Bjørnøya — Here is Laban, a 5-year old Alaskan husky, alert outside the weather station on the island of Bjørnøya deep in the Barents Sea. He is beautiful and patient, and he is also an unexpected barometer: The station crews once kept dogs here to warn them of wandering polar bears (Bjørnøya means “Bear Island”), but the big predators haven’t been seen for years. Sea ice doesn’t reach the island anymore, and so bears can’t, either. The last one wandered, or swam, to Bjørnøya in 2013, just as Laban arrived. It left tracks in the snow, and then vanished. With no bears to repel, Laban and his comrade, a two-year-old named Yukon, pounce instead on visitors—licking, leaping, pushing their fine soft heads into your palms. On a walk today the dogs bounded over the tundra beside us, down to the sea, following the scent of Arctic foxes. I walked with Alex, the head chef. Over his shoulder he carried a rifle, which is, like the dogs, a reminder. Scattered throughout the station is an arsenal of rifles and flare guns, more than a dozen, collected in racks by the doorways, or standing alone in corners like sentries. The weapons are relics from the “old days” when winter ice enveloped the island and created a roadway for bears. Alex must, by regulation, carry the rifle when he leaves the station—an echo from the last fatal polar bear attack here, in 1971. But now, the guns and the dogs have both outlasted their purpose. They are little monuments to a colder world, a different Arctic. Each time Alex walks with Laban and the gun he is, without trying, taking quiet measure of how far things have come.
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