Plush polar bear from GUND, gifted at birth, inspires lifetime of Arctic exploration into effects of climate change
Accompanied owner on world’s first successful ascent of a mountain in Greenland and went on to be a record-breaking teddy bear
A bear from GUND is guaranteed to give hugs that last a lifetime. But what about your childhood furry friend being your inspiration, shaping the course of your life as you adventure into adulthood too?
Think about it! What did you want to be when you grew up? Well, for Matthew Hay, a 27 year-old ex-military weather forecaster from Perth, Scotland, he locates his passion for the Arctic, the natural world and climate change in a GUND polar bear, given to him at birth.
Shortly after Matt’s parents married, Charlotte and Stephen Hay moved to New York for work. Here, they bought each other a GUND bear and they were so taken with these bears that they decided to gift each of their children, at birth, with a bear from GUND too.
Matt’s parents went on to have four children – two boys and two girls. Both girls were gifted brown bears (who the family deemed to be male) and the boys received white polar bears (who the family decided were female).
Since then, one-by-one Matt’s siblings’ bears have met a sad demise; one had an unfortunate incident with the tumble dryer, another was savaged by a dog, and the third never really hit it off with its owner.
Matt, conversely, has cherished his GUND polar bear from the get-go and Griselda has accompanied him on his travels around the world, but especially to the Arctic.
Fast-forward through childhood with his plush polar bear firmly by his side, Matt has spent over 150 days north of the Arctic Circle since 2010, exploring, mountaineering and carrying out scientific work, and his GUND, Griselda, has accompanied him on all of his adventures.
Earlier this year, he was the first person to successfully summit an unclimbed peak in the Stauning Alps in Greenland, as part of a two-man expedition he led to the region. Griselda too made the gruelling ascent of this mountain, becoming the first GUND with an Arctic ‘first ascent’ to her name. She is quite literally a record-breaking bear.
Matt said: “I don’t know if the GUND bear inspired my love of the Arctic and of cold, mountainous places, or if a love of those things precipitated a deep attachment to my GUND. It’s probably a bit of both. But there is no doubt that while travelling in at times dangerous conditions, Griselda has been a huge source of comfort for me. She is my good luck charm whenever I’m camped out in polar bear country and makes for an excellent pillow, too.”
In addition to this year’s expedition, Griselda has accompanied Matt on his other trips to the Arctic. The first of these, a 9-week spring expedition to Svalbard, in the High Arctic, when he was 19, was organised by BSES, now British Exploring, for students between school and university. The ‘Young Explorers’ spent the whole trip living in tents in the Arctic wilderness, learning to master the necessary survival and winter mountaineering skills needed to thrive in a polar environment. They also conducted biological and glaciological scientific work. The former involved counting geese to monitor their breeding population and the latter used high-tech GPS equipment to map the retreat of one of the many glaciers in the region.
Matt says it was the best thing he’d ever done and that the trip cemented an ongoing love affair with the far north. Subsequently, Griselda and Matt returned to the Arctic for a 6-week summer expedition to Northern Norway based in around the ice cap Øksfjordjøkelen, in 2012. On this expedition, Matt worked as an assistant leader, instructing and mentoring 15-18 year olds, and inspiring their love of the Arctic and mountaineering.
There have been several other small trips to places such as Finland, the Faroe Islands, Scotland, Ireland, and the Falkland Islands, and each time Griselda has accompanied him every step of the way.
The latter trip was a long one; Matt was stationed in the Falkland Islands with the military for 7 months in 2017. At 52 degrees south, it’s probably the furthest any polar bear has been from the Arctic!
Matt estimates that Griselda has travelled over 50,000 miles and has endured temperatures as low as -30 degrees at latitudes as far-flung as 78 degrees north.
Matt said: “I think my interest in the Arctic, the natural world and mountaineering is what has made me so passionate about climate change, and the many ecological crises our planet is facing at this time. It’s kind of hard not to care about these issues when they are quite literally destroying the things I love most in this world.
“Griselda has been part of my journey from the get-go, accompanying me as I have seen first hand the incredible speed of change in the Arctic and elsewhere. She is a constant reminder of the thawing north and of the ecosystems whose survival depends on us stabilizing the climate in the next few decades.”
Despite Griselda being possibly one of the world's best-travelled polar bears, during their expeditions, Matt and his companion have experienced the effects of climate change first-hand. As a result, Matt has felt compelled to change both his diet and his lifestyle. Being acutely aware that air travel is one of the biggest emitters of CO2, he now rarely flies, and when he does he always carbon offsets and tries to limit the distance to under 3 hours flight time. He no longer feels he is able to justify long-haul flights for holidays or travel and will only fly such distances if he is required to for work.
For his trip to Greenland earlier this year, Matt and his teammate paid for native trees to be planted in the Highlands of Scotland, to offset the carbon emissions of their expedition’s flight and snowmobile transport. Their trip was carbon-negative.
Matt concluded: “It’s crazy to think that one polar bear given to me at birth would, in a round-about way, be having such an impact on my lifestyle today. I’ve changed how I travel, how I eat, how I think and how I consume in a bid to lessen my CO2 footprint and help save our planet for future generations. Did Griselda set me off on this path? Who knows – but she’s certainly coming along for the journey!”
So, next time you buy a GUND bear for your little one or a family friend, just stop and take a moment to think. As well as giving the gift of hugs that last a lifetime, could this furry friend shape the course of its new owner’s life, just like Matt and Griselda?
We’ve loved reading Matt’s story and hope you will too. We’d love to hear more from you if you and your GUND bear have been on any exciting journey’s through life together – get in touch and let us know!