The BAREBOW! Chronicles: “Fair Chase? What’s That?”
Dennis Dunn 11.24.14
In the Preface to BAREBOW!, I mentioned that in early 1998 a friend suggested to me I ought to set my sights on pursuing and completing the North American Super Slam. Once the idea was implanted in my brain, it rather quickly became a major goal in my life, and I wasted no time checking into the possibilities of booking a hunt for polar bear. I knew from my reading that the more radical environmental and animal rights groups were crusading to get all hunting for this species shut down, so while at the 1998 SCI Convention I dropped by the booth of Adventure Northwest and had a talk with owner Bill Tait.
Bill explained to me that he had just had a cancellation on a long-held booking, and that he could offer me the hunt at about $5,000 off the normal price—provided I could get myself ready to go within just over 60 days. I told him I thought I could be ready for the 14-day hunt by the start-date of May 1, so he proceeded to explain why he hadn’t already filled the spot from a waiting list of would-be polar bear hunters. The hunt was to take place out of the arctic hamlet of Pelly Bay, located northwest of Hudson Bay, in the eastern third of the Northwest Territories. The general area was known as the Gulf of Boothia, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service had not yet lifted the ban on importing polar bear hides into the States from that area—the way they had done (several years earlier) for bears taken in the western two-thirds of the NWT.
In other words, if I succeeded in taking a polar bear, I wouldn’t be able to bring it back across the border. I assured Bill that wasn’t a problem, because at the time my Canadian wife and I were living in Vancouver, British Columbia, and we had no definite date in mind for moving back to my hometown of Seattle. He went on to explain that, because of the very healthy bear population in the Gulf of Boothia, that area was the next one from which the importation ban was supposed to be lifted. That thought made my decision even easier, and by the time I left the convention for home the contract was inked, and the deposit made. I could hardly wait for March and April to become history so the adventure might begin!
To reach the Arctic Circle and beyond, one can’t just board a plane and get there in a single flight. It usually takes three or four connecting flights, and a minimum of two days—and that assumes you’re having good weather! My route took me from Vancouver to Edmonton, to Yellowknife, to Cambridge Bay, to Pelly Bay. Bill Tait had made arrangements for my assistant guide, Eric Oogark, to meet my flight at the tiny “airport” in Pelly Bay and escort me to the one, small hotel (eight rooms) in the hamlet of around 500 Inuits. Eric explained that he would pick me up the next morning and run me on his snowmobile over to the local office of the NWT’s Division of Renewable Resources, where I’d be able to buy my hunting license and obtain the bear tag that the local Hunter-Trapper Organization (HTO) had set aside for me.
My first full day north of the Arctic Circle dawned clear and bright, with the temperature right around zero degrees Fahrenheit. In the HTO office, it was carefully explained to me that my tag was the only one—out of 15 allocated to Pelly Bay that year—that the community leaders had decided to make available for “sport hunting” to the outside world. I was told that their quota for 1998 was broken down by sex: No more than five female bears could be taken; the other 10 all had to be males. If more than five sows were killed that season, Pelly Bay’s quota for the next year would be severely curtailed. I believe the season was to end on May 15, and the HTO officer wanted me to know that I had no choice but to take a boar only—unless I wanted to see my bear confiscated upon returning from the hunt.
The base camp we would be hunting from was a 10- by 12-foot plywood shack some 60 miles north of Pelly Bay, located on a small island sticking up out of the arctic ice pack near the tip of the Gulf of Boothia Peninsula. As Eric and I readied the snowmobile and the sleds for travel, he told me that my head guide had started out the day before with his dogsled, and would be waiting for us in camp when we got there later that afternoon. His name was Solomon Iqquiyuituq, and Eric assured me that (despite the unpronounceable spelling of the last name) I would like him a lot.
Around two very long hours later, after I had bounced about uncomfortably on a pile of caribou- and muskox-hides inside a wooden-box type of sled (with a heavy canvas tarp pulled over my head to protect me from the bitter-cold wind), the expedition suddenly ground to a halt. I lifted the flap of the tarp to see a team of sled-dogs and a man (Solomon, I assumed) standing there talking to Eric. We were only halfway to “base camp,” but Solomon had decided to wait for us and was saying he didn’t like the looks of the weather and doubted we could reach “the shack” before the storm hit us. They’d also both seen some pretty large, fresh bear tracks a bit further back, and Eric explained that Solomon felt once the storm cleared we should spend a few days hunting in that general area. We had come up onto a low little island, and as I looked around I could tell others had camped there in the recent past. The remains of an igloo stood not many yards away, and within an hour we had erected our own, more spacious wall-tent.
As Inuits go, Solomon was a big man. Even though he spoke no English, he had a warm and commanding presence about him, and I made up my mind to like him and trust him right from the start. With his big, toothy grin, he was genuinely likable anyway, and he was already a bear-hunting legend in his own time. His deceased grandfather was even more of a legend—so much so that in the Pelly Bay Catholic cemetery outside of town, the white cross standing at the head of his grandfather’s grave was twice as large as anybody else’s in the cemetery!
Eric was a generation younger than Solomon, and thus had been required to learn English in school. That was fortunate for me, because it meant I always had a translator/interpreter at my side in communicating with Solomon. It was through Eric that I learned why Solomon’s grandfather had virtually achieved sainthood in the hamlet of Pelly Bay.
Born in 1877, he quickly became, as a young man, the number-one polar bear hunter for many miles around. He was known for his courage—and for having killed many dozens of bears during his long lifetime, armed simply with a spear. Missionaries never even discovered the Inuits of Pelly Bay until around 1940 (the year I was born!), so firearms were totally unknown to Solomon’s people until a few years before he was born—I believe, in 1946. Snowmobiles didn’t make their appearance until the early 1950s.
During the course of our hunt, to hear Eric’s translation of the tales Solomon related about his grandfather’s hunting exploits was one of the great highlights of my entire experience in the Arctic. His technique was very simple, but extraordinarily brave! Hunting usually alone, and without dogs, he would strike out onto the frozen arctic sea, using a head-harness to pull a sledge carrying his survival gear and his spear. The spear was carved from a long whale bone, sharpened to a fine point, with serrated cutting-edges, and it had a short crosspiece tied solidly about two-feet-plus down from the tip. Once he picked up the tracks of a large bear, he would turn and follow those tracks until he finally caught up with the beast. The larger bears weren’t any more dangerous than the smaller bears, but they yielded more meat and hide, so Solomon’s grandfather would always choose the biggest set of tracks he could locate on any given outing.
When the hunted animal spotted him, it almost invariably would charge, and at the last second—as the bear’s front feet left the ground for the final bound by which the bear intended to nail his prey—the hunter would hurl the spear, burying it in the bear’s chest up to the hilt of the crosspiece.
Once airborne on that final spring, the bear couldn’t change directions in midair. Meanwhile, the human hunter was jumping deftly to the side, and, by the time the bear got his momentum stopped and turned around, Solomon’s grandfather had grabbed the butt end of his spear to fend off the enraged animal. The spear’s crosspiece always did its job—allowing repeated thrusts, back-and-forth, back-and-forth, holding danger at arm’s length, until death did them part. Somehow, it was always the bear that died, never Solomon’s famous ancestor. A week or two after his departure from the village, the hunter would trudge back into town, pulling a heavy sled laden with fresh-frozen bear meat and hide.
The story was an overpowering one, and during the next 14 days, as our dogsled covered endless mile after endless mile in search of the mystical white bear, such was the imagery that flashed through my mind every time Solomon and I would come across a fresh bear track in the otherwise-trackless wasteland of the frozen arctic sea. The thought struck me frequently that nothing about the world I was witnessing had changed at all throughout numberless millennia.
What had changed dramatically, of course, was the manner in which the Inuit of today hunt their polar bears! Western technology was—at one and the same time—both advancing and ruining their culture. The Inuit are nothing if not supremely practical! Thousands of years of surviving the planet’s harshest ecosystem had required the development of that uber-practicality. Why hunt bears with spears, dogs, and sleds, when you can run right up to one on a snowmobile and knock it over with a high-powered rifle? The concept of “fair chase” never meant anything to the Inuits, and it still remains largely outside their capacity to comprehend. For them it was always a matter of “Kill or be killed!”
So I was equally struck by one hugely humorous irony: here was a White Man (myself) endeavoring to take the most dangerous of North America’s big game with a “primitive” weapon, under the “rules of fair chase,” while all the while my hosts were sort of laughing at me behind the polite smiles and friendly exteriors, and wishing I’d simply agree to pick up a modern weapon and hunt the way they hunt—now that they had the luxury of hunting the way White Men hunt! Or at least the way most White Men hunt!
Few human beings will ever be lucky enough to go on a polar bear hunt in the high Canadian Arctic. Far fewer still, having been there once, will return to that harshest of all hunting environments. Canadian and international law dictate that one must hunt solely by dogsled, and the hunt is physically and psychologically demanding. For a whole host of reasons, it grinds you down: day by day, wind-gust by wind-gust, icy bump by icy bump, degree by frozen degree. Whether it’s the frequent storms, the inexorable glare of the sun, the dazzling brightness of the total whiteness, the complete silence of such a vast, lonely, “barren” wilderness, or the bone-chilling cold that always seems to be coming at you with the wind in your face, a polar bear hunt presents a set of challenges unique in the entire universe of hunting.
The spring storm kept us essentially tent-bound for two days and three nights. By the third morning, the sky was clearing rapidly, and the real hunting was able to begin. The winds hadn’t really been too ferocious, and we had been able to keep the tent walls in place by weighing down at ground-level the bottom-inside “apron-flaps” with a number of heavy rocks. At night, my guides had kept the air temperature inside the tent a few degrees above freezing by simply keeping lit one burner of our Coleman cook-stove. I was amazed it took so little in the way of a heat-source to keep the outside cold at bay!
While Solomon tackled the intimidating task of getting harnesses and leather leads from the dogsled attached properly to all eight dogs that were only halfway domesticated in the first place, I distanced myself from the boisterous, earsplitting ruckus by taking a walk around our little island. I soon learned that the arctic “barrens” are anything but barren when it comes to wildlife. And, as is true throughout the natural world, if a wild creature is ever prone to move about and show itself, it usually does so shortly after a storm has passed. By the time I returned to camp, I had not only jumped an arctic hare, which surprised me with how large it was, but through my binoculars I had also seen an arctic fox down on the far tip of our island flush a covey of half-a-dozen ptarmigan. The plumage of the birds was so purely snow-white that when they flushed in my direction and landed about 40 yards away, they simply became invisible to me against the fresh-fallen snow. Using my binos, I finally was able to pick them up again visually—but only because their tiny dark eyes and black beaks eventually betrayed them when they moved.
Our weather remained pretty good for the rest of the hunt, and for three full days we hunted out of that first camp erected next to the collapsed igloo. Each day the routine was the same. Never striking out much before noon, Solomon would kneel on the front of the dogsled, so he could “mush” the dogs with his 35-foot-long whip; I would sit on the back of the sled, bow across my lap; Eric would bring up the rear on his skidoo. Whenever possible we would travel into the wind, looking for the fresh bear tracks we always hoped to cross. That tactic always increased the chill factor dramatically, but it also ensured that no big bear would get our scent before we could make visual contact. Since it was already early May, the temperatures never dropped very low, and I think the coldest reading we recorded (even at night) was six degrees below zero. No tracks we came across were large enough to interest Solomon, so after three days of logging 25 to 30 miles a day by dogsled, we decided to pull up stakes and head for the “luxury” of base camp.
When we arrived at the plywood shack, I have to say it looked wonderfully hospitable in the bright-orange, afternoon sunlight. It was situated in a little cleft or valley near the top of the island, and a 150-yard, gradual climb in either direction took us to one of the two rocky rims that crowned the island’s roughly 400-foot upthrust. Both allowed superb glassing opportunities for as far as our high-powered optics could “see.” That first evening at our new camp, I saw my first polar bear. It was about two miles out from the island, and I was struck by how distinctly yellow it appeared against the stark whiteness of the frozen sea. It was too late for us to reharness the dogs and try to catch up with him that night, but perhaps the sighting boded well for the morrow.
The next day did, indeed, bring us a close-up bear encounter—but not the kind I would have welcomed, had I known how it was going to play out. We had only been out on the pack-ice about two hours when we stopped to brew up some hot tea. The Inuits make a habit of doing this several times a day, not solely for its warming effect, but also to prevent the onset of dehydration, which can attack you rapidly in such a dry atmosphere (since the extreme cold simply takes all the moisture out of the air). While Solomon got the stove going and was preparing a little lunch, Eric climbed up atop a big, frozen, icebound iceberg to glass for bears. Almost immediately, he came sliding back down in a big hurry, said he’d seen a bear just a few hundred yards away, exchanged a few undecipherable words with Solomon, jumped on his machine, and sped off out of sight.
Our location appeared to be right on the fringe of a rather sizable area of pressure ridges and icy upthrusts that often took the shape of fanciful sculptures, created by the artistry of wind and sun. I wasn’t at all sure what Eric had in mind, but I didn’t have a good feeling about it, and I knew it wasn’t going to do me any good to ask Solomon. He and I climbed up Eric’s iceberg to look for ourselves, and within seconds we saw his snowmobile bobbing and weaving through the field of icebergs—hot on the tail of a yellowish-looking bear that was perhaps 150 yards in front of him. I let out a curse under my breath and headed back down toward the dogsled. This was nothing like the hunt I had bargained for—and paid for! Fair chase? What’s that?
Soon Solomon and I were “mushing” in the direction we had seen Eric heading and, after about 10 minutes, picked up his machine’s tracks. Five minutes later, we pulled up alongside Eric, while the dogs proceeded to bark their heads off. I stared in stupefaction at a bear—maybe a seven-footer, at most—that was standing 50 yards away, looking utterly exhausted. It was panting mightily, its tongue hanging out, and its forearms stretched around a slightly-leaning, vertical chunk of ice—just to hold itself up and cool itself down!
When Eric said, “Dennis, just take your bow and walk over there and drill him!” my response was, “Eric, if you have your own bear tag, I guess you can go shoot it, but you couldn’t pay me enough money to shoot that bear for you! I’m certainly not going to shoot it for myself!” The clash of cultures was on full display, and it was all I could do to control my anger. I frankly don’t know which of us was hotter—the bear or me, but I knew I didn’t dare say anything more until my temper cooled down.
Back in the shack that evening, I did my best to explain to Eric what the concept of “fair chase” was all about, yet I don’t believe I really got through to him. I asked him to translate everything I said to him for Solomon’s benefit, and perhaps I detected a glimmer of understanding in the older, wiser pair of eyes.
I then pressed forward to ask a very “leading question.” It was one I was almost afraid to ask, but I knew I had to. “Ask Solomon if that bear today was a boar or a sow,” I demanded of Eric. Solomon listened and then simply shrugged his shoulders. I was aghast! It turned out neither one of them had any clear idea what sex the bear had been!
The next laser-beam question I hurled at Eric was this: “Well, Eric, if you didn’t know the bear’s sex, and yet you knew that the quota for the season has already been met on females, why in God’s name were you urging me to shoot it?” Eric looked down, stared at the floor, and said nothing.
“Did you ever bother to tell Solomon that if I shot a female it would undoubtedly be confiscated from me upon returning to Pelly Bay?”
Again silence, followed at last by a barely-audible “No, I didn’t.”
Fighting once more to control the anger rising within me, I said, “Well, you tell him now, Eric! You tell him right now! You owe me one huge apology, and probably him too, and from now on—for the rest of this hunt — I don’t want either of you making a move on any bear without consulting with me first, and without my signing off on it! Do you understand me?”
With that final salvo, I walked out of the shack, deciding to cool off in the frigid night air under a nearly full moon, and to let the two of them sort things out in their own native tongue without me around.
Unfortunately, the remainder of the hunt didn’t present me with much more in the way of opportunities to fill my tag. Out on the frozen sea a couple days later, we followed a set of fresh tracks with the dog-sled until we caught up with another bear of about seven feet, but when I asked my guides if they could tell whether it was a male or not, they again said they didn’t know.
Now, seven feet is big for a black bear, but it certainly isn’t for a polar bear. Big males are almost always unmistakable by their sheer size and bulk alone. Their necks tend to be longer, and their front shoulders and legs more powerfully built. For bears of eight feet or better, Solomon had told Eric to tell me that he could usually tell a boar’s tracks from a sow’s by the amount of long fur trailing between the toes. The males simply had more of it.
Early in the final evening of the hunt, one last opportunity suddenly appeared. We had just returned from hunting, and my guides were back at the shack starting to prepare for pulling out in the morning. I had climbed to my favorite glassing location on the west rimrock, and within minutes I spotted a bear hunting seals no more than half-a-mile out on the sea-ice. I couldn’t tell how big it was, or what sex, so I hustled back to get the guides to come take a look. Upon doing so, Solomon felt it was worth taking a closer look, and, since the dogs were still in harness, it didn’t take us long to close the distance and study the bear more carefully. Unfortunately, it didn’t pass muster. In the opinion of my head guide, it was another smallish seven-footer, and when I inquired again as to sex, I received the same, familiar, noncommittal shrug.
Thus the hunt ended with considerable frustration all around, but I had truly loved many aspects of the unique adventure, and I felt determined to come back for another try. Solomon was actually someone I had come to admire and respect, but I knew, if I were going to return to hunt with him again, I was going to have to ask Bill Tait to have some very serious and educational talks with the leadership of the Pelly Bay HTO. They simply had to be made to understand that “sport hunters”—at least the vast majority of them—were not interested in any hunting that did not respect the rules of fair chase. I could hardly wait to get back home and give Bill a phone call.
Editor’s note: This article is the thirty-fifth of the BAREBOW! Chronicles, a series of shortened stories from accomplished hunter and author Dennis Dunn’s award-winning book, BAREBOW! An Archer’s Fair-Chase Taking of North America’s Big-Game 29. Dunn was the first to harvest each of the 29 traditionally recognized native North American big game species barebow: using only “a bow, a string, an arrow—no trigger, no peep sights, no pins—just fingers, guts, and instinct.” Each of the narratives will cover the (not always successful, but certainly educational and entertaining) pursuit of one of the 29 animals. One new adventure will be published every two weeks—join us on the hunt! You can learn more about the work and purchase a copy on Dunn’s site here. Read the thirty-fourth Chronicle here.
Top illustration by Hayden Lambson