I was born blind and very, very small – about the size of a guinea pig or so I am told, though I’ve never met a guinea pig so this fact does little to help my imagination. My memories of my first home are filled with joy. I remember feeling warm and loved. I was born in a den in Nunavut, alongside my brother, Arctos. Our very first months were spent cuddling up to our mother, Anaana, growing fat off her rich milk and soaking in her body heat. I don’t remember being unable to see because soon my sight came to me. Instead, I remember the den being dark but light enough that I could make out Arctos and his small size compared to Anaana. The three of us spent our time snuggled up in Anaana’s chamber throughout the cold winter. We spent an eternity in the den but it was an amazing time for us. Anaana filled the long nights by telling us stories of the wide world outside of our small den. She told us about the journey to the sea ice and the rich foods that awaited us there, including seal meat that was full of fat and blubber. She told us stories of the Inuit, a people we respected and feared and the feeling was mutual. Scarier still was the story of our own kind, we must be careful, Anaana warned us, not to anger larger polar bears. We would meet the famous walruses with tusks as large as our heads and we would swim long distances, sharing the sea with narwhals: whales with strange horns, the unicorns of the sea. We watched as each day the light in the den would last a little longer and we feasted on Anaana’s milk as we waited, growing bigger and stronger. Eventually, after a few months of Anaana’s warmth and her stories, she told us the time had come to emerge from our den. Anaana pushed and scraped an exit from the only home we had ever known and so started our journey.
Arctos cowered in the den at first, nervous to explore, but the snow called to me and I bounded out, rolling on my tummy and sliding down the hill.
“Nanuq!” Anaana called to me, laughing. “Don’t wander out of sight.”
I heeded her warnings but I pushed the boundaries and bounded in circles. Eventually, Arctos, curious by my joy, decided to join me and we rolled around until the rumbling of our stomachs brought us back to Anaana.
We explored life outside our den for over a week. I was already very brave and curious but Anaana warned me to take heed and follow her example. She was nervous outside of the den and Arctos picked up on this, always running back at the smallest sound, the crunch of snow or the call of an eagle.
On a bright, crisp morning Anaana turned to us and told us we would be journeying to the sea ice. We must stick close, she warned us, and always listen to her instructions. Arctos was afraid and he wanted to stay near the den but Anaana was hungry and she told us she would soon run out of milk if she did not eat. The idea of no food made Arctos braver and he forced himself from the den.
We started our journey through the snow, bounding down hillsides and sliding along on our stomachs for fun. The world smelled different and I picked up scents I had never smelled before. Anaana was able to identify each scent.
“That’s caribou” she would say as we sniffed the air, “reindeer, arctic fox…”
She would list the smells of the Arctic until we learned them too. Eventually, as we started to tire, the scent changed. I could almost taste the salt on my tongue and I knew we were reaching the sea ice. Anaana and Arctos could smell it too and we quickened our pace, excited to finally reach our hunting grounds.
The sea ice, for those who have never seen it before, is beautiful. Miles of crisp, white snow piled on top of thick ice; perfect for rolling in and making snow angels. Glaciers hugged the shoreline and, for us, it felt like home.
We spent months hunting with Anaana. Her nose could pick up the scent of a baby ringed seal buried deep within the snow. She also showed us how to seek out the adult seals breathing holes and wait for them to stick their heads up through the ice. We all grew fat. Arctos and I continued to drink rich milk from Anaana but we also tasted the fat from the seals. Anaana was much healthier during this hunting period but as time wore on and the days got warmer, the sea ice started to break up and melt. We spent more and more time in the water, swimming between patches of ice. Days passed where Anaana still had not caught another seal and she grew hungry.
This was our worst memory of the sea ice. We were all tired and hungry and this led to lots of bickering between me and my brother. The fighting was the reason we all got into serious trouble. We had finally made it to a large ice floe but Anaana seemed worried. We couldn’t smell any seals but there was another smell, much more pungent: walrus. The walruses were all squashed together at the edge of the ice floe, taking a rest from diving for food. And they were huge! Gigantic females jostled for the best resting space and kept watchful eyes on their calves, which were playing in the nursery. We were hungry but not that hungry – the tusks alone were bigger than me!
Irritable, famished and sickened by the walrus aroma, Arctos started chewing at my ears. I fought back and Anaana growled at us to stop drawing attention to ourselves but we carried on goading each other regardless. Arctos landed under me and I nipped his ear, hard. He squealed and ran to Anaana in an effort to get me scolded but, just as she turned to growl at me, Anaana stood bolt upright, sniffing the air. She had spotted something: a male polar bear was attempting to reach a calf in the walrus nursery. He had managed to sneak up close but now he was in the open and the herd were frenzied. Mothers were crashing their tusks and aiming them straight for the polar bear, he backed off, defeated.
“Stick close,” Anaana warned us as she ushered us away from the ruckus, pushing us urgently with her head and paws.
I could feel the fear in the depths of my tummy and I blindly followed Anaana, calling to Arctos as I ran as fast as I could. Arctos was fast on my heels; he knew we were in serious danger. Anaana spun around and stood on two feet again, looking about her and letting out a low growl. The large male was heading our way: baby polar bears were an easier target than a walrus. He sniffed the air hungrily as he headed in our direction. He was bigger than Anaana but he was skinnier, much skinnier; he looked like a walking bag of bones.
“Anaana,” Arctos hissed breathlessly, “he’s bleeding!”
Anaana saw that Arctos was right. She shouted at us to run as fast as we could. She hoped he might not pursue us if we were far enough away. Arctos didn’t need telling twice and he was off like a bullet, with me close on his heels. Anaana led us in the
opposite direction from the bear, always stopping to check if we had lost him. Arctos and I were too petrified to look behind, our hearts where in our mouths and we found that we could run much faster than we ever had before. We reached the edge of the ice floe and Anaana took one last look around her.
She breathed a sigh of relief but, even so, she wanted to move to a new ice floe. We clambered on her back, exhausted, and Anaana swam far away into the distance. She told us the male polar bear must have been starving to attempt to hunt a walrus. Arctos was shocked that anyone would take on the huge beasts but Anaana said hunger could drive a polar bear to do almost anything, even eat litter from the human bins! She explained that the sea ice was melting quicker and taking longer to freeze again after summer. Food was becoming scarcer in the summer months.
These words filled me with a sense of dread. I felt helpless and I was desperate to find some sea ice soon. Anaana had been swimming for a long time and she was tiring but, just as the journey started to feel hopeless, we caught the scent of something powerful, something edible. Anaana turned her nose in the direction of the new smell and we aimed for a distant shoreline, where a beluga whale carcass had washed up. There were no other polar bears in sight and Anaana told us to hurry and eat before others showed up.
That night, we slept soundly with our bellies full. I dreamed of hungry male polar bears and melting ice; of the Inuit and of their traditions; of a world where skinny polar bears turned on each other. I dreamed of fear and of hunger, of being forced into the territory of angry humans. But I also dreamed of hope. Hope for next summer to be cooler and for more fortuitous encounters with whale carcasses. I hoped for my future.
As summer drew to a close and the sea ice started to re-form, we had learned valuable life lessons that would help us when we were adults like Anaana. We still had a lot of learning to do and it wasn’t time for us to leave Anaana just yet but we knew that if anyone could teach us to survive in this changing world, it was Anaana.