Samuel Hearne’s Bears

Samuel Hearne was an explorer, whaler and eventually Cheif Factor based from Prince of Wales Fort on the Churchill River.  These are exerpts from his journals and his first-hand observations of polar bears in the 1700s…

‘Though common on the sea-coast, is seldom found in its Winter retreats by any of our Northern Indians, except near Churchill River; nor do I suppose that the Eskimo see or kill any more frequently during that season; for in the course of many years residence at Churchill River, I scarcely ever saw a Winter skin brought from the Northward by the sloop. Probably the Eskimo, if they kill any, may reserve the skins for their own use; for at that season their hair is very long, with a thick bed of wool at the bottom, and they are remarkably clean and white.

The winter is the only season that so oily a skin as the Bear’s can possibly be cleaned and dressed by those people, without greasing the hair, which is very unpleasant to them; for though they eat train-oil, etc yet they are as careful as possible to keep their clothes from being greased with it. To dress one of those greasy skins in Winter, as soon as taken from the beast, it is stretched out on a smooth patch of snow and there staked down where it soon freezes as hard as a board; while in that state, the women scrape off all the fat, till they come to the very roots of the hair.

It is sometimes permitted to remain in that position for a considerable time; and when taken from the snow, is hung up in the open air. The more intense the frost, the greater is its drying quality and by being wafted about by the wind, with a little scraping, it in time becomes perfectly supple, and both pelt and hair beautifully white… the skin of the bear, though so large an animal, is remarkably thin and spongey.

It is rather singular that the polar bears are seldom found on the land during the winter, on which account it is supposed they go out on the ice, and keep near the edge of the water during that season while the females that are pregnant seek shelter at the skirts of the woods and dig themselves dens in the deepest drifts of snow they can find where they remain in a state of inactivity and without food from the latter end of December or January till the latter end of March; at which time they leave their dens and bend their course towards the sea with their cubs; which in general are two in number.

Notwithstanding the great magnitude of those animals when full grown, yet their young are not larger than rabbits and when they leave their dens in March, I have frequently seen them not larger than a white fox, and their steps on the snow not bigger than a crown-piece when those of their dam measure near fifteen inches long and nine inches broad.

They propagate when young or at least before they are half-grown; for I have killed young females not larger than a London calf with milk in their teats; whereas some of the full grown ones are heavier than the largest of our common oxen. Indeed I was once at the killing of one when one of its hind feet being cut off at the ankle weighed fifty-four pounds.

The males have a bone in their penis as a dog has and of course unite in copulation; but the time of their courtship is I believe not exactly know, probably it may be in July or August for at those times I have often been at the killing them when the males were so attached to their mistresses that after the female was killed, the male would put his two fore-paws over and suffer himself to be shot before he would quit her.

I have frequently seen and killed those animals near twelve leagues from the land; but as the Fall of the year advances they are taught by instinct to seek the shore. Though such a tremendous animal, they are very shy of coming near a man; but when closely pursued in the water, they frequently attack the boat; seize the oars and wrest them from the hands of the strongest man, seeming desirous to go on board…

The flesh of this animal when killed in winter is far from being unpleasant and the young cubs, in the spring, are rather delicate than otherwise.

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