Bowhunting Polar Bears

by Patrick Meitin

It was easy to see this was to be more an expedition than a hunt, considering the logistics involved. Two days of commercial air travel aside; there’d been a multi-village hop in an oil-drum-filled, ear-blasting DeHaviland Otter, several snowy landings and much shuffling of cardboard-boxed truck before reaching Grise Fiord, Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, Canada. Grise Fiord, an outpost of perhaps 300 Inuit, is Canada’s northernmost settlement, flanked by Greenland and the Arctic Ocean north of Baffin Bay. Yet our journey was far from complete. In Grise Fiord, some 1,700 miles from the North Pole, Alfredo Julian and I climbed into waiting snowmobile-drawn sleds and larruped westward across frozen sea.

This was initially enchanting, if occasionally joltingly rough, traversing a subtly beautiful world of white on blue to every horizon. As the newness subsided it became simply something to be endured, the sun an interminable entity hanging 24 hours a day during May, making it easy to lose track of time and space. Nearly 38 hours later we arrived in base camp, a collection of double-walled canvas tents and long strings of tethered huskies. The first order of business was food, then much-needed sleep.

Sled Dogs Pulling the Hunters
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With “morning” (I’d lost track of time) Alfredo and I loaded into sleds towed by snow machines, mine piloted by veteran hunter Imisho, Alfredo’s by teenager Jimmy, another youngster, Aaron piloting a supply sled. We were to bowhunt musk-oxen on our way to polar bear habitat. By the end of the long day we’d both arrowed Boone & Crockett-caliber bulls. Late r we would meet Alfredo’s polar bear guide and huskies and the real adventure would begin.

The Search for Nanuk

I was installed in a semi-enclosed sled towed by exhaust-spewing snow machine, lying atop copious supplies and many layers of shedding caribou hides. Caribou hair would become a regular part of my existence. Another supply sled seemed to be along only to freight gasoline for the machines. I had it better than Alfredo. The rules of fair chase dictate that mechanized transportation is strictly off limits to polar bear hunters. Alfredo rode on an open sled drawn by a throng of huskies, open to the wind, cold sun and flying snow. I wore seemingly endless layers; Cabela’s silk, polypropylene, wool and down, Alfredo donning $2,500 worth of Northern Outfitters garb designed for just these conditions. I also loaded myself down liberally with Heat Factory chemical warmers each morning. We’d then travel across 16 to 18 hours of bleak nothingness, under a perpetual sun and minus 15 to 25 degree F temperatures in relative comfort. So our days proceeded for the next 15 days.

Head guide Kovovow regularly produced the biggest bears of the season in this region. His brother Tommy towed my sled. Kovovow was tall and lean, a decided taciturn who could only be coaxed into verbal exchange by annoying him somehow. Tommy was a smaller version of his brother but as gregarious as his brother was reticent. Tommy was in charge of camp, erecting tents and cooking. Also along, towing all-important supplies was Charlie, a painfully quiet man who normally kept to himself. Kovovow tended his dogs with a heavy hand, the crack of his seal-skin whip producing rifle-report cracks and with similar accuracy. The huskies were more wild animal than domesticated pet and looked to Kovovow as their alpha male. I was told in no uncertain terms to stay away from them. They’ll bite alright….

At exhausting days’ end, traveling, climbing high points to glass endlessly, we’d pause near rearing icebergs locked in frozen ocean, finding relief from persistent wind and because they provide fissures into Norwegian Bay’s liquid sea five to eight feet below were seals emerge to bask, luring hunting bears. Tommy and Charlie would work to set up a pair of double-walled canvas tents that efficiently contained heat from Coleman stoves that ran continuously while encamped. We were hunting “nights,” when the sun dipped to bring greater cold and prompted bears to roam. We piled caribou skins atop snow and tossed on sleeping bags, my minus 45 degree Cabela’s bag deliciously thick and quickly providing the first real comfort in hours. Sleep came easy.

We’d crossed innumerable bear tracks, all wind blown and seemingly old as the land (ice) itself; the fresh spoor of a female towing cubs that Kovovow forcibly dragged the dogs away from. After two weeks on the ice a polar bear seemed as unlikely as a winning lottery ticket. Admittedly, I’d begun counting days toward a return to civilization -- to cutoffs and T-shirts.

The “Perfect” Storm

Glassing the Ice for Prowling Polar Bears
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On something like the seventeenth day we awoke to roaring wind. I emerged from the tent to inspect the day and couldn’t get back inside fast enough. Later we gathered while Kovovow yelled into the short-wave radio that produced alien gibberish seemingly from outer space. “Big storm coming,” Tommy related after some time. “We stay here.” We remained there two days, until the storm subsided as fast as it had risen. Without a word Kovovow and Charlie disappeared on snow machines. Fifteen hours later Kovovow returned alone, his sun-blackened face appearing in the tent door. “We find bear. Get ready,” he said simply. This important information was delivered so nonchalantly I sat waiting for the punch line to a dry-humor joke, but Kovovow was away tethering huskies. Alfredo and I looked at each other in disbelief then sprung into action.

mounted respective rides – me on the snow machine behind Tommy with my video camera, Alfredo on the slower dog sled clutching his bow – and headed away from the sun. We first discerned Charlie, sitting peacefully on his machine smoking as if waiting for a bus, the bear standing not far away. It was as if I were dreaming, viewing something spectral and unreal. The yellow-hued bear was standing on an open expanse of snow, watching us closely as if weighing his options. The sheer size of him was stupefying. With Tommy’s machine silenced he promptly settled back into his nap. We waited while I grappled with an uncontrollable urgency, suddenly thankful for the endless daylight that couldn’t be extinguished to steal this opportunity from us.

Game On!

The dog sled appeared like a mirage on the heat-shimmery horizon and already I could hear the excited yelps of huskies. They’d scented the bear and were anxious to begin the chase. Nanuk stood then, surveying the horizon with blinking, squinting eyes, his head bobbing side to side. He turned and started away in a lumbering, hip-sprung gait, not exactly in a hurry but not liking what he was seeing, or hearing. The huskies had quickened their standard ground-gobbling pace to bring the sled on astoundingly fast, working in powerful lunges, leaning into their harnesses and digging frantically at the hard snow. They were really moving. I gave Alfredo a thumbs up as they whisked past.

Sled Dogs Chase the Polar Bear Across the Ice
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I expected the bear to break into a greyhounding sprint but he continued in his blasé saunter, stealing glances over his shoulder while the dogs closed the gap, beginning to create a cacophonous clamor of yelps and choppy barking. In a couple minutes they’d overtaken the bear. Tommy and Charlie cranked up their machines and followed at an idling pace, coming abreast of the dog sled and its exposed hunters.

The behemoth boar simply walked ahead of the dogs, each straining at their tethers and setting up a racket. I jumped from the machine and ran behind the action to get better footage and the bear turned and rushed into the dogs 10 yards in front of the hunters, scattering them backwards. Alfredo shucked his mittens and vaulted from the sled, drawing his bow as the bear turned to walk again, offering only his rear. Alfredo clamored back onto the sled and they continued, moving into rougher pack ice.

The bear was growing bored with this game and had began to turn to fight with more conviction, each time Alfredo jumping off the sled to draw his bow, but each time just a tad too late to get off a clean shot. I caught the sled finally and jumped on with Alfredo who asked about his mittens, which had been lost in the first rush to get off a shot. Progress had begun to slow, the dogs struggling to keep the sled moving over broken crests of ice. Kosovo turned and screamed viciously at me to get off the sled and we all slid off and began pushing.

They caught the seemingly indifferent bear in a matter of a 100 yards as I trudged behind. This time when the bear turned to fight Alfredo anticipated the charge and was off and at full draw when he turned broadside in preparation for departure. Soon a crimson stain developed aft of the great white shoulder. Alfredo ran forward once more and sent another arrow home and the bear rushed into the dogs, scattering them in confusion but his legs failing him quickly. In a matter of minutes it was over, the bear weaving 50 yards to the side and tumbling over. I started toward the bear, the camera running, waiting for Alfredo to enter the picture, turning finally to see him sitting with his bare hands between his legs, writhing in pain. In the knife-edged wind, clutching the frozen aluminum riser of his Hoyt compound, his hands were painfully frozen; frostbite that would leave his hands peeling for months to come.

In time the pain subsided enough that Alfredo developed interest in his bear and we all walked up to take stock. And some bear it was, all 10 ½ feet of him. Inside that head was buried a monstrous Boone & Crockett skull, but that was something for

Successful Archery Polar Bear Hunt
Alfredo and his giant polar bear.

later. He was a bear of a lifetime and Alfredo said after the awe had subsided, “I’m so glad to get him….now I don’t have to come up here again,” laughing and only half joking. We were both ready to go home. The far northern reaches of the frozen arctic are no place for white men. But that was in the seemingly distant future; a 48-hour, full-throttle sled ride into Grise, the hopscotch in the clattery Otter, two days of commercial airline hell. At that moment, though, everyone was as jovial and animated as it’s possible to be. Even Kosovo cracked a smile. Just a small one.

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