Kite-Skiing in the Arctic

Not allowing your children to watch television and forcing them to play outside just might turn them into National Geographic Young Explorers.

Brother-sister team Sarah and Eric McNair-Landry are no strangers to the frozen north, having grown up exploring it with their adventurous parents. The duo kite-skied more than 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles) across Canada’s Arctic archipelago. Fueled by 200 candy bars, theirs was the first wintertime attempt to retrace the historic Northwest Passage. Along the way, they enjoyed favorable winds, less than favorable ice conditions and visits with indigenous communities.

Watch the video below for a first-hand account of their epic adventure.

About 12 minutes into the video, Sarah and Eric recount how they survived a potentially deadly encounter with a curious polar bear. First, they kick the tent to try to warn the bear that they are humans. When the bear stays despite flairs and shovels, they are forced to fire a warning shot. Luckily, the shot is enough for the bear to lose interest in them and move on.

Photograph by David Schultz, My Shot
Photograph by David Schultz, My Shot

Regulations protecting polar bears differ across the five Arctic territories (Russia, the United States, Greenland, Norway and Canada). Most places allow native peoples to kill polar bears for personal and/or traditional use. On the other hand, these places restrict the killing of polar bears by non-native peoples to instances of self defense (such as the one Sarah and Eric found themselves in). In fact, Canada is the only Arctic state that allows sport-hunting of polar bears—that is, the killing of bears by non-native peoples for non-traditional use.

This past summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Svalbard (a territory of Norway) as a staff member on the Grovsenor Teacher Fellow program. To protect us from polar bears, our guides carried rifles with them whenever we were onshore.

Photograph by Samantha Zuhlke
Photograph by Samantha Zuhlke

As I learned, a bear on land is a dangerous bear. If a polar bear is on land, it usually has been unable to find food on the sea ice. In Svalbard, it’s illegal to kill a polar bear without explicit permission from the governor. Our guides told us a story about a group of students that requested permission to kill a polar bear when it began stalking the cabin they were staying in. The students called the governor to ask for permission to kill the bear, and the governor replied, “There are far more students than polar bears in the world so you do not have permission.” The story goes on that the Governor eventually granted permission to the students to kill the bear. It’s unclear to me how fact balances against urban legend in this tale, but like all good stories it illustrates a larger message—Svalbard is serious about protecting its polar bears.

Recently, a proposal to ban international trade of polar bears and their parts failed at CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.But hunting and parts trade are just two threats that polar bears face. Climate change, the oil industry, pollution, tourism, intraspecific predation and capture for public display also threaten this already vulnerable species.

Sarah and Eric were very lucky they were able to continue on their journey after meeting their hungry polar bear. I hope the bear and the rest of the species gets to continue along their path as well.

Written by Samantha Zuhlke, National Geographic Education

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