Polar Podcasts

19: Kent Brooks: “Nanoq! Nanoq!” Close encounters with polar bears in East Greenland

November 03, 2020 Julie Hollis Season 1 Episode 19
Polar Podcasts
19: Kent Brooks: “Nanoq! Nanoq!” Close encounters with polar bears in East Greenland
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode we hear more from Kent Brooks, emeritus Professor at the Geological Museum in Copenhagen, about his encounters with polar bears while on geological field work in East Greenland. 


19: Kent Brooks: “Nanoq! Nanoq!” Close encounters with polar bears in East Greenland

Based on interviews held on January 9–10, 2020 in Kendal, England

Note: Polar Podcasts are designed to be heard. If you are able, please listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that is not evident in the transcript.


Kent 0:01

And er, I had a, I had a pistol there under, under my pillow. And I managed to get the pistol out, carefully unzipped the door of the tent and looked out, and there was a bear about a, with his snout about a foot away from me.

Julie 0:16

Welcome to Polar Podcasts, where you’ll hear stories from geologists who’ve spent their careers, their lives, exploring and studying the remarkable and remote geology of Greenland. Why did they become fascinated with Greenland? What were the problems and the discoveries that drove them? And what was it like working in these remote places, where few people venture, even now? I’m Julie Hollis.

In this episode we hear more from Kent Brooks, emeritus Professor at the Geological Museum in Copenhagen, about his encounters with polar bears while on geological field work in East Greenland. 

Kent 0:55

When we were working for the er, the second year with Nordic, Nordic Mining Company, the um, we worked along the Blosseville coast and Ryberg fjord. And er, we were in the tent there one night. We had two, two pyramid tents, Fjällräven pyramid tents, and er, we had them pitched on the beach. And er, at some point during the night, in the early morning, I think, about four o’clock in the morning, I suddenly felt er, felt a big weight on my feet. And I thought, ‘What the hell’s going on here? That bloody Thomassen is playing some sort of trick on me.’ And I pulled up my feet from underneath the, the weight. And er, it immediately became clear that is wasn’t, wasn’t any, any trick Bjørn was playing. There was an incredible animal-like smell in the air and er, and the thing started thrashing around and a big blow came of the side of the tent and hit me on the back. And er, I had a, I had pistol there under me, under me pillow. And I managed to get the pistol out and went, I was lying on my stomach and carefully unzipped the door of the tent. And looked out and there was a bear about, with its snout about a foot away from me. And er, I had the pistol pointed right at him and I thought, ‘Shall I shoot it? Er, or will it be able to tear me to pieces before it actually dies, even if I shoot him, shoot him through the skull?’ And I thought it was probably not a good idea to shoot at such close range. And er, after a short period, the bear lost interest in me and started ambling away.

And er, and I started screaming, “Bjørn! Bjørn!”

Julie 2:31

Which means bear in Danish.

Kent 2:33

And er, Bjørn Thomassen was of the opinion I was calling to him. And it, I heard this sleepy voice coming out of the tent saying, “It’s not time to get up yet, it’s only four o’clock in the morning.” And I said, “No!, No!, Nanoq! Nanoq!”

Julie 2:47

Which means polar bear in Greenlandic.

Kent 2:49

And then he came out of the tent and by this time the bear was about er, fifty yards away I guess, ambling away. And I’d actually shot, shot in the ground close to it to get it to move faster, get away faster. But the trouble was that it was rather fascinated by where the bullet hit the ground and turned around to examine what was going on and showed every sign of coming back again to find out where, what the strange noise was. So that probably wasn’t a very good idea to do that.

Anyhow, Bjørn came, came out of his tent in his underpants with his camera in his hand and he said, “What did you let it get away for before I got a picture of it?” Anyhow, it went round, it went round some rocks. And Bjørn and I went up there and Bjørn thought he might get a picture from the top of the rocks. But the bloody thing was about a mile away. How it had got so far in that time I’ve no idea. They must move really fast. I mean it was, it was a tiny white speck in the far distance. And all this in a, in a matter of a couple of minutes or so. Anyhow, that was the, that was the bear in er, Ryberg fjord.

Kent 3:55

We also had, had one when we camped on Kramers Island with er, Troels and me and a bloke called Terje Haaland, who subsequently became the Danish Chief of er, of um er, Greenpeace. And Troels, Troels said in the morning, he said there’d been a bear through the camp in the night. And we laughed at him and said er, you imagine all kinds of things when you’re half asleep don’t you and yeah, sure but then, but then shortly after we found, we found tracks of a bear going right between the tents. So it’s probably quite right what Troels said.

Kent 4:33

But the best one was er, when I was with this chap called um, er what’s his name, Phil Neuhoff. And we were camped in the er, the Prince of Wales Mountains. And the Prince of Wales Mountains are er, what are they, twenty, twenty, twenty kilometres north of the end of Kangerlussuaq fjord. They’re nuntaks in the inland ice. And when we were going there, we thought there’s very little chance of er, of any wildlife on them. And so er, we decided we weren’t going to take any artillery.

Now Phil Neuhoff is a, is a, he’s from, from, from the American west and he has no fear of er, of guns. And he generally goes around with a whole load of artillery on him. Well he didn’t take anything on this particular occasion. And I was, just as the helicopter was about to take off, I remembered something I needed to get from the tent. And I ran back to the tent to get this thing and I, I saw, saw my pistol lying on the floor of the tent and I thought well I might as well take the pistol anyhow. So I shoved it into my pocket. And I, I didn’t have any ammun, I think I had four rounds of ammunition in it. I didn’t think it was very important to have.

Anyhow, I went up to this place and we were sitting there er, eating our dinner one night. And the peculiar thing is the Arctic Institute used to give out this booklet telling you how to deal with polar bears in Greenland. And one of the things it told you was, it was absolutely imperative if you were camped out in the wild in Greenland where, where there might be bears, that you have a, a line around the tent, around the camp, which would set off an alarm if a, if a bear crossed it into the camp. Well we’ve never had anything like that. But it told you that one of the best things to er, to er bait, bait the lines with was the tins of goulash in the, in the ration boxes. Well as it so happened when we were sitting there, we were sitting there eating this goulash and er, Phil suddenly said to me, which, I mean it was bitterly cold. We had two small tents and we, we, we were outside all the time. We were sitting, sitting there huddled round the Primus stove on the top of the moraine shoveling, shoveling this goulash into us and shivering probably. And er, Phil suddenly said, “We’ve got company.” I said, “What do you mean we’ve got company? Nobody comes up here.” He said, “Just look behind you.” So I turned around and there was a bloody bear about er, about fifty yards away. “Oh”, I said, “that’s bad news isn’t it. What we going to do here?” I said, “Well I’ve got a gun,” so I went to the tent and got this gun. And the bear was still coming. It had got, got pretty close. And I thought, I’ll er, I’ll scare it off. So I did the shooting, shooting in the ground in front of it again, which was just as effective as it had been the previous time. The bear was more interested in seeing what it was had caused this puff of smoke in the, in the sand in front of it more than anything else. Anyhow er, after it had investigated it, it started, started to come on again. And er, was pretty close by this time. Anyhow, I decided the only thing to do was to shoot it.

Now er, when you’re about, about twenty foot away from a bear, most people get pretty nervous, or at least I did. And my, my shooting wasn’t exactly up to scratch. Er, and when, when I shot, and I was quite clear, I was quite clear that I had to, had to make things work. I only had four rounds of ammunition. I’d used one to try to frighten it away. The next one would be the third. I’d only have two, two bullets left if it ran at me. So I’d have to, have to be careful. Anyhow, I fired and it er, I tried to hit it in the, in the rib cage, in the heart. But it er, it hit its front leg and broke its leg. And they always say about bears, they say there’s only, only one thing in the Arctic that’s more dangerous than a bear, it’s a wounded bear. Anyhow, this bear was crippled. And it went. We were camped by the side of a glacier. And it er, it, it hobbled off leaving a trail of blood behind it and trail, trailing this leg, which I’d broken, the front leg which I’d broken with a bullet. And went up onto the glacier. And it lay down there on the ice and lay perfectly still. It stayed still there over a long time, ten, fifteen minutes we watched it. And I said to Phil, “Do you think it’s dead?” He said, “No, I don’t think it’s dead.” I said, “Why doesn’t it move? Perhaps I’ll go up there and give it, give it a finishing shot.” And he said, “No, I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” And er, he said, “Why don’t you call up the helicopter?”

So we er, got on the radio to them. Got hold of Troels and er, Troels was of course mightily perturbed. Troels always gets very worried about everything. And er, they er, dispatched the helicopter up to us. It’s an hour’s flying time from where the base was up to where we were. So we were hanging around for about an hour and the bear lay perfectly still on the ice. And suddenly it put its head up and started looking around. And oh, what the hell, it’s coming to life again. And it turned out it must have heard the helicopter before we did. Because as soon as the helicopter came into view it leapt to its feet and, and ran up the glacier. And it seemed to be quite er, quite lively. So it was probably good that Phil had told me not to go up close to it and shoot it.

Anyhow er, the pilot, Lindmark 

Julie 9:48

At that time Greenlandair’s chief pilot.

Kent 9:51

he took his rifle and finished it off. And then we took it back, and then we took it back to Sødalen. And he said, he said er, he said, “It’s only a baby, how could you shoot something like that? It’s only a baby.” I said, “It didn’t look like a baby when it was coming at me.” And he said, “Well we could put that into the cabin. Er, let’s lift it up into the cabin.” Well, there were four of us and we each got hold of a leg and tried to lift it into the helicopter cabin but we could scarcely move it off the ground. And in the end we had to roll it into a net sling and sling it down. And then Troels got to work er, making, making a big bear stew out of it.

We of course had to report it. And so I made this report. The rules are that you can only shoot a bear in self defence. And you have to, you have to justify it to the police. And you’re not allowed to keep the carcass or the skin. They have to be, has to be delivered to the nearest police station. Well as it so happens, our nearest police station was four hundred kilometres distant over er, trackless land. And so we managed to persuade the police in Nuuk it wasn’t, wasn’t really very practical to deliver the, deliver the carcass and the skin to a police station. So we got permission to dispose of it how we wanted. Thought they did, they did want the skin. And the skin went, eventually it went to Iceland, then went to Great Greenland in Qaqortoq. So er, they er, [Göran] Lindmark there, he told me, I met him on the plane to Iceland a year, a year later, the following year. And he said he’d seen my skin in Great Greenland and er, he would buy it for me if I wanted. Well I said I didn’t think I wanted it. What do you do with a bearskin? You put it on the floor and trip over it. But I’ve still got the skull on the stairs there. But also we er, I brought some of it home.

Julie 11:35

The meat?

Kent 11:36

Yeah. But they’re paranoic in Iceland about, about agricultural products. They’re nearly as bad as the Australians. They don’t actually spray you when you land there but they’re paranoic about it. They don’t allow meat or anything like that in. Just like Icelandic ponies, for example. They once exported from Iceland you could never bring them back again.

But er, when we landed, I had, I had this big hunk of bear meat in a plastic bag in the, in the, in the cockpit of the plane. And we landed in Akureryi and about er, about midnight or one o’clock in the morning. And there was a young, a young customs girl there to check on us. And we decided the er, the thing to do was the pilot, the pilot and the co-pilot would, would engage her in talk while I snuck round the other side of the plane and removed the bag of bear meat, which I did. And then we slung it on to the plane to come back to Copenhagen. We thought we were probably the only people in Denmark eating, eating bear meat.

Julie 12:36

I’m Julie Hollis and you’ve been listening to Polar Podcasts.

Julie 12:48

In the next episode, we hear more from Professor Allen Nutman about the beginnings of a model for how the ancient rocks in the Nuuk region were formed.