Field research on polar bears freezes out pre-conceived notions
By Lou Fancher Correspondent Contra Costa Times
When Oakland author and firefighter Zac Unger rushed north to Canada to save the polar bear population from the fiery furnace of global warming in 2008, he came to a startling conclusion -- the polar bears didn't need saving.
"Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye" (2013) tells the story of moving his family for three months to Churchill, Manitoba, a tiny town whose population swells when migrating polar bears attract an annual eco-crowd. Already, the book is stirring up a colossal storm.
On the right wing of the environmental diatribe, global-warming-is-hogwash crusaders hold Unger aloft as a crunchy, California-guy apostate. On the left, the imminent-doom propagandists tar-and-feather him as a climate change denier. It's enough to make a guy fume, or shoot flames.
But Unger keeps the boil to a simmer.
"People love to put words in my mouth, even though it's not the narrative I'm telling," he said. "I always make the point that bears are doing better than we've been taught to believe. But that doesn't mean climate change isn't real."
What is real -- what does lend heat to his words -- is the blurry line between science and advocacy.
"There's a revolving door," he protests. "It's idealistic, but scientists need to stay out of the advocacy realm. By being in the public relations business, they open themselves to a demography they're ill-equipped to handle."
Instead, Unger says scientists should put out the facts, then step back.
The "just the facts, ma'am" principle, correlated in his personal punctuality and tendency to apply journalistic zeal to every thought, deed and encounter, explains why the book he ended up writing was entirely different than the one he initially proposed.
"It was going to be a mournful elegy to the dying polar bears," he admits. "I ended up writing a nuanced book about big egos, shaky science and weird characters."
Perhaps crooked paths are Unger's destiny. In college, he set out to study range management. Realizing 21st century rangers spend hours at a computer and not so much time in the field, he acted on an ad he saw on a bus bench.
"It was an ad to be an Oakland firefighter," he recalls. "I applied, but it took a couple of years before I was actually in. I was so grabbed by it, by the immediate, physical nature of firefighting."
Rebelling against his mortgage-and-minivan manhood and hankering for rugged adventure, Unger admits to another attraction -- heroic rescue.
"In firefighting, someone calls at the worst point in their life and three minutes later, you're there helping."
Unger is uneasy and tamps the heroism, saying, "After 9-11, people started saying we were wonderful. Others saw us as overfed public servants. I say we're ordinary people doing an extraordinary job."
His 24-hours-on, 48-hours-off firefighter schedule allows him to meet his 1,000-words-a-day regime, written at a local coffee shop.
"I'm freakishly good about using my time," he says. "That's my compulsion."
Unger's wife Shona, whipping out breakfast smoothies for their three children, can no longer contain herself and says, "It's inhuman! His first book, on the first weekend, with a deadline a full year out, he ran around saying 'I have to get this done! I have to get this done!' "
It's not a complaint. (This comes from the woman who cheerily stepped away from her comfy lawyer job and East Bay home where colorful "words to know" decorate door frames, to live in a desolate, gray land with no furniture and carnivorous beasts on the doorstep). Indeed, it's a celebration.
Unger responds, saying, "Basically, Shona is the empire behind the empty throne. Most of the people I interviewed for the book only talked to me because of her."
To prepare for writing the book, Unger researched at the Cal library for six months. In Churchill, he took field notes, often using pencils because pens would freeze and because carrying a laptop while following a polar bear across an icy terrain wasn't practical.
Contemplating commonalities between fathering and firefighting ("the constant crisis cascade is similar," he laughs), Unger says he isn't sure which direction his ever-bending life journey will take next. Only one thing is certain -- he'll arrive on time.