Text by Doug Peacock
Photos by Rick Ridgeway
In the course of writing the sabertooth book, while ruminating on however in hell did the First Americans deal with the gigantic short-faced bear and huge lions of the Pleistocene, the idea of dogs came up. Though there is no record in the archeological data, Clovis and pre-Clovis people might have had dogs, whose domestication dates back to at least 15,000 years ago. Dogs can carry packs, haul travois and also, in a pinch, serve as food. Hunting-dogs make cornering big game such as mammoth easier, distracting the beast with the giant swinging tusks, while men moved in with spears. Dogs can save your life in a fight with a big predator. A spear-wielding hunter, who would almost certainly die confronting a huge bear alone, can kill it with the assistance of a small pack of dogs snapping at the bear’s flanks and biting his heels.
Then I remembered our trip to the Canadian High Arctic: I knew such a man. The Inuit was with me when I carried a spear of my own into polar bear country. I was otherwise unarmed. Most people would consider this stupid, but what the hell? Not all stories are instructional.
During the summer of 1991, I agreed to accompany a beluga whale expedition to the Canadian High Arctic, the 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.
My companions were Bart Lewis, Rick Ridgeway and Doug Tompkins. I was taking the bear job seriously. The pay wasn't much--the price of a plane ticket--but I figured I owed my friends and the bears a bloodless trip with no casualties.
After considerable research and some reflection, I decided to carry a spear, a well-made spear, actually a pike, mounted on a stout wooden shaft of suitable length (I measured a live, captive 1400-pound Kodiak bear in Utah to obtain the critical bear-chest-to-claw 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. You’d probably die about 99 percent of the time.
The usual advice, which is law in many 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 survived dozens of close calls with grizzlies, too many to buy into this fatuity about guns. Besides, I consider it unethical to voluntarily invade the last homeland of wild polar bears and then blow them away just because events might not unfold to our advantage.
The problem was I knew next to squat about polar bears. I’d seen a bunch at safe distances but hadn’t interacted with them as I had with brown bears. I didn’t tell my buddies this at first. I was resolute, if slightly delusional, and, if necessary, intended to use my spear to protect my friends. I considered 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 kept my carrying the spear from becoming something other than a campy joke--is that you had to be willing to die.
Of course the government disagreed: They assigned an Inuit hunter to accompany us with his bear gun. Once our Inuit checked out my spear, he decided I was serious and we became friends. As the midnight sun headed into the west, he’d share a belt of Canadian whiskey from his flask with me.
We ended up with a lot of time on our hands in this magic landscape of ice and whales and caribou and musk ox: The sun circled the landscape and our expedition leader, after attaining his beluga whale objective in the first couple hours, settled into his dome tent for days reading a thick book entitled Reality.
I learned to spot polar bears out on the ice pack; their coat has a slight yellowish hue, off-color from the ice. One day, I spotted seven at once. I impressed my Inuit friend by predicting when other bears were present based on the behavior of a mother polar bear and her two cubs. I knew this from my grizzly bear work. One time, we spotted another family coming from the far edge of the fjord, where hundreds of belugas rolled and narwhals occasionally crossed tusks. From my notebook:
"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 moss-covered hummock of ancient bowhead whale bones, remnants of a thousand-year-old Thule Culture 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-long 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 the Earth with the fierce weight of their paws.
I await their passage."
I never got to try out a spear on a polar bear. But the Inuit had once. When he was 13, a bear wandered in from the ice to within sight of his village. The boy and his cousins unchained the dogs, then rushed out with their spears to meet the bear. While the dogs circled and nipped at the big bear, the boys thrust with their spears. My Inuit pal finally threw his spear and was given credit for the kill.
The Inuit hunt polar bear for fur and food, one of the few remaining traditional people who intentionally and regularly seek out big predators.
You wouldn’t want to try this without some really good dogs.
Read the full article about this Arctic expedition
Walking Point in White Bear Country
Pacific Discovery, Winter 1994