A polar bear, the man though would prefer a nice live polar explorer to a bucket of whale oil, and this was a dismal thought.
For at the time he thought Naomi Uemura was in his sleeping bag. The bear nudged him in his back and the man did his best not to breathe. His gun (unloaded) was some distance away.
"I thought I would be killed," he said yesterday in a commentary on his polar adventures for the benefit of reporters gathered at the Museum of History and Technology.
He would never, he assumed, reach the North Pole, though for eight years he had dreamed of being the first man to reach it alone, by dog sled.
But as reporters suspected, during the somewhat horrifying account, the polar bear did not devour him at all preferring the whale oil and dried meat of his meager supplies.
The explorer once said he got into the adventure game to cure an inferiority complex. He is 5 feet 10 inches tall, weighs a bit over 130 pounds and formerly was a student of agriculture at college.
It cannot have helped his ego for the polar bear to prefer the whale oil. Still, one learns to live with one's hangups.
He faced death another time, before his recent triumph in reaching the Pole, the first man to make it solo, when the ice on which he was traveling began to break up.
He would settle down for the night on nice solid ice. But at one point the ice began to crack and drift.
It was like a stately merry-go-around. You hesitated to try another place, since it was as likely to crack and break apart as the place you already were. This was rather a nightmare (and extremely unsettling to the numerous dogs who pulled the sled) but one way and another he kept body and soul together, living to tell the tale.
He took along whatever dogs he could buy. To get a good one, he had to a buy a bad one or two. None of them had much experience trotting to the Pole, and Uemura soon learned which ones pulled to the left, which to the right. He learned patience when they all decided to go single file, making a mess of their rawhide traces (which they tried to eat from time to time.) He said he fed them plenty, though the dogs were not present to give their side.
In an account for the September National Geographic he says he and the dogs ate the same thing: once a day, at night, he ate a hunk of raw meat. No time for cooking and frippery.
For his press conference he wore an unobtrusive gray-blue suit, white shirt and sky blue necktie. If you asked him a question he answered at considerable length in Japanese and his interpreter would say a sentence or two. One was certain many pearls were down the rain. He was lively and serious, like those marble horses of the Parthenon.
He said these adventure of his - the scaling of Everest, Mont Blanc, McKinley, reaching the Pole, crossing Greenland the long way, or rafting 6,000 kilometers down the Amazon - were a personal challenge and accomplishment.
"I didn't do it for the emperor," he began. Just for himself. He had support from the Smithsonian Institution, the National Geographic, commercial and non-commercial contributions in Japan. "I thought of those who contributed, whom I didn't even know," he said yesterday, and the thought of failing and failing them, was insupportable.
Somebody asked him what he hoped to prove, but by the time he and his translator got through with it, one gathered only vaguely that he treasured the experience of relying on himself and perceiving that he was adequate.
Once, in the classically human way, he envied those who reached the Pole in a team. They could take turns chopping through ice ridges, whereas he had to do the same amount of work all alone. But then it occured to him, it was all his own idea, after all, to do it alone, and you can't have team effort in a solo venture. Still, if you are human, you can enjoy the unfairness of it all.
He thought of his wife back in Japan. When he thought he was a goner to the polar bear, he cried out to her to save him. Much help she was, back in Japan.
Where is a wife when you need her?
But then he often thought too of her worrying about him on his crazy adventures. It was not a very satisfying, normal life for her, he said. But it was clear to all who watched and listened that he had to do the stuff he did.
Yesterday he gave her his little triumph, his goal accomplished against odds, no matter what anybody thought of it, or whether anybody thought it had been worth doing. And his wife sat perfectly erect, her face not registering much that one could see. Still, there she was, all the way from Japan.
Uemura depended a lot on his dogs, however no-count a lot of them were, tangling up their harness leads and getting in fights and running off when the polar bear came.
One of them whelped, over a period of two days, and a couple of the pups were eaten by other dogs, but several survived to be airlifted safely home. Even the worst dogs, he said, pulled the sled a good many hundred miles and didn't even have a bee in their bonnet to spur them on.
These quests - the summit of the greatest mountains, the conquest of the Pole - have never satisfied him, he said. "There has to be something new . . ."
Well, then, if there is no ultimate satisfaction from such hazardous adventures, why do them?
"They have been very satisfying he said.
Not satisfying. Merely satisfying. Any human will have no trouble understanding precisely. CAPTION: Picture 1, no caption; Picture 2, Naomi Uemura at yesterday's news conference, photo by Harry Naltchayan - The Washington Post; Picture 3, during his 55-day trek. by Ira Block, Copyright (c) 1978, National Geographic Society; Picture 4, Naomi-Uemura during his trek, by Ira Block, Copyright (c) 1978, National Geographic Society; Pictures 5, 6, 7, Naomi Uemura at yesterday's news conference, photo by Harry Naltchayan - The Washington Post