“We are the bear.”
That’s how James Raffan ended the final chapter of his 2014 book, Circling the Midnight Sun. In other words, what we are doing to polar bears, we are doing to ourselves—it was a climate change call to action. Ice Walker picks up where that message left off, revealing just how intimately we are connected to these incredible creatures.
James Raffan with book - photo by Gail Simmons
To lay all my cards on the table, I should probably tell you that James Raffan and I are buddies. We’ve travelled together through the Arctic a number of times and stood shoulder-to-shoulder as we’ve admired bears, sauntering across ice floes or gorging on fresh seal, never quite sure if our watery eyes are from the crisp air or from the magic that befalls those who get to witness such moments. And even though I’ve seen polar bears in the wild many times before, this book still hit me in a special way.
If you’ve read Raffan’s work before, you’ll see that Ice Walker is a departure from his usual writing style. The text plays with the boundaries of creative non-fiction, leaning much more toward the creative side of things than traditional for the genre. It’s done with incredible effectiveness—much the same way that David Attenborough’s narrations resonate differently than old educational filmstrips.
The beginning of Ice Walker was everything I expected. Raffan is a storyteller by trade, so it was no surprise to me that the man could spin an evocative yarn. He starts with an introduction to Nanurjuk, whose name means the bear-spirited one, a seven-year-old female polar bear hunting for seals on the ice of Hudson Bay.
James Raffan - published by Simon and Shuster Canada - 2020 - all rights reserved
With vivid detail, he describes Nanu’s hunts, her flirtations with her boar suitors, her movements, her maternal instincts and the birth of her two perfect cubs. All seems beautiful and pristine and wild and perfect.
As the story wore on, I grew increasingly startled. Surely, I thought, all the surreal events woven into the tale couldn’t possibly happen to one family of bears over the span of only a few years.
But, of course, they could. In today’s world, they do.
Through the expert narration, I felt as though I was in Nanu’s den on the shores of northern Manitoba. As though I was walking beside her deep footprints. As though I, too, was fighting for my life in the bay’s icy waters. The emotion with which Raffan describes these, in such a very non-textbookish way, is what drew me to read the entire story in a sitting one evening. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down.
The biology of bears is not new to me. Their adaptations and behaviours and physiology I’ve all learned before. But Ice Walker presents these facts in a new, visceral way. Thanks to Raffan’s collaborations and friendships with Inuit elders, beautiful bits of traditional knowledge are woven throughout the text, including folktales, lunar calendar names and an Inuit star map.
Also important is that, as much as I found myself cheering on Nanu from the comfort of my armchair, Raffan’s guidance reminded me as a (southern, non-Indigenous) reader that we really must champion Inuit—whose lives and cultural wellbeing are intimately connected to the hunt—as much as we must advocate for Nanu. The call to action from six years ago still rings true: we are the bear.
This book is one not to be missed.