Champagne and Polar Bears by Marie Tieche – Book Review

Champagne and Polar Bears By Marie Tieche (Summersdale. 2007)

I am not one for turning down a book about the Arctic. Ever. I can’t say this title is particularly appealing though. Actually, it’s damn awful! But the story behind it is inspirational, especially as Marie was the first woman to over-winter at over 80 degrees North.

Marie Tieche, a hardy English woman lived in the town Longyearbyen – the largest settlement of Svalbard, working numerous jobs to fund her life there. It’s in Longyearbyen, where she met a German professor – Hauke – in a bar. Before long she had agreed to over-winter with him on a remote, glaciered island surrounded by polar bears – which, might I remind you, are the largest carnivores on the planet.

Marie’s writing style is brisk and direct, and the book does have a certain ‘first book’ feel to it. My immediate thoughts were ‘this is a very new writer.’

I enjoyed the build up to the trip. At moments, it came across as being quite intense, at others, it was as if it was something every day and not out of the ordinary. Marie described her trepidation about spending a year with a man she’s only just met with brutal, British honesty.

‘My worst worry (I was still trying not to think about the bears) was about seeing the same person day in, day out, for a whole year. I knew of instances in the past where it had all gone horribly wrong between couples, married or otherwise, but for others it had been a success.’

The stocking up of supplies made for fascinating reading, and I made mental notes myself. (Yes, it is, as a matter of fact, on my wish list to spend a year, if not more with a man on an isolated island in the Arctic.)

‘We bought extra packs of practise ammo which we would use to scare away bears. Some hunters took a variety of different bullets to use, even rubber ones…additionally Hauke bought for me a metal item that looked just like a biro, but on the end one screwed on what looked like a party popper. It was an explosive device that could be fired towards bears at close range, about twenty-five metres away, and which let off a loud explosion to frighten off the bear.

There’s a lovely moment where Marie is mulling over what to take with her to keep her mind and hands occupied.

‘Up in the box room at my parents’ there were, funnily enough, boxes. Lots of them, banana boxes mostly. All filled to bursting with fabric. New fabric. Old fabric, recycled fabric, dress fabric…there were always projects I was going to do, bags to make, shirts to sew, soft toys to create, quilts to fabricate. Well now was the time I could rummage through it all and pick out my favourite pieces, box it up with a carton of assorted sewing threads and send it off to Spitsbergen.’

Once Hauke and Marie were situated in their ‘rabbit hutch,’ they set about acclimatising. As I read, questions flickered through my head. I mean, moving house is one thing, but moving to a sparse, basic-as-it-gets hut on an isolated Arctic Island is another thing completely, and I found myself to be extremely eager to discover how things would go.

‘The original triple-glazed windows were now sparkling and still fairly draught-free after almost fifty years. When the wind scythed through, mainly where the prefabricated sections of the hut joined together, the cracks were stuffed with toilet paper – not pretty, but effective, and we had lots of it.

I found Hauke’s reasoning for the trip utterly intriguing.

‘Hauke’s main aim was to answer his own questions raised during his expedition in Mushamna: to confirm his theory that life on earth started in sea ice. He would study the sea ice in greater detail and observe what transpired within its microscopic channels and cells. He’d study the chemical reactions taking place; how light affected it; what effects melting and refreezing would have; what were the optimal temperatures for activity in the ice and much, much more: all these those processes that theoretically led to the first life on earth.’  

Marie and Hauke had company at the hut – two dogs, Sako and Balto, who were both extremely valuable assets to their adventure, not only for being their bear dogs, but for helping them to move around and get things done. And, of course, they provided valuable company. However, I absolutely knew in my heart that there would be an incident with one or both animals which would leave my psychologically wounded. And I was right. Poor Sako’s leg became severely injured, and the inevitable happened.

‘It started off as a usual morning. I went out and tickled the dogs. Sako wasn’t very interested, just lay there and licked at his swollen leg. At least he didn’t growl as he’d done once before. There was blood on the snow, more than I’d seen before. I felt so completely hopeless. Ineffectual. But I knew there was nothing more I could do for him. I came in for breakfast, hot muesli as normal. Hauke went off to the loo while I washed up. After he came back in I went to the kitchen and heard Balto squealing a bit, and told Hauke. “I know,” he said. “I’ve just shot the dog.” I hadn’t heard a think because of the wind.  

To my delight, polar bears were a continual feature throughout the book. Particular bears frequented the hut so often that they were named. One in particular became the house bear and was named Lady Franklin.

‘We decided to call him Lady Franklin (for no other reason than that we liked such an aristocratic name) after the wife of the famous English Arctic explorer, Sir John Franklin, who disappeared on a search for the Northwest Passage. We were never quite sure whether it was a male or female bear, though it was probably a male, so it interchangeably got called ‘he,’ ‘she’ or ‘it.’

The majority of the encounters with the bears were harmless, but one particular incident made my spine curl.

‘We decided that if this one broke into the hut, we’d shoot it. He was obviously dangerous. Was it the time of year for excessive ursine testosterone? Judging from the number of very active bears we’d seen lately it seemed like it. He was getting too comfortable around the hut, Hauke decided. Time to go into attack mode. Checking he was away from the door, Hauke sprung out. The bear heard him and lunged towards him…’

I don’t want to ruin the ending by revealing what happens to Marie and Hauke, so this is where I’ll finish up. ‘Champagne and Polar Bears’ was worth the read, and provided a good, personal insight into something which truly excites and lifts me up.