Canada’s Inuit people call the polar bear nanuk. In Torngat Mountains National Park, an Inuit-run nature reserve in the northernmost part of Labrador, I lost count of how many nanuks I saw, often just yards away, in the space of four days. As I skimmed the bottle-green depths of the park’s spectacular fjords in a Zodiac, they appeared everywhere: prowling the coastline, paddling through the shallows, surveying their dominion from the barren mountainsides.
My guides were three senior members of the Inuit community: Jacko Merkuratsuk and cousins John and Paul Jararuse. They explained that polar-bear populations in northeastern Canada are not just healthy but may actually be on the rise, thanks to regional conservation programs. They pointed out a mother and her two cubs swimming across a bay, their snouts and little round ears poking out of the frigid waves. We were able to get so close we could hear them hissing, a warning sound not unlike steam escaping from an engine. After peering at us and huffing a few times, the creatures chugged toward land, leaped onto shore, and began lumbering away over the boulders at remarkable speed. I stared after them in astonishment: I had never seen wildlife of such grandeur before.
The nanuk commands serious respect among Inuit people, and with good reason. On arriving at the Torngat Mountains Base Camp, every visitor has to watch a half-hour video about staying alive in polar-bear country. The film makes it clear that the bears are highly intelligent and, as the alpha predator in these parts, not to be underestimated. The recommended response to a surprise face-to-face encounter goes as follows: aim desperate punches at the animal’s nose and, as the narrator shouted into our screen, “FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE!”