This afternoon, we were heading over to the ‘Churchill Gun Range’ (technically just a gravel berm with some pallets just south of the highway) to shake the rust off and test out Karine’s new gun, a nice old Lee-Enfield .303, a Canadian Rangers special.
But, as bears are wont to do, one showed up and changed our plans. We were just leaving Camp Nanuq when we spotted a white dot meandering along the willow ridge near Bird Cove. It seemed to be making its way towards the Ithaca so we watched him through binoculars for a while and then tried to head him off at the pass.
If you can predict a bear’s path and just kind of ‘be there’ when he shows up, you usually get a pretty good encounter. Ithaca Beach, a little strip of sand and sandwort near our local shipwreck, is a great place for this kind of thing. Sure enough, we pulled up and out on the tidal flats, our bears was ambling slowly but surely towards us.
You can tell a little bit about a bear from a distance. You don’t want to guess at size because gigantic bears in the distance sometimes turn into little cubs by the time they walk up to your vehicle. There’s not much to judge size or distance by up here, you can tricky your brain pretty easily. But, you can tell a bit about their personality.
This guy was pretty confident, not missing a beat as we got in position. A lot of bears will stop, often with one paw raised, almost in mid-step, to assess the situation. This guy just kept coming while we set up the camera on the beach.
He was coming in pretty fast so I grabbed a rock and threw it out onto the flats to slow him down, usually if you can pique their curiosity, it buys you a fair amount of time. As the rock landed, this guy started running towards us! Not quite the effect I had hoped for but not altogether unexpected.
This was a young male, a little brother as they are called in the high arctic, one of the cocky males – old enough to bully smaller bears but not quite old enough to have had their ass kicked by a larger bear in breeding season. It will come though, this guy had the longer guard hairs that show he has just reached breeding age, about five or six years old. It will be another four or five years and a whole bunch of scars and bruises before he does breed though, by that time, his attitude will be a bit more relaxed as well.
These are pretty tricky bears but we were lucky enough to use his confidence against him. Three or four more rocks tossed just to his right, led him along the beach and away from us, running to investigate each rock as it hit the ground with a crack. The tension was eased and his attentions soon took him away from us down the line of kelp.
This is the tricky part though, polar bears are masters of ‘diversionary tactics’. While it seemed he had walked away, he actually slid into the willows and essentially flanked us, coming back in from another angle. I threw one more rock but already knew the jig was up. You can usually only get away with something ‘once’ with bears, they learn too quick. His head was down a bit and his march was a bit stiff-legged so this was enough for us to jump back in the truck and watch from there. No reason to push it today.