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Retired wildlife biologist recounts his face-to-face meeting with a polar bear

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

And now we bring you another eventful, cold-themed tale from the Alaska nonfiction storytelling show and podcast "Dark Winter Nights," hosted by Rob Prince. It's the second in a series we're airing this month. This one was performed in 2018 by Geoff Carroll, a retired wildlife biologist who lives in Utqiagvik, Alaska's northernmost town.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEOFF CARROLL: There I was. I was standing on the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean. I was barefoot. I was standing there in my long underwear. There was a polar bear charging directly at me, and the gun I had that was for bear protection wouldn't fire. So anyway, I'll give you a little background...

(LAUGHTER)

CARROLL: ...To explain how I got into that predicament.

RASCOE: This was spring of 1985. Carroll was the camp leader for a bowhead whale census that was being done from the ice off of northern Alaska, a count to see if the population was increasing or decreasing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARROLL: We would do our counts from the - it's called the land-fast ice along the Arctic coast. Land-fast ice is attached to the shore and extends out into the ocean for anywhere from a mile to several miles. So we would locate our camps on the edge of that ice. We'd keep a 24-hour watch whenever possible and count all the whales that went by.

RASCOE: There was incredible wildlife viewing from this vantage point - bowhead whales, obviously, but also belugas, seals and birds.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARROLL: But being on the ice, the really exciting animals that we dealt with - or the most exciting, I guess - were the polar bears. We were camped right on the edge of the open lead, which is where the seals were, so lots of polar bears around. We'd get to see these feats of strength. Polar bear would jerk a seal out of a hole, shake it around like a burlap sack, you know? But there was always kind of that element of danger. And, you know, just sharing the ice with a big, strong predator like that, we were always on guard.

RASCOE: They had a variety of ways to scare them off with noise - cracker shells, air horns, shotguns fired into the air. Sometimes they chased them away with snow mobiles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARROLL: You know, 99% of the time the bears were dealt with, you know, had a happy ending. It worked out quite well.

RASCOE: But one day, Carroll's colleague Jim was in the cook tent, making himself some food when he thought he heard something.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARROLL: So he looks over at the door of the tent, and here comes a polar bear in through the door, kind of halfway in. And so unfortunately, the gun for that tent was - somebody set it by the door.

(LAUGHTER)

CARROLL: So that didn't do Jim any good. And so he started yelling at the bear at the top of his voice and didn't get the response he wanted.

(LAUGHTER)

CARROLL: But - and so he reached out and grabbed the frying pan and threw it at the bear and made a heck of a shot. Smacked that bear right in the nose. And bear back-pedaled back out of the tent.

RASCOE: Carroll had been asleep in one of the other tents, but he heard Jim yelling, grabbed a shotgun and ran outside.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARROLL: The bear had just been bonked in the nose with a frying pan. He was pissed off at the world. So he decided he'd take it out on me and made this full-bore charge right out me

RASCOE: As fast as he could, Carroll cranked a shell into the chamber of the gun and attempted to take the safety off.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARROLL: It was really cold, and guns don't always work real well in the cold. Anyway, I raised it up, pulled the trigger, and nothing happened.

RASCOE: Quickly and without thinking...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARROLL: Somehow, I switched gears and decided to use the shotgun for a club. I gave it my best swing and smacked him in the ear. And well, the stock broke off the gun. But it was - knocked the bear down, much to my amazement. He's there, kind of shook his head and got back up, and he was ready for round two. So I'm standing there with a gun with no stock and wondered what in the world I was going to do next. And fortunately, my best friend, Dave Raimi (ph), had come out of the other sleep tent, and he had a shotgun in his hands. And he raises up and used the gun the way you're supposed to use a gun. He shot the bear.

RASCOE: Of course, Carroll felt sorry about the bear's death, but there were some major positive ways that the event impacted his life. Word got around about what had happened, and it wound up making an impression on a team that was up in Alaska doing a warm-up run for an expedition to the North Pole. Long story short, Carroll ended up connecting with them and joining their expedition - a journey he calls the trip of a lifetime.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARROLL: But more important, at the end of that census season, I was attending a party. And this very attractive young lady approached me.

(LAUGHTER)

CARROLL: And turned out to be Marie Adams, who was, like, most amazing woman I ever met. We did get married, and we've had 30 years...

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

CARROLL: ...Of a very, very interesting life. So anyway, you know, if you do something kind of foolish sometimes and you get lots of positive attention for it, just go with it.

(LAUGHTER)

CARROLL: You might get an interesting trip or a really good wife out of the deal.

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

CARROLL: Thank you.

RASCOE: That's Geoff Carroll, who told his story in front of a live audience in 2018 for the show and podcast "Dark Winter Nights." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.