The BAREBOW! Chronicles: One Whale of a Bear!
Dennis Dunn 12.03.14
In April of 1999, I experienced one particularly exciting drama up in the Arctic, with which any 18th century whaling man from New England could readily have identified. Heart-pounding adrenaline rushes were common for North America’s early whalers, and at one point during my second try for the Great White Bear of the North I suddenly found myself thinking back to those distant times and adventures, and marveling at the similarity to what I was going through.
Before I finish drawing out the parallel, however, there is much of this story that needs to be told first. Solomon Iqquiyuituq had been my head guide on the first hunt that began May 1, 1998, and it was on his recommendation—having to do with the timing of the bears’ mating season—that I returned to Pelly Bay in Nunavut two weeks earlier in the spring of the following year. My booking agent in Yellowknife, Bill Tait, had felt very badly about the way my first hunt had gone, and, once I returned home and gave him a full report, he quickly offered to rebook me at an even better price than he had sold me the first hunt for. I remain grateful to this day for his most solicitous generosity. I know he made little or no money on that second hunt.
When I arrived in Pelly Bay on the afternoon of April 14, my new assistant guide, Liedrick, met my plane and took me around town to get the requisite license and tags I would need before going out onto the ice-pack the next morning. For the second year in a row, the hamlet’s quota on female bears had already been filled by the locals, so I was told again that I could only harvest a male. Also, once again, Solomon was to be my principal guide. He managed to get off to a 7 a.m. departure with his dogsled, roughly three hours before we finally left “town,” but after an hour or so, we passed him by and continued on under fair skies to our familiar plywood shack. Solomon would set up a bivouac camp for himself that evening, and then join up with us late the next morning.
Upon his arrival the next day, Solomon was all excited and began jabbering with Liedrick in their native tongue with intense animation. As the seasoned polar bear guide came up to shake my hand and welcome me back, Liedrick instructed me to pack up my bedroll/gear as fast as possible so that we could immediately head our sleds back toward Pelly Bay. The blank look on my face quickly disappeared as he went on to explain that a very large boar, trailing close behind a large female, had passed within 100 yards of Solomon’s tent just as he was getting up that morning. There was no time to waste if we were going to have a chance of catching up with them!
About two hours later, I found myself looking at the biggest bear tracks, bar none, I had ever seen. I swear the rear footprint measured a good 14 inches long! The boar was clearly pursuing a sow in estrus. I quickly grabbed my bow out of its case, attached the bow-quiver, transferred my body from Liedrick’s freighter sled to the back of Solomon’s dogsled, and we were off to the races—or so I hoped! Liedrick followed behind us by a thousand yards or more, so as to reduce the chance of the bears hearing his snowmobile.
The sled dogs were obviously eager and motivated by the fresh tracks in the snow, but they began to show signs of fatigue after several hours of pulling, with still no bears in sight. Finally, by late afternoon, we were dealt a big disappointment when the tracks led us to a sizable island that rose as much as 800 to 900 feet above the frozen sea. Here the boar—sensing, I suspect, that he was being pursued—had left off following the sow and had headed up a long, steep, snowy couloir which seemed to lead right to the very top of the island. With our binos, we could see that his tracks went right to the skyline and then, of course, simply disappeared—to only God knew where.
Once Liedrick caught up with us, Solomon instructed him to unhitch the freighter sled from the snowmobile, and to make a complete circle around the island to see if he could pick up the bears’ tracks again. Liedrick invited me to hop on the back of the snowmobile behind him, so I gave my bow to Solomon, and off we went on a high-speed reconnaissance trip! It took us nearly an hour to make the full trip around the island, but no new tracks were seen leaving it. Since the dogs were tired, and the island seemed much too intimidating to attempt climbing in our cold-weather clothing, Solomon made the decision to find a sheltered location for setting up the wall-tent that would house us for the night. A big grin spread across my face when Liedrick asked me if I would be willing to stake down the four corners of our tent, using part of the dog-food supply. The dog food consisted of frozen Arctic char, and they did, indeed, work wonderfully well as tent-pegs driven into the snow. Our plan was to return after a good night’s sleep to the much friendlier plywood shack—which was now probably 30 miles distant.
Day three turned out to be the one where all my daydreams about Nanook finally came true. Early that morning, leaving my bowcase and its contents strapped to Solomon’s dogsled, I joined Liedrick on the snowmobile to make a quick return to our base-camp island, so we could resume serious glassing for bears from the elevation advantage it offered. Solomon would follow along as fast as possible. Once back at our shack, we climbed to the highest part of the island outcrop and set up the spotting scope. The weather was absolutely gorgeous, and as good as it gets for long-range optics use in that part of the world.
About an hour after the serious glassing began, I spied a big male pursuing across the ice-pack a female with a good-sized two- or three-year-old cub. The three bears were only about a mile away from the island, heading more or less in Solomon’s direction. Four miles or so to the south, we could make out a tiny black speck that we felt certain was Solomon’s dog-team coming our way.
Liedrick and I wasted no time roaring off the back side of the island, then turning to race as fast as possible to meet Solomon so I could get my bow and climb aboard the sled from which I needed to be hunting. After a mile or so, we stopped to glass the bears again. They were still maybe 1,000 yards from our position, traveling pretty much with the wind — somewhat obliquely toward us, and they hadn’t yet picked up the sound of our snowmobile. We decided to kill the engine and just wait and watch till Solomon arrived. Before long, Solomon pulled up, and the two men began an intense discussion in their native language about what our strategy should be.
I started preparing for imminent action by retrieving my weaponry from Solomon’s dogsled, removing my outer heavy parka and outer gloves, and then planting myself on the back end of the sled with my bow across my lap. I figured our chase after the fast-moving bruins would be starting momentarily. The sled had been hastily “pinned down” upon Solomon’s arrival by a two-by-two-inch stake driven into the snow up against the front cross-brace. Liedrick suddenly informed me that Solomon didn’t want to start the chase right away, because he wasn’t sure he could control which of the bears the dogs might decide to go after once the bears split up.
My two guides continued to stand there and talk, about 15 feet behind me, as I remained seated on the rear of the sled using my binos. I was watching our quarry start to pass about 500 yards in front of us when all of a sudden I was pitched backwards violently, and I realized to my horror that the dogs had just spotted the bears and decided to turn that restraining stake into a toothpick! We were off to the races!
At least I was off to the races! Sans guide, sans rifle, it was just my bow and I—and nine hungry dogs, with bear scent in their nostrils, barreling toward three of the most dangerous carnivores on earth! As the sled started to take off, I had turned around just in time to see Solomon’s face at eye-level, three feet from mine, his invisible body stretched out horizontally in midair, as he tried desperately to catch the rearmost cross-brace of the sled. When his hands just missed their target, he did a face-plant in the snow, and I knew immediately that I now had a major problem on my hands.
First, I tried to stick my legs out on either side of the narrow sled and dig my heels into the snow. I managed for a minute or so to slow the dogs’ speed by a third, perhaps, but before long my leg strength gave out. I was no match for the strength of nine excited dogs. Jettisoning my bow, I next tried to flip the sled over so that the upturned tips of the runners would dig into the snow and bring everything to a halt. That, however, proved to be wishful thinking! I placed my knees on one end of the cross-boards, pulling up as hard as I could on the other side of the sled, yet the best I could do was to get one runner about four inches off the slick surface passing below. I simply didn’t have enough leverage available to me.
With the dogs closing quickly on the frightened bears, it was clearly time to abandon ship. As I rolled off the runaway dogsled, my mind harked back to the early American whalers and their much-dreaded “Nantucket sleigh-rides.” Once a hand-thrown harpoon had been securely embedded in a whale and the rope tied down at the other end, every man aboard the dory would hang on for dear life as the huge marine mammal raced away at breakneck speed. The great fear was that the whale might decide to “sound,” which meant “head for the bottom of the ocean.” Sometimes they did; sometimes they didn’t. In that era, if the heavy rope could not be cut swiftly enough, many a whaler was dragged to an early, watery grave. In the midst of my own sleigh-ride, all I knew was that—without a guide and a rifle nearby—I wasn’t “going down” for this polar whale or any other!
Picking myself up off the ice-pack, I regained verticality just as my companions raced up to me on the snowmobile. They handed me my discarded bow, and, since I was unhurt, they zoomed off again in the direction of the runaway dogsled. Through my binos, from a half-mile away, I watched with fascination as Solomon successfully executed the tricky maneuver of jumping from speeding snowmobile onto speeding sled. Within seconds, through the use of his long whip and his verbal commands, the runaways came to a standstill.
By the time I caught up with them on foot, Solomon had released half the dogs from their harnesses and sent them off on the biggest of the three sets of bear tracks. In the distance, I could just make out the last canine in hot pursuit, disappearing around a big mound of ice. All the bears, of course, were completely out of sight. Via Liedrick, Solomon asked me if I wanted him to release the rest of the dogs. Without thinking it through sufficiently, I said yes, forgetting that then there’d be nobody left to pull us on the sled to catch up with the bear.
My first thought was simply that, since our quarry was heading toward his only escape opportunity in the nearby rough ice and open-water leads, the more dogs on his tail the better! Soon the ninth and last dog was just a dot on the horizon, and the three of us realized we had no choice but to start jogging along the well-beaten path and see if we could eventually catch up with the menagerie before it was too late.
After 15 minutes of jogging more or less abreast of each other in our arctic “moon boots,” Solomon suddenly turned to me, panting heavily, flashed his priceless toothy/toothless grin, and blurted out the two words “Long way!” I was stunned and burst out laughing. It was the first time I’d ever realized that he knew any English at all—other than the word bear. Five minutes later, another grin—followed by: “very long way!” Obviously, the sly old arctic fox had been playing something of a con-game with me for nearly a year!
Another 10 minutes went by, and Solomon and I were really getting pretty “corkipated.” Jogging on such an uneven, unstable surface was taking its toll. Liedrick was following close behind carrying the rifle and my camcorder. A brief instructional session with him in the tent the previous night had convinced me he would be able to record on video whatever action we might be lucky enough to have during the hunt.
The next thing I knew, a lone dog appeared in front of us, limping our way and licking his fresh battle scars. Then all of a sudden, as we passed around the side of another icy upthrust, there was the bear about 300 yards away, spinning around and swatting repeatedly at the other dogs. His forward progress had slowed to a crawl, and it seemed clear that he was very overheated under his thick fur coat, and starting to run out of steam.
Circling to approach from directly downwind, we quickly closed to within 50 yards, at which point I started to take an arrow out of my quiver—just as I heard Solomon’s voice behind me saying, “Shoot!” The footing beneath me as he gave the command, however, was very treacherous—jumbled water-ice covered by fresh snow. I could see a small, relatively smooth, flat spot 15 yards ahead of me, so I made up my mind to reach it before attempting to draw on the bear. So far, I had not even seen Nanook look in our direction, so distracted was he by the snarling, yelping dogs. I decided, therefore, it was worth the risk of trying to close to about 30 yards.
Totally focused on the beast in front of me, and with only two strides left to reach “my spot,” I suddenly stubbed my toe on some invisible ice-cube under the snow and went sprawling face-down! The arrow went spinning off the string, and, quickly picking myself back up, I was enormously relieved to see that the big boar still seemed unaware of our presence. Needless to say, I wasted no time getting my feet planted firmly on my chosen location. That transcendent moment of truth every hunter dreams of was finally at hand. As I pulled back on my 70-pound Martin Cougar and settled into my anchor at full draw, only then did I realize how hard I was breathing, how overheated I had become, how fast the dogs were swirling around the bear, and how really unready I felt to take the shot I’d always assumed would be a slam-dunk whenever I was practicing back home in the calm, controlled environment of my local target range.
The terrifying thought assaulted my brain that I had almost as much chance of impaling a dog on my arrow shaft as I did a bear! Not surprisingly, my first arrow sailed cleanly right over the bear’s back. Yet, of course, he didn’t even notice. My second shot at the constantly-moving target wasn’t much better, but it did manage to transfix both hams and exit the far side. The next arrow passed right through the lower belly, somewhere around the diaphragm line. I think the fourth shot missed again completely. The fifth embedded solidly in the middle of his backbone but somehow managed to miss the spinal cord. Everything was happening so fast, it was all a blur!
With one arrow missing, due to my face-plant in the snow, the next thing I discovered was that my bow-quiver was dead empty! I doubted the bear was going to go very far now, but as I walked back past Solomon to get my camcorder from Liedrick, I felt more than a little disgusted with my shooting—doubting there was even one arrow clearly in his rib cage.
Taking the camera from Liedrick’s hands, I turned around to find the bear sitting upright on his haunches, backed up against a row of big ice-blocks. Now he had to defend himself on only three sides. The dogs had quieted down some and seemed to sense the end of the battle was near. As I continued to film, I felt a tap on my elbow and looked up to see Liedrick handing me one of my arrows he had found somewhere. Grateful for one more opportunity to put a finishing arrow where I wanted it, I exchanged the camcorder for the arrow and approached within 25 yards.
This time, Liedrick did his job, and I did mine. While he filmed, I buried my last arrow to the feathers in the bruin’s chest cavity, and—as the tape shows—three seconds later his head hit the deck. It was all over—save for the quiet, solemn handshakes. The entire “action,” from start to finish, had lasted no more than perhaps ninety seconds.
Once skinning had been completed, as the sun was retiring for a short nap, we measured the “square of the hide” at well over eight feet. Not a monster bear, by any means, but a magnificent creature, nonetheless! And one whose “humbling” had caused me to feel more humble and more grateful than at any previous moment in my hunting life.
Over the two years combined, I had been privileged to spend 17 days in a quasi-magical, primordial world that had always pitted man against beast, and beast against man, and probably changed little—if at all—throughout the previous 20,000 years. The abrupt removal of my boar from the general polar bear population meant that two or three cubs, every single year for 10 or 15 years to come, would escape his predation and live to sire (or carry) litters of their own. And, although I had cravenly “chickened out” on staying with my “Nantucket sleigh-ride” in the high Canadian Arctic, I still did end up with one “whale” of a beautiful bear to treasure forever. Then, of course, there are the priceless memories, which—in many respects—are the biggest part of what hunting is all about.
Near the end of my first Polar Bear hunt in May of 1998, I composed the following poem (anapestic tetrameter). Although written in a humorous vein, it conveys a vital message about the crucial importance of allowing the continuation of trophy hunting for polar bears.
Hunting Polar Bears Hunting
Oh, that great Arctic bear, known as Ours Maritime,
Is nowhere to be found when you’re looking for him.
Though his tracks in the snow often seem to abound,
There are days you would swear he is nowhere around.
In the endless expanse of such white upon white,
He can hide like a bat in the folds of the night.
If you hunt for this bear, don’t give in to despair,
Because he will find you — if you’re long enough there!
By just sniffing the air, he can home in on you,
And then making his next meal (of you) just might do!
He can swim like a fish; is a glutton on seals,
Which he catches with ease, though they’re slippery as eels.
Every bit of their blubber is put to good use
As he builds his own fat, and he makes no excuse.
If his appetite, clearly, is not a bit choosy,
After finishing eating he always feels snoozy.
So Nanook picks a nook ’mongst the upthrusts of ice
And curls up in the snow like a warm blob of rice.
You may think that you’re close as you follow his track,
But you’d be well advised — more than once — to look back!
You could suddenly find him just ten yards behind,
With a grin ear-to-ear and your chops on his mind!
Should you ever decide to try hunting these bears,
Do make sure it’s a male that you kill — for his heirs.
Males will eat their own cubs just like little white grubs,
And that little-known fact takes you right to the nubs
Of why Nature will welcome you out on her ice:
Yes, she welcomes most gladly the roll of the dice . . .
Be it your life or his, everything ends up nice.
Being a part of the food chain’s so simple, we see,
Once you set foot or sled on the vast frozen sea;
Mother Nature may grant you a great ten-foot bear,
Or . . . deliver a six-foot-long sub to his lair!
Editor’s note: This article is the thirty-sixth 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-fifth Chronicle here.
Top and bottom images courtesy Dennis Dunn