Chapter V- Leif and the Ice Bear
Out of the twenty-five knarrs that had set out from Budardal, only fourteen reached Greenland. The storm sank or turned back the rest. The people were angry that Erik had lied to them. It was not the warm and fertile land he described. It was a cold and barren place. Some went back, but most did not. In fact, some came to enjoy the new land, where they had more freedom and could carve out larger homesteads than Iceland could ever offer. And Erik was happy as the ruler of this land at the edge of the world. True, Greenland would never be as prosperous as the other Norse lands, and Erik doubted the settlement would much outlive him, but he did not concern himself with the future. The Norns had already woven his fate, and not even Odin could outwit them. There was nothing could do, but watch how his fate unfolded.
It was the tenth month since they had arrived in Greenland. Winter had ended not long before, and the ice on Erik’s Fjord was beginning to break up. The Greenlandic summers were still much colder than the Icelandic summers, and Leif wanted nothing more than to stay huddled inside under his furs about the peat fire.
But, he could not stand to spend one more minute being trapped inside with his family. It had been three months since he had left the house, and he felt he would go mad if he endured much more of Thorsteinn’s teasing, Thorvald’s complaining, or Freydis’ smugness. It was Harpa, girl’s month, and with Freydis being Erik and Thjodhild’s only daughter, she was being spoiled rotten.
After scarfing down his morning hraeringr, he dressed in warm clothes. A yellow wool tunic, breeks laced up with thick vindingar, a hat lined with mink, fingerless gloves, and a heavy green cloak. Leif didn’t want to feel cold out on Erik’s Fjord. He grabbed a rod and a box of hooks and bait near the door, and went outside.
Leif strode down the shingled slope down to Erik’s faering. The boat had two sets of oars, and enough room for three men, but it was small enough that one could easily row. He pushed the faering out into the freezing water of Erik’s Fjord, then got inside.
By the afternoon, Leif had caught seven fish. In the cold waters of Greenland, the only kind of fish was the bleikja. It was so called for it’s pale silver back. The belly was a light pink color, as was the flesh, which tasted something between trout and salmon.
While Leif rowed the faering back home, he heard a mournful bellowing that carried across the frigid waters. He looked about him to discover its source. The cry seemed to be coming from ice floe just ahead. He scanned the flow and saw nothing, yet the bellowing continued. As he drew closer, he noticed a movement on the ice or was it the ice itself that moved and shifted about? Squinting, he saw a white bear cub pacing back and forth on the floe, at regular intervals raising its head to let out its call.
Ice bears were one of the creatures peculiar to this land. Some men hunted them for their fur and blubber. But most did not. It was a risky thing to hunt an ice bear. They were said to be much more vicious than brown bears, which were themselves the most fearsome creatures in the Norse homelands.
This little one would grow up to be a formidable beast, but on the day Leif discovered it, the cub seemed desperate and lost and in need of help.
Leif stopped rowing his faering and watched the cub in silence. He could hear the gentle lapping of the water against the sides of his two man boat, punctuated by the bear’s bellows which echoed off the snow packed mountains that framed the fjord. Leif looked about to see signs of the mother bear coming for her cub. He saw no other movement on the floe or on any of the other solitary ice patches that dotted the fjord. Nothing. He scanned the waters for any ripples that might give away the mother’s location. Nothing. For quite some time Leif watched and waited for a grown ice bear to answer the cub’s call. It became clear that no answer was coming. Either this bear had been abandoned or more likely, orphaned.
Brown bears were sometimes kept as pets. If captured young enough, they could be trained and live in a person’s house. Leif’s own grandfather, Thorvaldr Asvaldsson, had a pet brown bear when he lived in Jaeren in Norway. That gave Leif an idea He just needed to get over to the ice and lure the bear into his faering.
Quietly he dipped his oars into the midnight blue waters and pulled. His boat slipped silently across the surface, coming ever closer to the sheet of ice the desperate bear was pacing on. If the cub noticed his approach, it gave no sign of it as it continued to call for its mother.
Drawing alongside the floe, Leif grabbed the walrus hide rope used to secure the faering to the docks and leapt onto the ice. He withdrew his sax from his belt, tied the other end of the rope to it and plunged it into floe. The ice bear stopped mid-cry and looked at the young man who now shared its patch of ice. Leif, crouching next to his boat, reached over the side and withdrew a pale fish. He pretended to bite into it and then threw it a fair distance. It hit the ice, bounced and slid spinning head to tail until it came to a stop at the ice bear’s front paws. The cub bent its head and sniffed the fish only once, then gobbled it down.
Leif smiled and tossed another fish, this time not as hard, and the cub lumbered forward to eat it. Leif pulled his sax from the ice and climbed back into his boat. He tossed third fish onto the ice beside the faering.
As the ice bear made its way to this third fish, it slowed its advance as it approached Leif. It made a low rumbling growl. It clearly wanted the fish but was wary of this stranger. It inched closer and closer and then quickly snatched up the fish in its jaws and then backed away.
Leif extended his hand holding out a fourth bleikja. He sat very still while making a soft clicking sound. The ice bear hesitated for a moment and then began to move toward the blond haired boy and his fish. He took the fish but this time did not shy away. Slowly Leif extended his hand to touch the cub’s head. It backed away. Leif extended his hand again with another fish. The cub came and let Leif touch it gently. Leif set another fish on the bench across from him. The bear stayed on the ice for a few minutes, but finally stepped into the boat.
Leif quickly pushed the boat away from the ice floe. When the boat began to move, the bear hissed and looked to dive into the fjord. Leif tossed it another fish, and it swallowed it down. Leif looked to his side. One fish remained. He hoped the cub’s appetite was sated.
Fortunately, the cub seemed to indeed be satisfied, and soon enough, curled up and fell asleep at the bottom of the faering. After Leif arrived home and pulled the boat up onto the shore, he grabbed his things, and then picked up the ice bear cub. The bear was little more than the size of a lap-dog, but weighed as much as a fjarhund. Leif knew it would only get bigger from here.
The ice bear in his arms, he entered the longhouse. The family sat on benches around the fire, and Erik sat in the high seat with Freydis on his knee. “Ah, there you are Leif. How was the catch?”
“I have something more interesting than bleikja.” The ice bear had woken up, and was squirming as Leif showed it to them.
“Thor’s beard,” Erik exclaimed as he put Freydis down. “How did you find it, lad?”
Leif told them what happened, while he ate the bowl of seal stew offered by his mother. Erik said, “You lured it with bleikja? Clever boy, but those fish don’t have the kind of fat on them that an ice bear needs. Thjodhild, bring another bowl of the seal”
Thjodhild refilled Leif’s bowl and Erik set the stew before the cub. While it devoured the food, Erik examined it. “It’s a male.”
“It’s Harpa, so I should get to name him,” Freydis said excitedly.
Erik tousled her hair. “Leif found him, so he should pick the name.” Freydis pouted.
Leif thought for a few minutes. “Bodvar. After Hrolf Kraki’s champion, who could become a bear himself.”
“A fine name for a fine beast! May he be worthy of his name!”