Exotic Climes

Going the extra mile for bears and bats

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Arctic bound? A few tips: sealskin is warmer than synthetic fleece. Dogsleds outperform snowmobiles. Kayaks are better than motorboats. And pencils are far preferable to pens, which tend not to work at temperatures below freezing. These are a few of the things that Marla Cone, who wrote our piece about polar bears (Svalbard, Norway, 600 miles south of the North Pole. "Arctic people have amazing survival skills," she says, "and they use traditional methods and tools not because such things are quaint, but because they are best suited to the environment."

Cone, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times who spent a year and a half on a fellowship to study the Arctic environment, is one of the few visitors to Svalbard to get to see very young polar bear cubs (they stay close to the remote areas to which travel is restricted by the government), never mind interact with them. "At first," she says, "I feared coming closer than a couple of feet. But as I saw them nuzzle Andy [Derocher] and Magnus [Andersen, scientists with the Norwegian Polar Institute], I realized the cubs were harmless. I reached out to pet them—their dark eyes were all innocence and wonder, like the eyes of babies—and it occurred to me that we might be the only human beings they ever see. I felt like I was in some sort of surreal petting zoo, but I never forgot that I was in the bears’ environment, a harsh, unforgiving place." She also realized, sadly, that the cubs would likely not live to adulthood—most do not. That is why she went to Svalbard in the first place: to try to find out why these bears have such low survival rates.

Rudy Chelminski first visited Romania in 1989 to cover the downfall of that nation’s megalomaniacal despot Nicolae Ceausescu, who, with his wife, was ultimately executed by a firing squad following his conviction on charges of mass murder. "Dodging tanks in the snow and keeping my head down for fear of snipers from the dreaded Securitate secret police," says Chelminski, "I joined the international press in the ancient rite of pretending not to be scared in the face of danger." But back again a dozen years later to report our story on the brouhaha over a Count Dracula theme park in the Romanian province of Transylvania (Bucharest." All things considered, he adds, "I prefer the vicarious thrill to the real one." And that, of course, is the reasoning that led Romania’s tourism chief to his controversial plan for a Dracula park.

About Carey Winfrey
Carey Winfrey

Carey Winfrey was Smithsonian magazine's editor in chief for ten years, from 2001 to 2011.

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