Polar Bears have always held a special place in my imagination. From the time I was a young boy I remember being told the story of my great uncle Shelby's Polar Bear hunt. The enormous Polar Bear he took on this hunt is currently recognized as the World Record in the Boone and Crocket Record Book. It is almost a full inch larger than the one that is listed in second place! In an old picture I have, my great uncle is standing behind this enormous bear in a heavy fur coat with the great expanse of the frozen Arctic surrounding them. Over the years, I have heard a great number of different versions of the actual events that took place on this hunt. Some of these are more exciting than the others, but all are fantastic. The thought of hunting the great white King of the Arctic always seemed to be the one great adventure that I would definitely have to go on one day. It was not until I started hunting big game with a longbow that I finally decided that it might be the right time to embark on a bowhunting expedition for Polar Bear.
The Polar Bear, ursus maritimus, is known to be the largest terrestrial carnivore in the world, even larger than the legendary Alaska Brown Bear or Kodiak Bear as some prefer to call it and much bigger than the feared and confrontational Grizzly Bear. In preparing for this hunt I would need to consider several different aspects, most notably my personal safety and the extreme environmental conditions.
The logistics of getting within bow range of a notoriously aggressive animal was a cause of great concern for me. I had been told that the Polar Bear is the only animal on Earth that knowingly and willingly hunts humans for food. It is said that every year 15-25 Polar Bears are killed in self defense by the Inuit hunters. A great proportion of Polar Bears are taken within camp by the sport hunters that pursue them due to the fact that the characteristically curious bears approach the hunter's camps while in search of food. It is not hard to imagine how easy it would be for this to turn into a dangerous situation.
In preparation for this hunt I began researching other traditionalists' experiences with Polar Bears to see what I could learn from them. There is not very much documentation available on the subject and finding writings or videos on this was not an easy task. I turned to some of the Archery World's greatest hunters and their books and videos for information and insight on this subject.
Fred Bear is one of the great bowhunters who took a Polar Bear with traditional archery tackle. From what little information I was able to obtain he was supposed to have hunted Polar Bears unsuccessfully on two or three different occasions. On these unsuccessful hunts the bears had to be shot by backup rifles in self defense. He was approaching the bears within twenty to thirty yards to shoot, and once hit, they would charge him. I was able to read a remarkable account of how Fred Bear and Bob Munger walked backwards into the wind to avoid having their faces frostbitten while hunting Polar Bear. They had to endure life threatening flights in light aircraft and then, upon landing, would pack blankets around the engine to prevent it from freezing over. Finally, after a great deal of determination, Mr. Bear was successful in harvesting a Polar Bear which I understand is displayed at the Fred Bear Museum.
I was able to see a film about the world famous bowhunter and Texas oilman, Bill Negley, entitled "Moments of Truth". In this film Mr. Negley takes Cape Buffalo, Elephant, Leopard, Lion, Rhino and Polar Bear with a Recurve. He is recognized as being the first person to have successfully taken the "Big Five" of Africa exclusively with a bow due to the fact that Howard Hill and Bob Swinehart both shot their Elephants in the knees with high powered rifles before shooting them with a bow.
Negley's Polar Bear hunt was extremely exciting. He, his guide and cameraman approached a massive boar to within bow range. The bear had not seen them, but scented them and approached to see what they were. They were behind a large ice formation and did not realize that the bear was as close as it was. Suddenly it came over the top of the ice formation within feet of Negley. They started yelling at the bear and waving their hands frantically convincing the bear that they would not make an easy meal. As the bear moved away, Mr. Negley was able to make a great shot which brought him down quickly. Unlike Fred Bear, Mr. Negley was fortunate enough to harvest a bear on his first trip, though he did suffer a very close encounter.
Arthur Young is the only other person that I know of who took a Polar Bear with a longbow. I saw a film about his bowhunting experiences which included footage on his Polar Bear hunt. He was hunting bears out on the ice flows off of a boat. This is a viable method being that Polar Bears will often swim long distances from shore while looking for food or when moving from one area to another. From this boat, Art Young was able to get within feet of a large female and take his shot without getting scathed. Hunting in this manner, though a much safer approach to hunting Polar Bears, is not a currently accepted form of hunting in the Northwest Territories nor is it considered to be "fair chase" by most modern bowhunters.
There is a tape entitled 'Manhunter" that was made by McMillian River Outfitters. It is supposed to be an incredible video about the hunt taken by Dr. Bob Keeler from Wyoming. Unfortunately, I was unable to obtain a copy, though I was told that the adventure of getting to and from the hunting area as well as the story about how the dogs ate his caribou coat are nothing short of fantastic!
By what some acquaintances told me, Dr. Keeler and his guides were separated from the mainland and on an ice drift. They were trapped on this slab of ice that might have been one square mile in area with a mature, male Polar Bear. This big boar came into camp looking for food and Dr. Keeler was able to bring him down with his recurve. This large bear had actually started to hunt Dr. Keeler and his guides! When the floating sheet of ice came in contact with the mainland they were able to jump to safety across a narrow channel.
I was very conscious of Dr. Keeler's experience and kept clear of broken ice or ice flows and while on my hunt only hunted areas where the ice was thick and with no risk of being separated from the mainland. I can only begin to imagine the frustration and helplessness that this hunting party must have felt as they were floating out away from the mainland.
Ben Pearson's film on his Polar Bear hunt was actually the most helpful to me. His hunt took place in Alaska before the Marine Mammal Protection Act came into effect making Polar Bear hunting illegal to anybody except natives. During this period in time, the hunters and their guides would fly out over the ice and look for bears. Once a desirable one was spotted, they would put the aircraft down at a distance and then stalk within range. In Pearson's film, I witnessed him taking a very long shot at a wary bear. The bear appeared to be about eighty yards away when he shot. Though much further than any of the other hunters, he was able to keep a safe distance and still make a lethal shot.
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After much consideration, I decided that my best chance of harvesting a Polar Bear, without being charged and attacked, would very likely be by taking a shot in the fifty to sixty yard range. I was somewhat concerned about not making a perfect shot at that distance, but the fact that I would be able to easily track the bear in the snow would make a second shot a very realistic possibility. I knew that if I could get an arrow in the chest cavity of the bear, then it would only be a matter of time before the bear would expire.
I began to practice a great deal at taking fifty and sixty yard shots with my longbow. In the beginning, being even remotely accurate was a problem, but then I began to get decent groups at that range. Using the indirect aiming method that I was taught by Bob Wesley several years before, I got to the point where I could hit the chest area of a wild boar target four out of six times at fifty and sixty yards. After several months I was almost as comfortable shooting at this distance as I was at twenty and thirty yards. My accuracy was obviously not the same at such long distances, but I felt that I was up to the challenge at hand. With my "point on" distance being forty six yards, I would have to hold at the top the bear's back to hit the chest area at fifty or sixty yards.
Once I felt comfortable with the actual hunting aspects behind the pursuit of a Polar Bear, I was then ready to start planning other aspects of this hunt. The intense preparation from a clothing and gear standpoint which I was making for a Muskox hunt would be almost identical as what I would be requiring for the Polar Bear expedition. The only difference, and a tremendous one at that, would be the game being pursued.
Taloyoak, N.W.T., formerly known as Spence Bay, was the community I would be departing from on my hunt. A short commuter flight from Cambridge Bay, N.W.T. put me in Taloyoak in less than an hour. This village was very similar to Cambridge Bay as far as the houses and scenery was concerned, though it was somewhat smaller. There appeared to be a great deal of activity around the village and at the airport, much more so than at Cambridge Bay. I soon found out that all of the excitement was the result of the annual dog sled race that would begin in Taloyoak. While driving from the airport to the hotel I noticed that several of the homes around town had stretched out Polar Bear hides sitting in front of them. One of them was gargantuan and looked to be over ten feet !
After checking in at the local hotel and unloading my gear, I was escorted to the Renewable Resources Office to get my hunting license and Polar Bear tag in order. While the paperwork was being processed I studied a diagram explaining why it was so harmful to harvest female bears. This diagram showed that harvesting one female would be the equivalent of taking three males in regards to what effects it would have on the overall population in a given area. Each Inuit community has a limited quota of bears that they can harvest. A female will count as two bears which consequently motivates guides and their hunters to try and take a male if at all possible. Within thirty minutes I was back at the hotel.
By the time I had arrived in Taloyoak, I was eager to go out on the ice and test my skills on the Great White Bear. The recent success I had harvesting a Muskox had given me the level of confidence I needed to meet the challenges that I would be facing. I was able to resolve all of my inhibitions about the effectiveness of my gear and my ability to cope with the elements while hunting Muskox. I would now be able to concentrate fully on the Polar Bear.
I met my two guides that evening. It was a team of two brothers; Abraham and John Ukkuqtunnuaq. Abe was an old hand at hunting Polar Bears and John was a dog team driver with a great deal of experience. I immediately liked them both very much. Abe had been told that I would be hunting with a bow and was very enthusiastic about guiding another bowhunter. He had guided three previously unsuccessful bowhunts and was hopeful that on this occasion he would finally be successful. He was surprised to see that I had a longbow, but did not seem very concerned. The previous hunters he had guided were using compound bows. He told me about how his ancestors had hunted Polar Bears with simple equipment as well.
The next morning I was picked up at the hotel by Abe and then we rode out to the edge of town where he and John already had all of the supplies and equipment ready to go. We were planning to be out on the ice for as long as two weeks or possibly even longer. John and Abe each had a modern snowmachine and large wooden sleds that would be pulled behind them. Besides his snowmachine, John had his dog team and dog sled that he was taking along as well. Upon arriving in the hunting area, we would be using the dog sled for transportation exclusively. For the moment, I would be traveling in the "dog box" that was on the sled pulled by Abe. The enclosed box would provide an adequate barrier from the cold wind and after being lined with Caribou skins would be much warmer than riding unexposed. Once my gear was tied down we began our trip.
Abe told me that we would be traveling to an area that was a considerable distance from Taloyoak. It could take between three and five days, depending on the weather, to get to this area. He explained to me that by traveling such a long distance from the village it would increase our chances of finding a large adult male. Most hunters are not usually willing to travel that far and for that reason there is a greater concentration of mature bears further from the community. I sat still in my sled and prepared myself for the long ride. It is surprising how much time I actually spent sitting in that sled daydreaming of white bears and far off adventures.
After hours and hours of laying in the bottom of that box I was almost in a trance. I thought long and hard on what the real purpose of my trip to the Great White North was. I wanted to grow as an individual and become a better, more complete person. Being in the harsh Arctic environment and pursuing the most dangerous and fearless predator on earth was nothing short of a religious experience. It represented the desires I had to find a more spiritual and fulfilling existence coupled with the climax of a life-long dream.
Travel across the ice was very slow. There were not very many landmarks to help gauge one's progress by, which made travel even more tedious. I, personally, could not tell if we had traveled five miles or twenty miles. Only Abe knew exactly where we were. About once every hour or more we would stop to rest and let the snowmachines cool down. I was amused by the fact that even in the sub-zero temperatures the snowmachine engines would overheat due to the heavy loads they were pulling. Abe would climb on top of my "dog box" and glass the endless ice in search of a speck of black that could be a bear's muzzle or of some glimpse of movement. It is said by the Inuits that Polar Bears hide themselves by covering their black noses with their forearms when they hear or smell humans. They are the only part of their body that is not white and can therefore give them away. A cup of hot tea and some banek would help us warm ourselves before continuing.
The first day we traveled hard and ended up arriving at our "camp" late in the evening. Camp out on the ice is not much more than a big wooden container that resembles a freight train boxcar, though considerably smaller. The Inuit hunters build these wooden shelters that are about fifteen feet long, eight feet wide and eight feet tall within their villages. Once ready, they pull these containers out into the wilderness on rails with their snowmachines and use them as outpost camps. The only opening is a slight door on one end of this container that is about four feet tall and three feet wide and then a small exhaust on the top for the smoke to escape from. Once inside these shelters, they are actually very warm. Running a kerosene stove will raise the temperature to just above freezing within an hour. The walls of the container are insulated so as to help keep the temperature constant and considerably warmer than the exterior temperature. The warmest temperature that I experienced during this hunt was just above freezing. I soon became accustomed to having nothing more than a polypropylene long john top and bottom on while in these shelters and still feeling comfortable.
Within the shelter, we distributed ourselves and equipment in such a way as to optimize the little warmth we were able to generate. We set up our sleeping bags on the end of the shelter furthest from the entrance and then had the stove and icebox on the opposite end next to the entrance. After getting settled down and eating something, we talked at great length about Polar Bears and the danger that they pose to humans while out on the ice in the Arctic. Fortunately, the dogs were tied up outside the shelter and would warn us if a bear came into camp. Abe explained to me that each year he was allowed to guide one hunter by the local Hunter's and Trapper's Organization. He had been doing this for many years and enjoyed it immensely. John won his first Polar Bear hunt as an assistant guide and was very excited to have the opportunity to begin guiding with his brother. I was really enjoying the conversation and the experience of learning more about the Inuit culture and their traditions.
Early the next morning, we were up and ready to start moving again. It would be another long day of traveling. I was quite surprised to see some bear tracks not far from camp. Abe said that we could expect to start seeing more bear sign since we were now a considerable distance from the village.
Every hour or so, as we traveled across the ice, we would stop for a break and Abe would glass the white expanse of the Arctic in search of the elusive white bear. Early that afternoon, on one of these breaks, Abe shouted and pointed straight ahead of us. There was a bear about two hundred yards away running at full speed on a course that was taking it in a direction away from us. Abe said that it was a smaller female.
At first I did not understand how he knew this. Then Abe explained that usually there are only two ways to know what size a bear is without actually being right next to it. The easiest way is by seeing its track. The other way is by its behavior. A mature male will most oftentimes stand its ground and human presence will not alarm or disturb it very much. An immature male will move away slowly as will a mature female. An immature female will almost always run. However, when bears are in groups of two or three it becomes considerably more difficult to judge what they are because their behavior is less predictable.
I watched this running bear in awe and admired the natural camouflage that it possessed. It was easy to lose it in the white background and then suddenly see it once again as it kept running across the ice. I wondered how many bears we might have already missed because they were lying still, perfectly camouflaged, in the barren white surroundings
Once again we continued moving and soon came upon the bear's tracks. As Abe had stated; it was a small female. We kept traveling towards our destination without seeing any more bears. That evening, upon arriving at the place we would be camping, John noticed some Caribou off in the distance. He decided that adding some Caribou meat to our supplies would be very beneficial. I agreed wholeheartedly and offered to go along and help him get a Caribou. There was a herd of about fifteen Caribou and within ten minutes he had a small bull down on the ground with his vintage .303. Dinner that night was a wonderful Caribou stew. It really was the type of meal I needed to warm me up.
By the third day I was beginning to think that we should probably not be very far from the area we would be hunting. We traveled hard all day long taking only a few short breaks. Along the way we came across four different sets of bear tracks. One was an old track that belonged to a large male. I studied the track closely and noticed the tremendous size of the pads on this bear. Its mark in the ice was as big as the one left by my boot. Abe said that it belonged to a male that was probably ten feet! The two inch claws were still imprinted in the ice. The track appeared to be more than two or three days old which would make trying to follow this bear useless. Irregardless, it was still very exciting to be seeing so much Polar Bear sign. We were now far enough from the village to be able to see more bears.
That evening we no longer had a wooden shelter to sleep in. Hunters had not brought any that far North of the village. We set up the canvas tent that had been unused until this point and piled snow around it to keep the wind from blowing it away. I could tell that this shelter would not be as warm as the other ones. After camp was set up I took my bow out and did some Arctic stump shooting. I would pick out an abnormal ice formation and fling an arrow at it. Recovering these arrows was slow because the arrows, though they had a blunt, would bury themselves in the snow. During this time Abe had walked up a small hill behind camp to survey our surroundings.
When Abe returned, he said that he had seen two bears about five miles away. He was not sure what they were, but, he thought that it might be a sow and cub. They were in the direction that we would be traveling tomorrow which would give us the opportunity to examine their tracks. We were now only about four and a half hours travel time from where we would be hunting and I was beginning to get extremely excited. The two bears that Abe had seen were on our side of a hill that separated us from our final destination.
The next morning we were up early and getting all of our gear prepared to go. We had to separate the essential gear and provisions from any that would not be as important because from this point on, we would be taking only one snowmachine and the dog team. Abe would be using the snowmachine to pull the sled with the majority of the supplies and John and I would be pulled by the dog team . My anxiousness to reach the bay was such that I could not even feel the cold wind on my face or the bumps along the way. I was daydreaming of Nanook, as the Inuits call the Polar Bear. We eventually reached the tracks that the two bears from the day before had left. They were not made by a sow and cub. The tracks were made by a large male and a female. Abe said that they were most likely breeding and would be traveling together. My excitement was uncontrollable. The tracks on the male were huge and we knew he had just been there the previous evening. Abe and John decided to have tea and banek. I just wanted to move forward and follow the bear's' tracks. Abe said that the bears would definitely be in the area of the bay and that there was no need to follow the tracks. I did what little I could to keep from getting too anxious, but it was hopeless. The chase was on!
We continued traveling and went over some small hills and dropped into the bay. There was a great deal of bear sign. In the next hour we crossed six sets of tracks including those of the large male and female. Abe would stop and glass and I would follow his lead.
Suddenly, towards our right, we saw a bear. It was a great distance from us, but still within range to see clearly with binoculars. I watched it closely and was able to witness the bear reaching down into a seal hole and then come out with a squirming seal. This bear looked like it was a male, but we could not know for sure. I was excited but there was something that did not feel right. This bear was not with a sow. It was by itself. This was not the same bear whose tracks we had seen earlier. I could also tell that its fur was very yellowish in appearance. I was not sure I wanted to go after a bear with a coat that was as yellow as this bear's. I thought to myself that it did not really matter very much and that most Polar Bears were this color. As long as it was a male the fur did not really matter, but the thought still bothered me.
While we watched this bear trying to decide what to do, John called my name and motioned off to my right. He said that he had seen another bear in that direction. I looked through my binoculars and saw one a mere two hundred and fifty yards from where we were. Its fur was extremely beautiful. It was a pure white and blended well into the background. Abe looked at it and said that he thought it was a female. I thought for a moment that since this bear had such perfect fur, I would not mind the fact that it was a female. Inuit hunters, however, will do anything in their power to not take a female because of their limited quota system. For this reason they try their best to harvest only mature males.
Abe continued to study the first bear while I admired the beauty of this second bear. Suddenly I saw something move behind the second bear . It appeared to be a smaller animal. I called Abe's attention to this and he studied my find through his binoculars. He said that it looked like a cub. We had before us a male at a long distance and then a female and her cub. Three bears at the same moment! I watched this female and her cub and could not get over the magnificent color of her pure white fur. Even her cub's fur, which is usually not as dark as an adult's, was considerably more yellow. Both the female and her cub seemed oblivious to our presence.
Abe asked me what I wanted to do and I said I would just like to watch the bears for a while and maybe try to approach the far off bear to get a better look at him. I wanted to get a look at his tracks and get a more accurate idea of what size bear he really was before making any type of decision.
I studied the cub more closely. For some reason it did not strike me as having the correct proportions for its supposed size. I mentioned this to Abe and he decided that there might be more to this. He told John and I to wait while he went over to investigate this matter more closely. We watched him approach the bears slowly. Suddenly both bears picked up his movement and looked straight at him. The cub began running in the opposite direction. At this point everything fell into place. The cub was actually a female and the female was actually a male. This kind of mistake could only occur when trying to judge Polar Bears with no type of background to help judge their relative size.
These must be the two bear's whose tracks we had seen earlier, I thought. Abe's waving arms instantly confirmed this. I got on the dog sled and John and I began moving towards Abe and the beautiful snow white boar. When we were about one hundred yards from this bear John released two of his dogs to see if they could bring the bear to bay. The dogs immediately began to run in the bear's direction.
John and I followed behind the dogs on the sled. When the large boar realized that he was being pursued by two dogs he turned to fight. I watched in horror as he grabbed one of the dogs in his jaw and threw him several yards into the air. The dog was not mortally wounded, but quickly ran away from the bear. The other dog became cautious and would not approach the bear any closer than a few yards at the same time as the bear was moving slowly away from it. Abe shouted that this was a mature male and that he was probably not going come to bay. He wanted to call the dogs back and let him go.
I decided that I did not want to let this one get away. I would try and take him without the help of the sled dogs. I removed my EXP jacket and began to approach the bear on foot. Once I was within approximately fifty five yards I put an arrow on the string and drew back my bow. I picked a spot behind the shoulder and released. I had calculated my indirect aiming point incorrectly and my arrow fell considerably short of the bear. I quickly grabbed another arrow out of my quiver, held my point above the bear's back and shot again. The shot's elevation was correct, but I had hit behind the chest area and instead hit its rear leg. At this point he roared loudly and I was sure at that moment that he was going to charge me.
Instead of charging, he began to move away in a brisk shuffling run. I ran back to the dog sled and we began to follow at about seventy five yards parallel to the bear. The one dog was still following the bear and was now beginning to show some courage as he would nip at the bear's hind quarters. Suddenly the bear once again turned to fight the dog. At this point I jumped from the dog sled and ran towards the bear. It was about sixty yards away. I took aim and loosed an arrow. It was high and arched several feet over the bear's back.
I needed to concentrate! My surroundings began to get blurry and I was having an extremely difficult time breathing. My body temperature was dropping and I could not feel my hands anymore. My head was throbbing from the cold and it felt as if my lungs were on fire! I had to focus my attention on making one accurate shot. That was all it would take! I had practiced at this distance and knew that I could get the arrow where I needed it.
In a dream-like trance I took another arrow from my quiver, picked my spot carefully and shot. The point of the arrow was slightly above his back and the release was perfect. I watched the arrow arch high in seemingly slow motion flying perfectly. The arrow disappeared completely in the bear's chest and when he turned around I could see that there was blood coming out on the opposite side. The arrow had gone completely through the bear! He began to move away and I took another shot. This time the arrow hit his front shoulder and shattered. It was not important. He already had a mortal wound. It was just a matter of time before the hemorrhaging would bring the bear down.
I fell to my knees as John ran up with my jacket. My hands were already hurting from the onset of frost bite and were a bluish color. I needed to restore my body heat before I went into shock. At this point I had forgotten about the bear and was trying to compose myself and start recovering my heat. I asked John for some tea and began sipping it in earnest hoping that this would e enough. I wrapped my hands around the warm thermos to warm them up.
The bear went on about one hundred yards further and then lay down. I was watching him through my binoculars. I could see crimson on his nostrils. I felt sure that it would be only a few moments before he expired. The one dog came up behind the bear and started barking. In a last, futile attempt this magnificent bear rose up to give its last fight. The dog quickly got out of his way and the bear walked a few more steps and expired.
We kept our distance and stared in disbelief. I was now feeling much better, but could not yet believe that this King of the Arctic was finally laid to rest by a simple stick and string. After what seemed like hours we began to very cautiously move towards the bear. Abe threw some pieces of ice at it to see if it would move. The bear remained motionless. I walked up to the bear and began to run my hands through his fur. It was every bit as beautiful as it had seemed from a distance and had a very silky feel to it. I was surprised at the relative softness that it had as I expected it to be more coarse.
Its proportions were massive! The pads alone were more than fourteen inches long. Its claws accounted for an additional two inches and were razor sharp. While turning the bear over I cut one of my hands with its claws. At this moment I realized that Polar Bear's really are every bit as dangerous as they are said to be. I examined its mouth and was surprised to find that one of his canines was missing half of it. Abe examined them and confirmed the bear's old age. He thought that the fur might have been was white as it was due to a lack of adequate nutrition. After skinning and examining the carcass we noticed that this bear had almost no fat on it and was surely suffering from malnutrition.
We made the determination to camp in that same area as it was too late to go anywhere else. Abe took his rifle out and fired close to a dozen shots in different directions. He was very concerned that other bears would be attracted to the fresh carcass being that Polar Bears will eat the carcass of another bear.
After he was skinned, I was finally able to sit back and take in the whole experience. Abe and John were setting up camp and I was able to ponder the magnitude of what I had just accomplished. I sat on top of a snow drift and took in my surroundings. The closest that I have ever felt to coming in contact with the true meaning of life is being a stone's throw away from an animal that wanted to kill me. All this while holding in my hand a simple longbow and a sharp arrow. I had no rifle back up and it was just myself against the undisputed King of the Arctic.
I relished the moment and watched in awe as the Arctic paid a last tribute to this one majestic bear in the form of a glorious sunset. The sun came down slowly and bathed the entire Arctic landscape in its orange light. As it went progressively lower the colors changed from orange to pink. I sat still taking in the last rays of sunlight before the sun finally disappeared completely.