Nunani: The Last Great Polar Bear Hunt (Part one)
There I was, sitting on the kamotik, praying that we wouldn’t catch up to the owner of the massive footprints in that snow.
Please, please, I silently begged to no one in particular — let the tracks be a few days old. Please, please let the creature be long gone from the scene. And please, even if we did catch up with it, let it get away.
I’ve always had a morbid fear of polar bears. They’re bigger than any animal on land, and they can eat your dogs and kill your family. So there I was, pre-adolescent, out on the Land, and rigidly locked into my imagination of all the horrible things that would happen to us if we ever caught up with that thing.
That thing had left its tracks, huge imprints the size of pie plates. I watched in mingled horror and fascination as the deep impressions filled with errant, wind-borne snow. I knew enough to realize that the bear had at least been here this day, since these impressions were concave. Older prints would have been heavily raised.
The weight of the creature compacts the snow underneath it, making it more dense than the untouched snow. As the uncompacted snow is blown away, the dense stuff is left in view, looking like a sort of inverse footprint — a cast of the bear’s foot.
It was a good thing the dogteam couldn’t “read” the prints, or they would already have freaked out, as I was, sitting behind my father on the kamotik. Then again, they hadn’t caught scent of it yet, either, although that didn’t make me feel much better.
The bears, like many Arctic animals, had evolved to carry very little scent, so the dogs had to be fairly close or downwind before they could detect it. I was making plans concerning what I might do if things went wrong, slipping my mitted hand under a piece of lashing to hang on in case the dogs bolted. That was so I wouldn’t be dumped and left behind, weaponless before one of the world’s most capable hunters.
In the Arctic, throughout the ages, human beings have only held second place in the rating for top predator.
Hunting the beast entailed skills even the greatest hunters took years to perfect. It had never become a sport, and no one but no one ever took it lightly. Once, as an adult, I ran into a pleasant old hunter in Rankin Inlet. He was positively ancient, a real Inummarik (“true” Inuk).
He sat me down and, in his archaic style of Inuktitut, told me of the bear encounter that had nearly killed him. His head was a strange shape, especially around the top, where his silvery hair was little more than wisps, like curling smoke. I tended not to stare — until he tilted his head to show me. There were scars — no, a single, great scar — that took up his entire crown. His head was nothing but, and his skull, at the apex, was hideously indented, like a broken soup bowl.
He explained to me that a bear had done this to him, a great bear that appeared out of nowhere one day, while he was hunting. To his chagrin, he admitted to using a skidoo, instead of dogs which can guard against approaching bears. It had been a long hunt, and he was out of ammunition.
He claimed to simply turn, and there the creature was, a great male, standing over him. He danced backward, staying to its right, since bears are left-handed, strike first with that paw. But he could not evade it forever.
The bear, he explained, cannot kill a standing man. He knew he had to remain standing at all costs, since the bear’s tactic is to push a man down, so that it can incapacitate its victim by ripping off the face, as it does with a seal. Again and again, the bear reared, smashing its weight down upon him.
But every time, he resisted falling, willing himself to remain on his feet. He paid a great price, with several of the attacks lacerating his head, peeling his scalp away. One or more blows — he couldn’t rightly remember — crushed his skull like an eggshell. He never did fall, and the bear eventually grew bored, and left him.
(Continued next week.)