A zoologist assigned to the next bunk bed in the PCSP Government station in Resolute Bay was taking apart his riffle. He spent several hours cleaning and oiling it. Tomorrow he would make a camp for two months on Devon Island in a prime polar bear area, to study them. He said that our shotguns where basically useless as a safe defense. It was my first time in the area.
Polar bears are the biggest carnivores of North America and have a scary reputation. It is commonly believed that any encounter will result in a lethal attack but this is incorrect. In Northern Canada, it is extremely rare to get killed or even severely injured by a polar bear, perhaps once in every 10 years. This is less than the risk of a flying accident. A real threat is loneliness during a year round assignment resulting in alcoholism.
Polar bears prefer to live in the areas with open water and ice floats. This is were they hunt for their main staple, seals. A frozen sea, like in the winter, or no ice floats like in the Hudson Bay in the summer, prevents them from hunting as the seals move to other areas and use small isolated rocky islands to rest on land. Now they are hungry and unpredictable.
In the Canadian High Arctic, a high concentration of polar bears lives off Devon Island, in Baffin Bay, an areas that freezes up completely in the winter but opens up very early in the summer.
The sea around Axel Heiberg and Ellesmere Island tends to be frozen until very late in the summer, usually until mid July. Only the East coast of Ellesmere Island has a large area of open water but the number of polar bears is still small.
Despite the risk, you should worry more about the scary man-made mechanical and very lethal monsters called helicopters and riffles. Still, camping and hiking in this region for scientific studies is always clouded by a possible encounter making inexperienced visitors extremely nervous. It is believed that when you meet a polar bear during the day you simply grab your gun and shoot it but what will happen if a polar bear comes into your camp at night while sleeping?
Despite the low chance in encountering polar bears except in the well-known areas where they concentrate, we are well-prepared.
It is mandatory for every camp to have a riffle or 12-gauge shotgun (preferably). Riffles are only recommended for experienced shooters as the stopping power at close range is limited but the government is not keen on them as you may start shooting too early, at long range, when there is still no threat. Shotguns, the riot gun type with a short barrel as used by the American police force with a slug bullet which has a massive lead head of a few cubic centimeters, are ideal to stop big animals at close range but at more than 20 m, they are highly inaccurate. When doing target practice on cardboard a typical bullet hole was 3-4 cm across which has a devastating effect.
Banging flares called “bear scares” were also issued. When shot they will explode a second time at some 50 m with a high end fire-cracker noise. The idea was to shoot the flare with a pencil directed at the bear. I did not trust this as polar are not scared of anything except our mechanical, really big and scary monsters like helicopters.
The most effective protection was an alarm based on storing the meat supply in a big sturdy aluminum box outside the camp in a snow bank. A polar bear has an excellent sense of smell and would smell the meat at a distance of several kilometers. He would go more or less straight for the box and tear it open within minutes but the noise would alarm us.
Banging on the cast iron frying pan was also suggested but this sounded like a made up story, I could not find anyone who ever tried it.
The best protection are huskies used for pulling a slay. Even as less as two huskies are no match and a bear will be easily chased off when ill-behaving. Explorers were always surprised by the harmless encounters of polar bears and huskies during slay trips. Normally, they look at each other, do a bit of sniffing and the bear either hangs around or wanders off peacefully. A respectful encounter. Most wild animals are know to be extremely cautious in such situations with equal matches and avoid each other, a survival instinct, they already have enough trouble finding food..
The only serious problem could be a young, roughly 2-3 year old polar beas, just expelled by its mother, and unable to find food. Inexperienced they may drift off outside their habitat to ice-covered sea straits without seals. This is were most camps are made. Such a bear is at the brick of starvation and will go for any food..
Below some bear encounter I know of and a potential one that turned out to be just wolves.
The only real incident I heard was at this camp near Alexander Fiord on Eastern Ellesmere Island, the area looking towards Greenland with lots of open water and ice floats.
One night listening to the 7 PM radio traffic to all the camps and passing on our bi-daily weather report, we heard a panic call from a camp at Alexander Fiord. They had a bad situation. There were three polar bears around camp and they were wondering what to do. The first thing the base asked, “Where is your meat?” It was a save spot in a snow bank outside the camp. The camp wanted a move ASAP but the base asked if they could wait till tomorrow as the two plane were fully occupied and could come to their location that night as they were in different regions. With some hesitation they responded they would try and were asked to be stand-by on the radio all night. The next morning they got an early move and were extremely relieved. The bears did not destroy anything and where just hanging around the camp.
In 1982, we made a camp near Buchanan Lake [1, area on the sea in the far distance], a place known for Arctic Char fish, a kind of salmon that lives in lakes near the sea but feeds in the sea. The valley in front of the mountain range was close to the sea and the main north-south pathway for migrating animals. Every day we saw caribous, musk-ox and occasionally even wolves passing by.
Fishing for Arctic Char in the lake did not work. The fish use the meandering stream to reach the sea for feeding. One unlucky fish resting in a shallow spot we caught by a sledge hammer approach, using a geological hammer. The large 5 kg fish was food for several days.
One night we heard animals outside the tent and were worried it could be a polar bear as we were camped near the sea. Luckily there were just two wolves trying to steal our garbage bag. Still, this would have been a problem as every campsite is inspected after the seasons for trash. We were not allowed to leave any signs of camping in this pristine natural area. Northern Canada is treated as a highly protected national park and the area is very sensitive to human influence.
Firing a shotgun did not work. The wolves just looked at us for a brief moment and kept on dragging the tasty garbage bag along. The only other option I had was firing an emergency flare and now they were gone in a split second. This presumably resembles lightning and all animals are scared of this. Only once I saw a thunderstorm in this area so they are familiar with it. All animals except polar bears are scared of emergency flares, I have been told. For polar bears we carry the bangers, resembling a flare but when shot making a thundering noise at a distance of 100 m. I never had to try this out and would never rely on an effective working. When you have polar bears in a camp there is only one option, move camp ASAP.
At least once or twice during the winter when the temperature plummets to –50 or –60 Celsius with fierce polar winds, a polar bear would come up to the station and the ten persons leaving where would notice it.
They kept some 4 huskies outside and these would chase of the bear when it stays too long. This happened a few times, the bear running for its life as the huskies were pretty wild.
A government geologist was just dropped off by helicopter in the morning and walking down a river bed studying the rocks. When the helicopter left it spotted a bear going up river in the same river bed. They would have meet each other soon.
The pilot flew to the bear and chased it back to the sea.