Polar bears in winter: insights from Behouden Huys, 1596-1597

As a follow-up to my previous post on polar bears giving birth (December is polar bear nativity month) I thought I’d continue the generalized theme of “polar bears in winter.”

polar bear aurora_borealis_3-t2 free

While we don’t really know for sure what non-pregnant polar bears do during the depth of the Arctic winter, we have bits of evidence – some from modern hunters and polar bear researchers but also from Arctic explorers. One explorer in particular comes to mind: William Barents [Willem Barentsz] of Holland, who attempted to reach China via the Arctic Northeast Passage in the late 16th century. On their third voyage (1596-1597), Barents and his crew were forced to spend the winter on the northern tip of Novaya Zemlya (latitude 760N, see Fig. 1) when their ship became trapped in the sea ice. Crew member Gerrit De Veer (1609) kept a journal account of the long, horrifying winter they spent on shore, in a shelter they built with materials salvaged from the ship. They called their winter home Behouden Huys (“the saved house”).

Figure 1. Location of Novaya Zemlya, in the Barents Sea. On the map at left (a), the black square marks the location of Behouden Huys, the over-winter home of William Barents and his crew (1596-97) on Novaya Zemlya (the “track of boats” noted marks the return journey of Barents in the summer of 1597). This is modified from Zeeberg et al. 2002:331. The map on the right is from Wikipedia, for perspective. click to enlarge.

Figure 1. Location of Novaya Zemlya, in the Barents Sea. On the map at left (a), the black square marks the location of Behouden Huys, the over-winter home of William Barents and his crew (1596-97) on Novaya Zemlya (the “track of boats” noted marks the return journey of Barents in the summer of 1597). This is modified from Zeeberg et al. (2002:331). The map on the right is from Wikipedia, for perspective. click to enlarge.

An English translation of De Veer’s journal is now available online and it offers a fascinating glimpse of what it meant to live through that long dark winter under almost-constant fear of attack by polar bears. The Dutchmen were plagued by polar bears almost the entire time they were on Novaya Zemlya (see Fig. 2). De Veer’s notes on these encounters provide a unique perspective on polar bear activities over the Arctic winter – ironically, it is not the havoc the bears caused that provides the most important clue but rather, the timing of when they left Barents and his crew alone.

Figure 2. An engraving from De Veer’s journal conveys the struggle the crew faced in warding off polar bears during their winter stay at Novaya Zemlya. The bears not only stalked and attacked the crew - they got into the food stores on the ship (From Wikipedia).

Figure 2. An engraving from De Veer’s journal conveys the struggle the crew faced in warding off polar bears during their winter stay at Novaya Zemlya. The bears not only stalked and attacked the crew, they got into the food stores on the ship.
(From Wikipedia).

Before I get into the polar bear details, I should mention the two immutable features of an Arctic winter:

It’s cold. Average January to February winter temperatures in the Arctic above 800N latitude are about -300C – which means it occasionally gets colder than that. As I sit writing this on January 6, 2012, it is -180C at Alert, Canada, the world’s northern-most weather station. You can find the current temperatures around the Arctic (whatever day you’re reading this) at this fantastic interactive Athropolis weather map.

It’s dark. Most people are aware that it’s cold during an Arctic winter but often forget about the fact that at 800N and above, the sun does not rise above the horizon from the middle of October until the end of February, which means dusk-like conditions are the most “daylight” that exists for more than four months. Depending on where a polar bear is spending the winter (north or south of 800), the number of sunless days will vary. For example, locations just north of the Arctic Circle (the point above which this phenomenon occurs), such as Murmansk in Russia, have a relatively short “winter’s night” of only one month (see Fig. 3 below, modified from this poster).

Figure 3.  Daylight variation in the Arctic near 800N (magenta circle). Behouden Huys, the over-winter home of Barents and his crew in 1596-97 on Novaya Zemlya was located at 760 12’N. It had a “winter’s night” of 2 months (early November-early February) – half as long as that experienced at Alert and twice as long as MurmanskModified from a poster by Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRID-Arendal 2008. Click to enlarge.

Figure 3. Daylight variation in the Arctic near 800N (magenta circle). Behouden Huys, the over-winter home of Barents and his crew in 1596-97 on Novaya Zemlya was located at 760 12’N. It had a “winter’s night” of 2 months (early Nov.-early Feb.) – half as long as that experienced at Alert and twice as long as at Murmansk.
Modified from a poster by Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRID-Arendal 2008.

The geographic position of Behouden Huys meant it had about two months of darkness, from early November through mid-February. The insight into polar bear winter activities comes from the marked lull in polar bear sightings and attacks experienced by Barents and his crew during this period.

As De Veer tells it (p. 121):

The 4 of November it was calm weather, but then we saw the sun no more, for it was no longer above the horizon…The same day we took a white [arctic] fox…the bears left us at the setting of the sun, and came not again before it rose [in the spring], the fox[es] to the contrary came abroad when they [the bears] were gone.

This suggests that during the darkest days of the Arctic winter, the polar bears in the vicinity of northern Novaya Zemlya were inactive. But was it the dark – or was it the cold? While it was cold with intermittent storms through November, it was generally fair enough for the men to be outdoors on many occasions. They even went to the ship during November and saw no bears.

It was not until December that De Veer noted massive storms coming one after the other, with lots of snow and howling wind. During this depth of winter (December to early January), even when the storms died down it was even more bitterly cold than it had been in November. They did go outside whenever there was a short break in the weather, however – to get more firewood and to collect Arctic foxes from the traps they had set (the foxes seemed not to mind the dark or the cold: the crew were able to trap foxes all winter and used the furs for hats and consumed the meat, which they apparently relished).

After a harrowing encounter with three bears on the 26th of October (as they moved the last of their belongings off the ship), the men did not see another bear until Jan. 31, almost a week after they famously saw an illusion of the sun rising above the horizon. The timing of this hiatus of polar bears – in relation to the extent of storms and cold experienced at this location – suggests that they reduced their activities due to the darkness, not the cold.

And on Feb 11, about the time the sun poked up above the horizon for the first time that winter, De Veer noted that (pg. 154):

about noon there came a bear towards our house, and we watched her with our muskets, but she came not so near that we could reach her. The same night we heard some foxes stirring, which since the bears began to come abroad again we had not much seen.

[Bears are almost always referred to as “she” in these accounts, with the odd “he” used in the same sentence. It seems apparent that these interchangeable pronouns are not meant to denote the sex of the bears described.]

On Feb. 12 they killed a bear and De Veer noted that during the butchering, they recovered

at least one hundred pounds of fat out of her belly, which we melted and burnt in our lamp…for by that means we still kept [could keep?] a lamp burning all night long, which before we could not do for want of grease…. we had more light in our house by burning of lamps, whereby we had means to pass the time away by reading and other exercises, which before (when we could not distinguish day from night by reason of the darkness, and had not lamps continually burning) we could not do.

[One hundred pounds of fat from a late winter bear suggests it was in very good condition - either it had been eating during the dark and cold of the Arctic winter or had been much fatter in the fall before fasting over the winter.]

By mid February, the sun was making a brief appearance each day and for a while, De Veer notes they continued to see both foxes and bears:

…the same day [Feb. 17] five of us went to the ship to see how it lay, which we found in the same state as before; there we found foot-steps of many bears, as though they had taken it up for their lodging when we had forsaken it. (pg. 156).

On the 23rd of February, they collected their last foxes from the dead-fall traps. After this date, De Veer makes no further mention of foxes but by the sounds of it, polar bears had returned with a vengeance.

Barents’ crew continued to have as much trouble with bears over the spring and early summer of 1597 as they had had during the early part of their stay. With the notable exception of that dead-of-winter break (Nov. 4 to Jan. 31), bears watched and stalked them continuously from mid-Sept. until the day before they left on Jun. 13 (see summary below).

Polar bear encounters that Barents and his crew endured:
15 Sept.      three bears at the ship (killed two)
27 Sept.      saw two bears (one a cub), chased off
28 Sept.     one bear at the ship, chased it off
29 Sept.     stalked by three bears (two were cubs), chased them off.
10 Oct.       one bear at the ship, chased it off
11 Oct.        one bear at the ship, chased it off
16 Oct.       one bear at the ship over night
18 Oct.       saw one bear on the ice
19 Oct.       one bear at the ship, chased it off
[26 Oct.     moved from the ship into their house]
26 Oct.     three bears at the ship as they moved off it; they injured one bear, eventually chased them all off

31 Jan.     one bear at the house, chased it off
11 Feb.      one bear near the house, it moved off
12 Feb.      one bear at the house (killed) [rendered 100 lbs of fat]
17 Feb.      many bear tracks at the ship
4 Mar.       one bear at the house, chased off
4 Mar.       evidence of bears at the ship (took the cook’s locker)
28 Mar.     evidence of bears on the ship
30 Mar.     two bears at the house, moved off
6 Apr.       one bear damaged the roof, eventually it moved off
15 Apr.      one bear near the ship, chased it off
18 Apr.      one bear at the house, chased it off
25 Apr.     two bears at the house, chased them off
1 May        one bear at the house, chased it off
29 May     one bear at the house – almost got in (killed)
12 Jun       “a great lean bear” near the ship (killed)
13 Jun       the crew left the island

In summary, Barents and his crew saw or heard no bears from November 4 until January 31, almost exactly the period when the sun was below the horizon – with much activity both before and after. This hiatus of polar bear activity around Behouden Huys did not correlate with the period of most intense storms and cold. The experiences of these men – chronicled by De Veer more than 400 years ago – suggests that polar bears may spend the darkest part of the winter curled up in a sheltered spot rather than out and about looking for food.

In my next post, I’ll examine the evidence that polar bear biologists and hunters have to offer regarding the question of what polar bears do during the cold and dark of an Arctic winter.

References
Athropolis interactive weather map http://www.athropolis.com/map2.htm

De Veer, Gerrit. 1609. The Three Voyages of William Barentsz to the Arctic Regions (English trans.). http://archive.org/details/cihm_18652 [downloaded Dec. 19, 2012]

Lehn, W. 2011. The Novaya Zemlya Effect. Oral presentation at the Humboldt Association Symposium, Vancouver, B.C., May 12-13, 2011. Available online at http://www.humboldtcanada.com/hac_home.htm [accessed Jan. 6 2013] www.humboldtcanada.com/presentations_air/lehn.pdf

Zeeberg, J.J., Floore, P.M., Maat, G.J.R., and Gawronski, J.H. 2002. Search for Barents: evaluation of possible burial sites on North Novaya Zemlya, Russia. Arctic 55:329–338. http://arctic.synergiesprairies.ca/arctic/index.php/arctic/article/download/716/742

See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willem_Barentsz

Comments are closed.