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SVALDBARD, NORWAY — Lisa Trotter kneels on a pebbly beach, pulls her rifle off her shoulder and loads up. She hopes she’ll never have to use the weapon, but on a spit of land in the Hinlopen Strait in Svalbard, a stomping ground for polar bears, it’s better to be prepared.
Trotter, 36, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., first came to this Arctic archipelago in her early 20s as a tourist, and loved the place so much that she never really left. Today she works as a tour guide, leading people around the squiggle of islands 350 miles off Norway’s northern coast. “I love to see their faces when they first spot a polar bear,” she says. “That look is what makes it all worthwhile.”
But first you have to find the bears—which, like most things people desperately want to see, have a habit of making themselves scarce. “Look for a dot of cream on the snow,” Trotter says, scanning the horizon, “and tell me.”
Even more important than seeing a polar bear, perhaps, is seeing a polar bear before it sees you. So Trotter heads out into the field early—5:30 a.m.—and scouts the area. She generally doesn’t see her bed again until midnight. Like all Arctic guides, Trotter is haunted by the fear that the moment she closes her eyes, a bear will trundle by on a unicycle, singing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
In other words, she says, “sleep is expensive.”
Then again, there are only so many places a polar bear can hide out here. A dot of cream eventually appears, and so does that other thing Trotter goes in search of every day: the look that makes it all worthwhile. —KIM FOLEY MACKINNON