A polar eclipse: in the land of the midnight sun, hunters can become the hunted.
Three hours from Cape Dorset, we mush onto the flat ocean ice and spot a polar bear standing about 400, 500 yards away. He's probably a seven-footer--gorgeous, so primitive, so white. The bear runs off, then sits at the edge of the land and the sea. The sun shimmers across the beautiful, flat ice and the impressive white bear, and I hope the sighting is a good sign.
We're still heading toward where we're going to camp for the night, and as we come around a peninsula, I see another polar bear--one that, that... I never imagined anything could be that big. It's huge! He starts moving away and can't even run because he's so huge.
I'm shaking, and I'm not even close to him. I don't even know if I want to get close to something that big, but on the other hand I would give just about anything to get close to something that big. My three Inuit guides are up on a hill, looking across where the bear went out to the open floe edge. He's gone. Already two bears--one small one and one the largest living creature I think I've ever seen.
It's deed still out here. The ice is cracking. I see the rough ice at the floe edge; it looks like houses moving in the distance, but they're actually icebergs in the open water. That's the rough ice where the big bear was headed, and there's no way to get him once he gets into that crap. If we're lucky maybe we'll see something that size. I don't know, but it's just pretty special to lay eyes on such an animal. I'm lucky to be out here.
The sun is setting now, and my Inuit guides say it's a full moon and that's why the animals are moving. There are sun dogs on each side of the sun that signal cold, clear weather, I think. It's kind of pink/mauve right where the sun is. Looking back the other way there's a total full moon. I feel as if I can almost reach out and touch it.
One guide, Pitsulak, is chopping up chunks of walrus to feed to the dogs. They are fighting and whining, all tied up in a line. My head guide, Nuna, is busy out by the sled, and the other guide is inside the igloo boiling some water.
It's dark now. We've eaten boiled walrus and Cup-o-Soup mixed together. It actually makes for a good feed when it's boiled up like that. Nuna is on the single sideband radio talking to someone, and it's comforting to listen to the sounds of the people across the whole Arctic talking to each other. It doesn't matter how fuzzy or crackly they sound; it's like there are friends out there somewhere in the dark and white and cold.
I'm lying inside my sleeping bag on a bed of furs, and we've got two white-gas burners going. It's almost comfortable in here. We're talking about the monster Nanook we saw today, hoping he comes back to visit us tonight. Well, they hope he does. I don't.
March 28, 8 a.m.
I tossed and turned all night. Lying on the snow, with not much for furs underneath me, made for a little harder bed than what I'm used to. Outside, the dogs are sleeping in the bright sun, there's a beautiful white Arctic fox about 50 yards away, waiting for any scraps the dogs might have missed. Good luck. Pitsulak is up on the hill right now, looking for polar bears.
We move out, the dogs pulling the sled on a fan trace, which is catching around the ice hummocks and knobs and hills--making for one heck of a tangled mess--but somehow we just keep going. Our progress has slowed, and we make only 40 miles today, but the dogs are still pulling strong.
We spot three wolves, and Pitsulak shoots a big, white male, The snow drifts around the big rock island as all three guides are bent over to skin the wolf. There's a polar bear skeleton lying exposed on the windswept rocks. Nuna says he killed the bear several months ago when it tried to crawl into his tent to eat him at 4 a.m.
March 29, Good Friday
We're sitting in the igloo we made last night. There is the hiss of the burner, and the single sideband radio is on. An Inuit country gospel chorus has commandeered the airwaves and is singing "Will the Circle be Unbroken."
The sun outside shines through the walls of the igloo, and it occurs to me that snow grows like trees. Snow has age rings, or at least storm rings. The sun shines through the ice much easier than it does the layers of snow, so the lines of ice are easily counted. It storms, snow falls, and when it stops snowing, ice fog rolls in and puts a layer ice on the fresh snow. The snow in this area looks to be 25 storms deep.
There must be wolves in the area early this morning because at first light our dog team started howling, and my guides believe the dogs have heard a wolf pack howling in the distance and are answering back. I don't think it would take much to put these sled dogs right back into their wild state.
The sun is very bright today, and I can feel my eyes burning even inside my tinted goggles. I can barely take off my goggles for more than a minute or two. My eyes start to water; it's pretty painful, and I have to watch out for snow blindness.
As we break camp and load the sleds, I notice that this spot between two big islands has obviously been used as an Inuit camping spot for ages. There are old pieces of sled runners, and you can see tent rings.
We travel hard all day and make camp. With our new igloo done, we drink some tea, and the guides chop up more frozen walrus for the dogs (about two to three pounds per dog). Pitsulak and I grab the smaller scraps off the snow and wolf them down, even though the boiled variety is a lot better than the raw.
With dinner over, we sit listening to the static on the radio and the hiss of the burner. It's a bigger igloo tonight, lots of room--10 feet across I'd say. The doorway is blocked with a slab of snow. Nuna, suddenly excited, points at five snow blocks that line up on the igloo wall. Very rare, they explain; it means a bear will come from that direction. That direction is south. The floe edge where we saw the monster bear is south.
March 30, 6:30 am
I'm lying in my sleeping bag, looking at the light filtering through the cracks in the igloo wall. The sun must be just poking over the horizon. Nuna and one of the guides are talking quietly in Inuit, and the kettle is steaming.
The dogs are yipping and yakking and fighting and growling as usual, but suddenly they stop. We listen. One growls in a low pitch. We all hear it. It's a warning.
Something is close, something big. We fight our way out of our sleeping bags, and the Inuits are yelling "Nanook, nanook!" We can't see outside, so Nuna grabs his saw and stabs it through the side of the igloo, frantically cutting and yelling "Nanook, nanook!"
I grab my Knight muzzleloader and possibles bag. Nuna looks out the hole he made and yells for me to "Shoot! Shoot!" Then he pushes by me and stabs another hole in the wall, and then suddenly all of them are on the far side of the igloo, and they grab me and pull me over. A huge shadow passes on the wall--right where I'd just been trying to load my gun.
They're worried the bear is going to pound his way into the igloo to get us, but the shadow moves on and heads for the dogs. Nuna stabs into the igloo wall again with his saw, then punches his fist through the cut; he looks out quickly and points. The bear swats at one of the tethered dogs.
While I'm loading, the bear crosses to the front of the igloo, and Nuna cuts yet another triangular window. For the first time now I see how really huge the bear is. Nuna is yelling for me to shoot, but the only opportunity I have is a head shot at 15 feet. The bear eats walrus from one of the sleds, and, unbelievably, Pitsulak is thinking clearly enough to grab my camera and hand it to me.
I take pictures through the cut window. The bear's head is so close and so huge. A scarred, big giant with yellowed teeth, this animal is an old warrior, the survivor of the cruelest winters this planet has to offer, and I won't snipe him through the hole.
I shake my head and try and explain that to Nuna. He stares at me but understands. He turns and kicks out the block of snow that has blocked our doorway for the night. I crawl out.
The bear is 15 feet away, eating and staring at me. He lifts his massive head now, and suddenly I'm inspired by Pitsulak's quick thinking: It occurs to me that I'm up in the Arctic to film a television episode, so I take 10 hazardous steps and grab the video camera from the other sled and bring it back inside the igloo.
I open the case and pull out the camera, offering it to anyone. Pitsulak is the only one to reach out and take it. I turn and step out again, still in my stocking feet. Pitsulak follows and begins videotaping. I step toward the bear, trying to get an angle. Two Inuit faces are beside me, sticking out of the igloo windows and yelling, "Shoot!" But I can't, not from this angle. I'm too close to the bear to risk taking the shot.
I work around the bear, but he continually turns to face me. He won't turn sideways to give me a shot at his heart or lungs. I make a decision. When the bear puts his head down for a second, I aim above the skull, at the base of the neck, and pull the trigger. Boom! The bear drops in his tracks.
I'm reloading, and everyone is running around congratulating me, but I know better. The bear starts to roll--which he couldn't do if the shot had broken his neck--and begins to rise. But I've already loaded and capped, and I lift the rifle and fire again. This time the bear is done.
Now everyone's yelling, hands high, arms spread wide, big smiles. The bear is huge, a legitimate 10-footer. The king of this land, he came from the south--as the folklore said he would--and hunted us in our own camp.
I sit in the igloo and reflect for a moment before the skinning begins. Aside from the radio and the weaponry, hunting polar bears today is much like it was 3,000 years ago when the first Paleo-Eskimo hunters migrated across the land bridge from Siberia. Nuna, Pitsulak and animals such as the polar bear live here and hunt each other. It puts into perspective for me what it means to be a hunter in this land, in any land.
RELATED ARTICLE: Midnight Sun Bears
Polar bear hunting is considered by many to be the ultimate North American hunting experience. My outfitter was Fred Webb of Webb Outfitting (604/463-2035). His hunts run close to 100 percent success, but it doesn't come cheap, and trips should be booked as far in advance as possible.
Polar bears can tip the scales at well over 1,000 pounds and are entirely capable of disrupting a hunter's best-laid plans. I used a Knight muzzleloader, loaded with 100 grains of Pyrodex and a 300-grain Nosler slug, and topped with a Leupold 3-9X scope. However, I'm a muzzleloader specialist, and I'd advise most hunters to use a centerfire rifle of far more energy.
Polar bears must be hunted from dogsled by non-indigenous hunters and can be imported into the United States if taken from certain areas. Polar bear hunting quotas are tightly controlled by government biologists, and each Inuit community decides for itself how many of its quota it wishes to share with outsiders. Hunting dollars that flow into these communities help to preserve the Inuit way of life and contribute to polar bear conservation.
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|Date:||Feb 1, 2003|
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