Sunday, December 5

The day a polar bear could eat us in the Arctic | The weekly country



Darío Ramos was pulling the rope. He listened to the noise of the water entering the hull of the sailboat, the sounds of the Arctic. Pulled and Anahita it stayed listed. It was not just a ship sinking in the glacial ocean: it was more than that. For months that sailboat had become a house, a refuge, the place that protected them.

Looking at the reflection of the sky in the water, he thought of the moment when he had awakened his friend to warn him that there was too much ice, too many blocks of ice that were coming down on them. Although he pushed them with a stick, others and others appeared: around the sailboat the ice seemed to reproduce. He remembered the moment when he looked up and saw through the porthole an iceberg, a huge mass of ice, approaching them. The impact. The noise, but above all the shock. The shock of the advance of thousands and thousands of kilos of ice and then yes, the noise of a can being squeezed. Chidgdjdjljlj. And the waterfall: plop, plop, plop. The overwhelming water. Plop, plop, plop. The protocol and repeated cry: mayday, mayday, mayday. Help, we have an open course. Is big. We cannot see it but it is large, you can see it by the entrance of water. The drip that looked like a waterfall.

Darío Ramos was pulling hard on the rope. Thus the sailboat Anahita it stayed heeled and less water entered. He was trying to delay the sinking until they came to rescue them. He leaned on his left leg, a few millimeters shorter than the other, the product of a poorly done operation: the limp was almost imperceptible, although it prevented him from running fast: a detail that was not minor in that land of ferocious bears.

As he held the rope, staring into the cold, he thought of everything that had happened on that adventure. The fights against the ocean: the winds, the waves and then the wait. Because despite global warming, in that August 2018, the ice that covered the Northwest Passage, which runs along the northern coast of the United States, had been slow to melt. The freezing water made the road (from Nuuk in Greenland to Nome in Alaska) impassable. It only remained to wait. They had waited, the ice had melted and there they were, trying to cross from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. Despite the repeated request of the Canadian coast guard to withdraw – the sea was beginning to freeze again – there they were. Because they believed that a part of the journey, of the romantic and adventurous, was to take a risk, to advance against all the odds. They thought it could. Or actually, with faith in themselves as the only argument, they thought that the two of them (Ramos, 55, youth hockey coach; Saad, sailor captain, 50) would go to power.

They couldn’t. Fortunately, there were three other ships nearby: rescue would take minutes, they imagined, and that left them alone.

While Darío Ramos held the rope, his partner and owner of the sailboat, Pablo Saad, called for help by radio. “We can’t reach them,” they heard the woman’s worried voice, “we didn’t get there.” They were close, yes. But there was too much ice: monolithic blocks that slid on the water and kept them from getting close to where they were.

In the Strait of Bellot, the Anahita it was sinking slowly. There was no current. Perhaps that calm was what disturbed them the most. Except for the noise of the water entering the sailboat, the landscape remained unperturbed.

They had not slept for several hours in a month. To keep the ice from cutting through the anchor, they had taken turns: each two hours on watch, two hours sleep. At times like this (times when it was clear that the world would remain the same even if the sailboat sank), the fatigue was felt even more.

A few meters away, lying on the ice of the iceberg on which they were, the things they had taken: the cans with water, the life raft, some loose ends and the flares, many flares because the insurance had demanded new ones, but the old ones After the expiration date, they still worked. Inside the sinking sailboat, Ramos had prepared her bag to go down, with some gifts for her five children: Ramiro, Jimena, Juan Francisco, Maximiliano, and Delfina. Carved bone earrings, pins, crayons, some Scottish gloves. But Saad hadn’t gotten anything out: he was going to lose his ship, his computers, everything. At the posture of his friend, when stopping at his bag, Ramos felt miserable and decided to let it sink too, almost as a show of respect.

At some point in that long thought of expectation and sleep, the silence had been interrupted by the noise of the engines of small ships. Smell of burned gasoline: broaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa, Nordic and incomprehensible cries of blond sailors looking for a place to enter, a space between the ice. Relief at the possibility of rescue and, amid all that noise, the absence of words. Because, stunned, neither of them spoke.

After a while, how long had it been? He listened to his friend.

—Soltala.

-What?

-The rope. Let go of her, ”Saad said.

It was beginning to get dark. The short night would come: four hours of gloom and uncertainty. The temperature was minus six degrees, but, they knew, it was going to drop. Ramos continued to hold the rope as if one of the few certainties they had left hung from it: the Anahita he was going to sink into those crystalline waters and the two of them would remain on top of that iceberg, along with the things that had come down. The rest might not be, that was. And at that moment, the moment he decided to let her go, Ramos knew, or realized because perhaps that he had already known for a while, that they only had to wait. In the middle of the target were two points: oblivious to their fate, victims of waiting.

Ramos watched the rope sink: nondescript, with the discretion of a sinking rope. The relief at the possibility of rescue was diluted in the icy water: the captain of another of the nearby ships confirmed that it was impossible to reach them. The wind was blowing furiously, and the pieces of ice were arranged like pieces of a messy puzzle. There was only one space left between the icebergs that surrounded them: at full speed there came the little boats that no longer had much to do and, then, chaos. Through there, through that space, blocks and blocks of ice began to enter that collided with each other, hit the iceberg, they were on top of them. Thousands upon thousands of pounds of icy molds that moved as if they were light: with a thunderous noise, they threatened to crush them.

The iceberg they were on and the one Anahita It was tied up and should be 20 meters by 10 long. It was moving too, but everything around it seemed to be moving much faster. The two of them, minimal, were waiting. They hoped that all that, the noise and fury of the Arctic, would stop.

There, still with his friend, Ramos did not think about death. Expectant, he watched what happened: he couldn’t do more. He didn’t want to get wet. If it got wet, it would get cold. Although he knew that being dry was an illusory distraction: if one of those great masses came towards them, he would have nothing to do.

They watched in silence. What could they say to each other: what can one say at such a time? Until a while later, suddenly, as happens in Greek tragedies when a God makes a decision, the waters subsided.

Saad was walking on the iceberg. Maybe not to get cold, maybe to generate endorphins or to be certain that it was doing more than just watching.

“Why don’t we take turns and stand guard?” Asked Ramos.

“I’m going to stay up all night,” Saad said.

Ramos then knew two things: he knew that he too was going to stay up all night. And he knew they weren’t going to talk. During the next six hours they walked alert, each one immersed in himself: thinking about his own mistakes and those of the other, in the intrigue (that one does not look for but appears) to know who had been responsible for their being there, about a piece of ice, lost in that gloomy night.

Torturing himself, returning again and again to the moment of impact with the ice, to the noise of the water entering the sailboat. What would have happened if they didn’t anchor on that iceberg? What would have happened if the navigation unit had not been switched off? What if the instruments with the maps and data had been left on? Thus, for hours: a continuous and lacerating thought. Walking in circles, running through the guilt.

Until around six in the morning the light began to intensify. The sun was rising and the cold was subsiding.

“Don’t you want to hang out in the tent for a while while I patrol?” Ramos asked.

“No,” Saad said.

And they kept walking. Although they no longer stopped at what could have happened. Now they were both thinking of bears.

In Greenland, Ramos had read a pamphlet written in French warning of the danger of polar bears. There were warnings and advice for whoever had to face them: be threatening, yell at them in a deep voice. During the trip, they had heard anecdotes: the girl who had shot the bear without the animal flinching, the bear who had boarded a cruise, the surprise attacks: the dead and badly wounded Inuits. They had received, several times, the advice to buy a rifle and, they had even been in a supermarket, they had seen a Russian one, very cheap: almost a relic but still working. They had thought about buying it, but hadn’t done it and so they were, unarmed in the Arctic.

“Pablo,” Ramos said, pointing at him. At about 20 meters: huge, the menacing bear.

They had to show him who had the power, but in that inhospitable whiteness it was not so clear who had the power.

“Let’s patrol the iceberg,” Saad said, and began to walk, coming and going, back and forth. Ramos raised his arms, jumped on the spot.

A while later, the bear left.

“Others are coming.”

“Or he’s coming back.”

Saad communicated with the icebreaker again. They told him they would send them a helicopter. If they were being besieged, they didn’t have much time left.

Ramos, who is a youth hockey coach, knows that if many things appear in the visual field, perception is difficult, for that he puts cones and obstacles for his students. While Saad alerted the icebreaker, Ramos stopped the lifeboat with an oar, placed the flare buckets several meters apart, the ropes on the ground. The perception of polar bears.

Without speaking, they tried to spot the animal that was confused in the target again. Ramos didn’t want to suffer: that’s what he was thinking. To suffer as little as possible in the following minutes.

“Let’s define what we’re going to do,” he said.

Saad looked at him, but said nothing. It was not the time to say, because another bear or the same one from before was approaching again with its snout up.

Ramos grabbed one of the plastic oars, waving it as if it were a harpoon. Saad tied knots in a rope and began to swing it in the air, making it make noise with the brush of the wind. Maybe that hiss, the aggressiveness they were trying to show, or all of that together made the bear retreat again. As soon as the bear left, a dense mist appeared, as dense as if a cloud had descended to the level of the ice.

At that moment, Ramos thought about death. Not in an abstract and general way. He thought: we are dead. He said it. In the mist, they would not be able to see the bear. If he wanted to attack them, he would do so without them being able to anticipate. They would only realize when they had it on and it was too late. The danger did not go away: moment by moment, it changed form.

Surely, if he had been alone, Ramos would have dropped to the ground. It would have been left until the bear came to hunt it and tear it apart. He had no strength for more. Saad said that if the bear got close, he could shoot it with a flare.

“If the bear steps on the iceberg where we are, I’ll jump on it,” Ramos said, just to say something.

And that irrational, suicidal thought made him realize that his life was not left to chance. He still had something to do, but it was not face the beast, go on top, immolate himself in front of his fury and that, the sacrifice, curious as it may seem, gave him hope. Despite everything pointing to the contrary, he had a strong intuition: “It is not the day I die.” It occurred to him then that he could throw a rope and make a pial, a trap on the floor to try to link the bear, knock it down. That’s where he was when he heard the noise: the blades spinning above them, the unmistakable sound of the end of the wait.


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