Polar Bears


Polar Bear photo by Hans-Jurgen Mager via Unsplash

In November 2016, I travelled to Saudárkrókur, in the north of Iceland, researching my book The Wanderer. As is my habit, I dropped into the local police station to speak to the chief constable. On his wall, I couldn’t help noticing a photograph of a polar bear charging down a hill.

The bear had arrived on Iceland’s shores eight years earlier. It had first been spotted by a farmer’s daughter, who was in the sheep shed when she heard her dog barking and running across a field towards a bear, which was busy eating eider ducks’ eggs. The dog was rescued, the alarm was raised and all hell broke loose. Vets from Denmark were summoned with tranquillizer guns and a cage, but the bear was hungry and it was dangerous.

And no one could see it. The weather had turned foggy, and a hungry predator was on the loose. People from all over Iceland drove towards Saudárkrókur to see the bear. It was spotted by a main road, and a crowd of fifty to sixty people gathered to watch. 

The local police carefully approached a hill, behind which they believed the bear was lurking. But not carefully enough: whereas the police thought they were stalking the bear, actually the bear was stalking them. The bear charged down the hill towards the crowd of onlookers, and the police shot it.

The bear always gets shot.

At irregular intervals, bears show up on Iceland’s shores. They are swept out to sea from Greenland on ice floes, and when they are in sight of land, they swim ashore. They are tired and they are hungry and occasionally they are accompanied by a cub. Polar bears are dangerous at the best of times; in these circumstances they are very dangerous. They end up getting shot, usually by the local policeman. The town museums of Bolungarvík on the northwest coast, and Húsavík in the north, contain stuffed polar bears, shot soon after they came ashore.

Bears have been coming to Iceland in this way for centuries. The first was spotted in 890, sixteen years after Ingólfur arrived on the island, by a farmer in Vatnsdalur.

According to a local folk tale, a helpful polar bear once drifted near to the island of Grímsey, which is just off the north coast of Iceland, bang on the Arctic Circle.

One day all the fires went out on the island. It was in the days before matches, and so three islanders had to cross to the mainland to bring back embers to rekindle them. The sea was iced up, so they had to walk across the ice. One of the men got lost and drifted out to sea on an ice floe.

The next morning, the man was cold and hungry and thirsty, but he was still a long way from land. His ice floe drifted towards another chunk of ice, on which there was a mother polar bear trapped with her cubs. The man was scared, but there was nothing he could do to steer his ice away from the bears. Soon they collided. But the mother polar bear didn’t eat the man: she allowed him to suckle her milk with her cubs and kept him warm. When the man had regained his strength, she swam over to the mainland with him on her back. He gathered some embers and then returned on her back to Grímsey, and all the fires on the island could be rekindled. The man was so grateful, he gave the bear cow’s milk and two slaughtered sheep, and the bear swam off back to her cubs.

People like polar bears. Many people don’t like the police shooting them. In Canada and Alaska shooting polar bears is forbidden. Some say it should be possible to keep a helicopter, a cage and a tranquillizer gun on alert to sedate the invading bears and take them back to Greenland. 

This is not as easy as it sounds, partly because of the tendency of fearless Icelanders to run around the countryside looking for a bear every time one is seen. The chief of police at Saudárkrókur genuinely regretted having to shoot the bear, but in a number of accounts of polar-bear killings it seems clear to me that the guy pulling the trigger was excited by it, even if he didn’t admit it. I can imagine the thrill of the chase, big-game hunting with a real purpose, namely to protect local citizens. And I can imagine the outrage afterwards. People get really upset about this. Possibly upset enough to kill?

The idea for my novella The Polar Bear Killing was born.

By the way, if you would like a free copy of The Polar Bear Killing, and quarterly emails about my writing, sign up here.

Photo by Hans-Jurgen Mager via Unsplash


  1. This blog is now published as a book. It is an easy, very enjoyable read with alot of information on places to visit in Iceland. Useful do´s and don´ts thrown in too. If you are planning a holiday to Iceland then read this book beside a PC with a google map of Iceland on screen. It will whet your appetite for a visit to a fascinating landscape....


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