your budget isn't exactly high.
"Excuse me, buddy, your stuff is unloaded. Now, where is my pay?"
I grabbed my four duffel bags, overstuffed with camera equipment, clothes, and five boxes of Power Bars, which were supposed to hold me over for this five-week trip.
After making sure that the pilot hadn't snaked any of my stuff, I slapped six $50 bills in his nicotine-stained hand and stormed off to get out of the cold.
I met my contact at the edge of the runway, a skinny man, with balding hair and a weather-worn face, whose clothes had probably never seen the inside of a washer. He introduced himself as Bob. We shook hands and jumped into his rusty, red pickup, probably one of the only cars in town. With a bang and lurch, Bob pulled off the runway and, going about mach five, sped down the town's only road, slipping and sliding on the icy surface. From what I could see, the town was a barren place, half the buildings seemed without electricity or plumbing.
"Gosh, how can anybody live here?" I muttered under my breath.
"What's that, John? What ya say?" Bob shouted over the rumble of the engine.
"Oh, nothing," I replied.
Then all of a sudden, the pickup skidded to a stop, brakes screeching so loudly that I had to cover my ears. As far as I could see there was lifeless ice, spotted with clumps of dead, yellow tundra grass.
"Well, this is it, buddy," Bob said, giving me a smile showing half of his teeth were decaying. "If you don't mind me asking, what are you doing up here?"
Before answering, I looked out at my new abode. It looked fair enough. It was a one-room shack with a single-paned window and a rusty tin roof.
Answering the man's question, I repled, "I am a freelance photographer, and National Geographic has sent me here to photograph polar bears and their interactions with humans."
"Well, old pal, I know just the place. About a half of a mile from here is our town dump and where there is trash, there are bears."
"Thanks," I said, as I hauled my stuff out of the back of the truck hoping that nothing was broken. I walked to my shack and opened the door. The place looked better inside. In the corner was my bed, a wire spring mattress with a metal frame, an old fireplace and an ancient black-topped stove.
"Hey, buddy, it's getting cold out here. I am going to take off. See you later."
With that I closed the door, dumped my stuff on the floor, threw an instant-burning log in the fireplace, jumped into bed and fell asleep, puzzling what to do next.
The next morning, I headed to the dump. With the arctic wind blowing in my face, I wrapped my parka closer as I trudged across the icy tundra. The dump was easy to locate because it looked like a mountain against the flatness of the arctic terrain. As I got closer, I could make out three, no, four polar bears, two males and two females. They were an awesome sight, each weighing at least 600 pounds.
I crept closer, jumping from one pile of trash to another, always keeping my camera ready and focused. Before going on this trip, I had read many books on polar bears and how they can be very dangerous, even lethal. In my profession, patience is the key, and after moving around, I found a comfortable spot, between a rusted refrigerator and last year's Christmas feast. The smell wasn't bad since everything was frozen.
After spending two hours at the dump, I had two rolls of film of the bears doing everything from eating to playing. As I got up to return to my shack and enjoy some canned chowder, something gripped me hard on the shoulder.
"Hey, what is ..."
"Don't move!" It was Bob, thank goodness. For a second I thought it was one of the bears.
"Bob, what is ..."
"Don't say a word or twitch a muscle," I noticed that Bob had a rifle across his lap.
Then I saw it. It was the biggest animal I'd ever seen. Its jaws seemed like they could rip a man in half. Its body was a large mass of twitching muscle and fur. "That's George" Bob said.
"My God, that animal is huge! It must weigh over 1500 pounds."
"Yep, he is the craziest animal out here. He attacks anything that moves. He already wrecked my other car and scared the living daylights out of me. Do you see that animal's eyes?" They were black as coal and constantly searching, searching for something to hunt. "They are the work of the devil himself," said Bob.
I quickly got out of my camera and shot picture after picture of this massive animal. Its fur was pure white and it blended in perfectly with the horizon. Finally, Bob and I slowly crept back until we were out of the dump, where we shook hands and parted ways.
* * *
Five weeks passed and I had hundreds of pictures of the bears doing everything imaginable. Bob and I had become friends. Every day we would go to the dump, and sometimes I would lend him one of my cameras. He would go darting through the piles of trash, drawing ever closer to the bears. At first I thought he was getting too close, but I let it go, since he knew more about them than I did. Besides, he always carried a rifle.
The shack had almost become my home, and I had quite a beard after five weeks. This was one of my last days, and I had almost run out of film. It seemed sad to leave my new friend in that barren place, but I promised to come back. After loading my cameras, I headed to the dump to meet him.
"What's up, Bob? Today is going to be one of my last days so I want to get really close to the bears. Hopefully, we will see more of George," I said.
"Today is going to be a good day; he'll show," said Bob optimistically.
I settled in my favorite spot. After waiting for hours and shooting only four pictures, I decided to move. Just as I was about to move, I saw Bob 50 meters away holding his hands in triumph. Seeing no bears I shouted, "Any luck?"
"I got him," Bob shouted, walking toward me.
"Got who?" I asked.
"George," he replied.
As I was about to walk toward him, a locomotion of white fur shot out behind Bob.
"Oh my God, oh my God. Bob, RUN!" I screamed. The bear was closing in fast, and Bob's eyes were inflamed with fear. At that moment, everything seemed like slow motion.
"Shoot it, shoot it. It's George." I shouted. But Bob did not have time. He was struck in the back by the bear's massive body, jamming his head into the snow, probably breaking his back. He didn't have time to scream. Without looking back, I ran. I could see my shack a half mile ahead. Then came the loudest animal roar I have ever heard. I felt the ground tremble. I kept accelerating until I could no longer feel my legs. Pure fear was keeping me running. Then I sensed something behind me. I didn't even dare turn my head. I could hear the rasping breath getting louder as it gained on me.
"My God, I have to make it." But the shack seemed an eternity away. I could literally feel the eyes of the bear, targeting me, and at that instant, I felt two massive paws thrust on my shoulders. My whole body bent under the bear's weight. Pain was everywhere. Then I felt something wet, almost like saliva dripping on my forehead and the warm, stale air of death washing over me.
Blackness was all around, and I couldn't move. I slowly opened my eyes and only saw white, arctic white. Am I in heaven? I thought, No, that is impossible; everything was just too - what's the word - barren. Then the white in front of me moved. I screamed in terror as the bear stared me in the eyes. Its face and paws were smeared with blood and I tried to get up and run. Then that king of beasts, slipping and sliding on my blood until at last he reached me, with one bite, finished what he had started. 1