Pacific Discovery, Winter 1994

During the summer of 1991, I agreed to accompany an beluga whale expedition to the High Arctic--the Canadian island country west of Greenland. All this land was polar bear country and members of the expedition were understandably nervous. My job was to be the polar bear guy, to walk point in white bear country.

I was taking the bear job seriously. The pay wasn't much--the price of a plane ticket--but I figured I owed both my friends and the bears a bloodless trip with no casualties on either side. The problem was I didn't know much about polar bears. In fact, outside of the ethnographic and scientific literature, I knew next to nothing. I had seen a few distant polar bears out on the pack ice twenty years ago but nothing since.

Brown and black bear were a different story: I had spent a good chunk--well over a decade--of my life living with grizzly bears and wanted to believe this experience would allow me a "quick study" of the white bear.  After all, polar bear evolution probably followed the needs of a brown bear who wandered too far north 100,000 years ago and started hunting seals. The brown and white bear share an adaptive intelligence; they are flexible and have a knack for pioneering new habitats and situations.

Ursus arctos and Ursus maritimus both exhibit a cognitive complexity. Grizzly and, I read, polar bear, are both aware of their own track making; grizzlies may travel to denning sites only during a heavy snow, walk backwards carefully in their own tracks, suddenly leap off a trail onto a rock or behind a bush, or avoid leaving their paw prints in muddy areas. One of the more disconcerting experiences in nature is to have a bear set up an ambush for you. This has happened to me twice with grizzlies.

One April, I watched a big Yellowstone grizzly trace my snowshoe tracks out of a clearing into the lodgepole forest; the bear was walking on top of the tracks I had made coming in.  After waiting ten minutes, I started to follow the huge tracks but it was almost dark and something made me stop short. A chill of premonition ran up my spine. I turned and quickly got out of the woods.

The next morning I followed the prints out onto the crusted snow. The grizzly had followed my snowshoe trail for nearly a hundred yards, then veered off to the right in a tight circle to an icy depression behind a large deadfall ten feet off my trail. More tracks led away.

The sign told me that the night before this grizzly had backtracked me, then circled around next to the trail and bedded behind a log that would conceal him, waiting for me, ten feet away from the track of my snowshoes. Had I gone further into the timber that night, I would most certainly have encountered the bear. The icy bed spoke of a long wait.    

This had been the second time I had known a grizzly to set up what looked like a deliberate ambush for me. Polar bears, I read, do it too. What it means, what the bear intends, I don't know; maybe it is only curiosity. Still, I had known a distinct if momentary perception of a malicious intelligence lurking behind that log.

So--to hedge my bets--before leaving for the North Country, I read everything about polar bears I could lay my hands on and started thinking seriously about the danger of white bears. The convoluted paths of this meditation tended to converge on the issue of fear of bears, my own fascination with animals that sometimes kill and eat humans, and why I think these seemingly expendable creatures lie so close to the origins of human consciousness and central to our own survival. I kept a log of these misgivings.

In July of 1991, my friend Doug Tompkins and I left a week early from Vancouver in his Cessna 206 flying up the northwest coast of British Columbia towards the Queen Charlotte Islands, on the opposite corner of the continent from the High Arctic. This jaunt was a side trip. Our plan was to spend no more than four days in the Queen Charlotte's, then hop into Doug's single-engine airplane and head east, taking a couple days to check out strategic uncut forests in the interior of British Columbia and Alberta (Doug has devoted much of his life to acquiring or otherwise protecting virgin forests). From Edmonton, we would load our gear on a commercial jet to Resolute on Cornwallis Island, pick up some current information on where the belugas were, and head on out into white bear country.

What follows are excerpts from my trip journal.

July 19, 1991: Sea kayaking off Chaatl Island, Queen Charlotte

Low scudding clouds shroud the rocky coastline, a gray indifference perched upon a dark and featureless ocean.  A broad band of blue mussels, limpets, and horse barnacles runs along the shoreline --the tide level appears to be close to its lowest point.  We are timing our move into the narrow east-west channel that cuts through the middle of the Queen Charlotte archipelago to the rising tide, hoping to reach the mid-point in time to ride the ebb tide down the other side.  Beyond the slate landscape of sea and rock looms the muted green forest of the Pacific Northwest--fir, cedar, and Sitka spruce reaching up into the low clouds from an understory of alder and fern.

Paddling my rented sea kayak frenetically, I gain a slow yard or two on Doug who glides smoothly up the Skidegate Channel. We make camp in a back bay and I follow the little creek up beyond the brackish water to fill my canteens with fresh water.  Near the bank are several bear scats from last fall; berry scats from a very big bear. The locals told us that there are no brown or grizzlies on the islands but that the black bear here grew huge. Black bear are relatively harmless. The upshot of my research was that polar bears, though dangerous, are not any more dangerous to humans than grizzly bears. In fact, most of the few experienced voices who have spent significant time with both grizzlies and polar bears, consider the brown bear more dangerous. The American brown bear is aggressive in many situations: when wounded, mothers with young, sudden close
brushes, defending food, during the mating season, being surprised on day beds, and at other times harder to categorize. Grizzlies may charge humans during any of these encounters, concluding the charge if people are too close or if they try to run away or scream.

Most grizzly bear maulings, especially those involving sows with cubs, are defensive accidents (defensive on the part of the bear who merely wants to protect her young and accidental in that humans blundered in too close); if the person plays dead the attack by the bear will often be broken off.

Polar bears are generally considered by these same people to be more tractable, less nervous, and even a docile animal by comparison. The difference is that, while grizzlies are truly omnivorous and have diets that tend towards the vegetarian side of the table, the white bear is an effective predator and is largely carnivorous. Polar bear attacks on humans reflect this: about two thirds of the deaths and injuries inflicted by white bears on man have been predatory. Uninterrupted polar bear attacks tend to result in the human victim being eaten.

July 20, 1991: Skidegate Channel

I am thinking about my decision to carry a spear into polar bear country rather than the usual rifle or shotgun. A friend forged the nine-inch iron spearhead, knowing what I needed it for and how I Intended to use it as a pike, mounted on a stout wooden shaft of suitable length (I measured a live, captive 1,400 pound Kodiak bear to obtain this measurement). The only time this defensive weapon would be used is at the moment of truth--at the conclusion of a polar bear charge. The theory was that you anchor the stern of the shaft on the ground and aim the tip of the spear towards the narrow chest of the white bear who theoretically impales himself on his charge--if all goes according to plan, though of course the odds are not in your favor.

My judgment to carry a spear was made earlier in the spring, after considerable research and much reflection. The usual advice --which is law in some quarters--is to carry a big bore firearm for bear. I disagreed. After all, I was recruited for this trip because of my expertise with wild bears and I had experienced dozens of close calls of all sorts with grizzlies, too many to buy into this fatuity about guns. None of these bears had touched me. Also, I consider it unethical for us to voluntarily invade the last homeland of wild polar bears and then blow them away whenever events do not unfold to our advantage. At the same time, I hate being defenseless.

This argument about guns and bears lies perilously close to near religious and cherished beliefs concerning the roots of dominion and masculinity in America. When is it okay to take another life in defense of your own life, your family, or your property? Does this include blowing away a thief stealing your hubcaps, or just in defense of life, and when do you know humans or other animals are true threats? That which we fear is threatening but, today, we in the so called civilized world tend to fear all that is unknown, which increasingly embraces much of the natural world including animals like bears. There are two basic camps: Either you believe that human life has more intrinsic value than that of the bear or you do not. This is not the same as survival--for an individual or collectively as a species--which is different and natural. But if you think it's okay to blow away any bear you think might possibly be a threat or a danger, the discussion is over.

The mundane side of the gun argument is that a firearm will get you in more trouble than it will get out of with a bear. Short of shooting the bear who is actively chewing on you, it is never quite clear when to begin shooting. Most of the official bear literature speaks of the necessity of guns for shooting charging grizzlies. Grizzly bears who charge are mostly mothers with cubs who will stop short of you if you inoffensively stand your ground; so, when do you begin shooting?  

My judgment to carry a spear resolves all these questions. I consider myself responsible for all my companions should an encounter with a white bear grow ominous. After all, that was what I agreed to do: walk point. The bedrock assumption, never discussed--that keeps my carrying the spear from becoming something other than a campy joke--is that you need to be willing to die.
July 21, 1991: Hecate Strait (Waiting out rain in tent)

Last night I dreamed of white bears--a re-occurring dream. The white bears of my dreams were grizzlies, not polar bear. They were alternately fascinating and terrifying and I spent much of my dream time breathless from fear, trying to scurry up trees and into rafters just out of reach of the marauding beasts.

It is curious that in my dreams, the fearsome white bears often threaten me on the fringes of civilization, in cabins, outbuildings--human structures oddly out of place out in the wilderness. At first, this seems a mere confusion of association. Yet--in reading the literature of polar bear assaults on humans--this is often where bear attacks on people take place: on the edges of industrial culture, out on the drill rigs, the geological camps, scientific stations, or depredations upon displaced pods of eco-tourists or biologists. Thus a reality lingers beneath the fear. In the town of Churchill, Manitoba, a mistake of geography caused the voracious truck of commerce to plop a grain exporting sea port on the site of an ancient migratory route of polar bears. By fall, the bears, who are hungry, invade the town and feed at the dump. In 1983, a Churchill man closed a bar and walked down a street with his pockets full of scavenged meat from a burned down hotel. A white bear caught him in the dark from behind, grabbed him by the head and shook him to death like a dog with a rat.

Other attacks took place further from civilization. During a midmorning of January 1975, on a drilling platform in Canada's Beaufort Sea, a worker was bending over cutting ice off a doorway, when a five year old male polar bear hit him without warning, a blow so sudden and silent that workers twenty feet away, inside, heard nothing. By the time the man was missed, the bear had dragged him a mile away and had stopped to eat him.

This was the typical pattern of contemporary polar bear attacks.  Earlier in 1973, another white bear had snatched another worker from a tractor near Kendall Island in the same sea. The pattern of this and most subsequent attacks was the same: A silent blow in the night of winter delivered from ambush with no warning just outside the door of the camp, rig, outhouse. The attacks are predatory, the bear is often a young hungry male.
I try not to make too much of these coincidences; this fearsome mixing of wild beasts and human settlement seems a natural and metaphorical confusion of people who no longer maintain a bestiary apart from the barnyard, who fanatically fear the unnamed. The grizzly bear maulings at the Banff townsite are somehow more terrifying than those set far apart in the wilderness as are the notion of man-eating wolves roaming the streets of New York City. These are aberrations of association, I thought, caused by the poverty of our minds, the fear of everything beyond the steel barriers.

July 22, 1991:  Flying over central interior British Columbia

Below, snow cornices delineate the watershed of a lovely glacial valley, long white serpents of wind driven snow hugging the ridges. Everything but the permanent snowfields and these remanent cornices have melted in the warm sunlight of late July. The plane climbs south, over a low divide. On a broad patch of cornice a small herd of mountain sheep escapes the hordes of insects by bedding on the snow. I lean out the window and see fresh bear tracks travelling along the snow cornice. The grizzly tracks veer sharply off to the left down into the head of another valley. It looks like the bear was travelling to another seasonal forage range.

Grizzly bears use well travelled trails and traditional routes when moving to one section of their range to another, but they sometimes take shortcuts too. I once tracked a grizzly who took advantage of a recent forest fire to take a shortcut to the next drainage. Polar bear may do this also, I read, out on the ice where there is open ice and soft spots. How do they know where they're heading if they've never been that way before? Taking the shortcut, for grizzlies or polar bear, is to go beyond memory. The animal must have some kind of map of the country tucked away in its consciousness.

Polar bear may travel astonishing distances; a bear marked in the Spitzbergen islands showed up 2000 miles to the southwest a year later. Movements of a hundred miles a day have been recorded. But on the ice, with no apparent landmarks in an ever-changing topography of ice and flows--how do they manage? This travel would be difficult enough in the mountains and forests, but to do so among the shifting flows and drifting ice goes beyond any science I could imagine.

July 23, 1991: Caribou Mountains, British Columbia (Doug's Cessna)

Though I know that brown bear stalking, ambushing, or preying upon humans during the day is extremely rare, it isn't unknown. Five hundred miles to the north of our location, during the winter of l970, a Doig River Indian went out following the tracks of a very large grizzly. He followed the tracks to a head-high mossy hummock, behind which the bear had circled, waiting to ambush the man. The male grizzly killed and partially devoured him.

It's difficult to assess the dangerousness of such encounters and--above all--impossible to generalize about bears. I don't think that every grizzly or polar bear lying in ambush intends to do you harm, but not for a second do I imagine these bears are always joking.  This fresh though unsettling behavior by these sometimes predatory animals, creatures who are about our own size or larger, resists easy classification.

July 24, 1991: Fraser River, British Columbia (Flying east)

We are flying over moose country, caribou country, wolf country. The caribou does not fear the wolf, I think, as humans so obsessively fear the shadows on the edge of their former world. Modern people fear not only the wild animals they no longer maintain relationships with, but they fear their own deaths. Caribou evolution did not lead to escaping its fate as wolf meat but to an appropriate offering in time. Among paired predators and prey, the progression over eons is aimed not so much about how to avoid becoming a victim of predation as it is directed towards the suitable age and individual at the moment of truth. Even among our species, a good death is embracing the appropriate moment of dying. Certainly, there are times to rage against the dying of the light, but in the end, you had to wrap your arms around death.

I have been thinking about the function of fear, fear of death by bears, where humans might see themselves as prey: Is there a vestigial fear of being killed and eaten by wild animals, or is it just another facet of the irrational fear of all creatures whose lives and habitats we no longer know? That cosmos surrounding our brain--the human mind itself--evolved from an ecology, a habitat whose remnants we sometimes call "the wilderness."  What evolves doesn't persist without sustaining the creative conditions of genesis. We once hunted elephants and lived with lions, tigers, and cave bears.  Fear was appropriate. The vitality of that fear is lost in today's world of crime, traffic, and video games.  The stench of fear in war could not replace the gift of life in a grizzly's charge; they smell different--I know this from experience. And--as the wolf sculpts caribou evolution or creates healthy moose--what today hones our organic intelligence that was born of hunting?

July 25, 1991:  Canadian Rockies, Alberta (Last day in Doug's plane)

Far ahead lie the High Plains of Alberta, Indian Country--Blood, Sarsi, and Piegan. Unlike the insular Europeans in their concrete tepees, the Plains Indians deliberately courted confrontations with grizzly bears during times of passage, vision quests, and wisdom seeking. You ferreted out the bear to get something, because if you endured the encounter, you came away with wisdom. In this encounter, you offered up your whole life; all your talents and instincts focused on the moment. If you survived the appointment--and each time it was an open question--you walked away complete in soul and utterly alive. The confrontation was so intimately personal you sometimes never spoke of it again. To survive such an engagement was always a gift from the bear.

The Eskimos of old also deliberately sought out the white bear because the polar bear, like the grizzly, was "the one who gives power."

July 27, 1991: Boothia Peninsula (Commercial jet to Resolute)

Below on the pack ice are dark dots, probably ringed seals. The greatest interplay between animals may be among those who kill and eat one another: the lion and the zebra, the caribou and the wolf. Or the Eskimos and the polar bear, who alternate positions on the food chain, sometimes men eating bears, sometimes the other way around.

I knew that polar bears are cautious of Eskimos, and also of walrus on land, though the white bear will sometimes stalk either species. Of all animals who sometimes kill and eat humans, no species has as many strategies for success as the bear, especially the white bear. Not that they are designed to accomplish this purpose; on the contrary, all these animals know that stalking the upright ape involves considerable danger. But sometimes it happens. In the case of the polar bear, the strategies for human predation have mostly evolved around its chief prey animal, the ringed seal, a marine mammal with huge eyes and keen hearing.  

The white bear kills people the same way; with bites or blows to the head or neck--the way polar bears kill the ringed seal. Sometimes, it appears that polar bears mistake humans for seals. An Austrian tourist was attacked in 1977 when he poked his head out the door of his tent to check on a noise he had heard. The white bear pulled the man out and ate him while his tented companions looked on helplessly.

This kind of fear is palpable: the vestigial fear of being hunted, left over from our African roots, from our time on the Savanna. I wonder about the Eskimo hunter out on the ice, crouched over the breathing hole waiting for a seal, clinging to his spear in the dim or absent light of winter, listening for the hairy padded footsteps of the silent white bear.

July 31, 1991: 3:11 AM  Cunningham Inlet, Somerset Island (Camped on an alluvial bench above the ice free waterway)
A quarter mile to the south of my tent three immaculate white flecks are moving directly towards me across a contrasting canvas of brown and green tundra. They are bears. Through my binoculars I can see a mother polar bear and her two cubs. They will pass inland of my tent a hundred feet away near the foot of the bluff. I pick up my spear and head to a better vantage point, a hummock of bowhead whale bones, remnants of a thousand year old Thule sod house.

The white bear family ambles into a little ravine a hundred yards away, still heading my way. They move fluidly with unimaginable grace and beauty. Holding the eight foot spear in my right hand, I grab a handful of lichen and moss with my left.

Like Anteaus, the giant of Greek mythology, invincible while touching the earth, I have to be on the ground, holding tight to the world, always sharing the land with wild animals who hold down the same living skin of earth with the fierce weight of their paws. 

I await their passage.

Go to top