Polar Bears: Who Was Your First?

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JoAnne is in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, to study polar bears.

I am sitting out in the middle of the Churchill tundra. I am rocking back and forth in a Tundra Buggy as 44 mile-per-hour (70 kilometer-per-hour) winds blow the snow all around. I think back to my first wild polar bear sighting.

It was nine years ago, and I had just arrived to the lodge and had sat down to a nice, warm dinner. A friend I had traveled with whispered in my ear, “Do you want to see your first bear?” I grabbed my camera and ran to the outside deck. It was blowing a gale and the temperature was -20 Fahrenheit (-29 degrees Celsius). There he was: the most incredibly large male polar bear I had ever seen. His head was immense, perhaps two feet wide between his ears, his paws stretched out in front like massive dinner plates; his fur was wooly and thick, but his big gorgeous face had a huge wound where his right eye should have been.

We named him One-eyed Jack. He spent the next few days hanging around resting and waiting for the ice to form out on the Hudson Bay. We got to know each other very well, as he seemed to always come up to my window to see what I was doing. Three days later, the ice was ready and he was off. He simply stood up and began walking north; he briefly stopped and gave me a final nod goodbye. It was bittersweet, as I was sure I would never see my friend again. The eye wound was so serious that none of us thought it possible for him to survive the bitter arctic winter and be able to hunt.

I returned the following year and was watching several young males sparring when all of sudden they stopped. On a snow mound just behind walked an immense male bear. He was thin but walked with massive dinner-plate-sized paws. He had wooly fur, an immense head, and yes, that missing right eye. A friend on another buggy called over the radio “Hey, it’s JoAnne’s Jack!” Jack headed straight over to the window I was watching from, stood up on the side, and showed me the fabulous new “smile” that now replaced his right eye.

For three more years my friend Jack came to visit. Every year he was thin, and we guess he was reaching close to 20 years old the last time he came to say hello. Those last five years would have been spent with just that smile to replace his eye. Jack was a tough boy and such a privilege to know. One–eyed Jack was my first. Who was yours?

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.