Rudolf Harmsen 

The First Bear and a Pizza Party

Field Research at its Best

        The first bear of 1983 and a pizza party


26 July 1983


Once again, the forecast was hot and sunny, but once again, to our delight, it wasn’t. By early morning the sky was gray – the air still. The reflections in the river were perfect and the mosquitoes were everywhere by the thousands. We were ready for a really bad day, but shortly after we got on our research site, a cold, light breeze started to blow in off the Bay. It even got sunny towards mid day, but it never warmed up.

Shortly after we came into camp for lunch, there was a commotion, and YES: the first bear of the season! One of the botany research students, Joanne (1), had been taking soil samples, had looked up, and there was a polar bear coming in her direction. The poor girl was so rattled, she dropped all she was carrying, and started to run towards camp. Halfway, one of her hip-waders got stuck in the mud, so it came off, then also her sock. By the time she reached camp she was a muddy mess. Needless to say, the bear had run off in the opposite direction. But we could still see it from the roof of the lab with our binoculars: a yellowish white blob, the size of a cow, running through the willows, about 2 km to the southeast. Fortunately, Mark (2) and I had some quadrats to sample in the same direction that Joanne was working, so we came with her and stayed within shouting distance. The bear, not surprisingly, did not come back. However, from now on, we should count on seeing bears frequently, and they are known to be dangerous at times. One tries to stay away from them.

Later during the afternoon, it got colder and colder, and a bone-chilling fog rolled in from Hudson Bay. We stuck it out till we had done thirty quadrats, then we retreated to camp, a shot of whiskey and some friendly banter with friends – then dinner, and another day comes to an end.


27 July 1983


After breakfast, Mark and I went out to the Elymus plots (where the bear had been) and started our work. The fog blew in off Hudson Bay without letting up. It was unpleasantly cold, but we gritted our teeth, ran around to warm up, and even tried to absorb the atmosphere of the tundra as well as doing our job. The utter loneliness, distant bird calls, the flat, featureless landscape, the mud! Of course, the bear was on our mind, so every now and then we looked around – but nothing.

We completed our 13 quadrats, and briskly walked home for lunch. There we discovered that the bear was once again in view, but some 2 km south of where we had been. No sweat. We ate lunch, and continued with the Triglochin plots, that are only some 100 m from camp. While working there, the fog became thicker and colder, and it slowly changed via drizzle into rain. When we finished our quadrats, we were soaked and chilled to the bone. The air temperature in the met box stood at 6 degrees Celsius. I was thinking of how much the atmosphere reminded me of stormy days along the north shore of the Netherlands, and Mark commented that it reminded him of the coast of Scotland.

We were barely back in camp when it started to rain in earnest. For the rest of the day it poured. Every building had its leaks, the walkways between buildings were quagmires, and very soon all the field workers started to return, wet, cold and in a mood to quit and have a good time. It was my day for cooking, so I presided over the kitchen, making cabbage rolls, fried rice and carrot salad. The kitchen leaked so badly that the floor was awash in dirty water. Dawn (3) kindly helped me for a while baking brownies for desert, and Philipe (4) drilled a few holes in the floor to drain the water. All the others appropriately congregated in the ‘Dry Lab’ with all the booze they could find, and had a party. What a gag. Rocky (5) called me on the radio, pretending that he was talking with Rodolfo’s Pizzeria, and ordered a pizza. I went along with the fantasy, but gave him the impression that I saw it as just a joke, whereas in reality I went a bit further. Philipe, Dawn and I made a pizza out of hard-tack, tomato paste, chopped cotton grass, grated cheese, raw onion and half a bottle of Tabasco sauce. It was incredibly funny when Philipe delivered the pizza to the party, wearing an apron and a chef’s hat, and the revelers were all a bit too drunk to realize how hot and awful the pizza was until their mouths were full.

Somewhat later the party got out of hand a bit, and Joanne (of the bear episode) became sick. When a few of her fellow revelers tried to help her to her bunk, she fell off the little bridge into the stream. They fished her out, once again a muddy mess, and got her to bed. Fortunately, the camp’s booze had run out – end of party. I served the dinner to a gradually sobering bunch of wrung-out, but happy biologists. The more sober ones even did the dishes. All the time it rained, rained and rained.



1 – Joanne surname? Where and what now?

2 – Mark Woolhouse – Now professor of veterinary epidemiology at University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

3 – Dawn Bazely – Now professor of plant physiological ecology at York University, Toronto.

4 – Philipe surname? Where and what?

5 – Robert 'Rocky' Rockwell -



  dolf@harmsen.net +1 613 544 3626