Story by Team Outpost
Photos by Simon Vaughan and Will Allen
The Great Polar Bear Sighting
As the snowy owl flies, Cape Dorset on Baffin Island lies about 550 kilometres southwest of Pangnirtung. Not being a snowy owl, however, we fly via Iqaluit and arrive around midday, just ahead of a massive blanket of fluffy white fog that rolls in and envelops the island.
“We were completely socked in for two weeks once,” says Kristiina Alariaq of Huit Huit Tours, as we head down to the waterfront. “No flights, nothing. The stores began to run out of fresh food. Then the fog lifted.” Kristiina and her husband, Timmun, highly skilled wilderness guides, had invited Team Outpost to join them on the land for a few days.
“This will give you a real taste of Inuit life,” Timmun explains, as we load the gear into a freighter canoe for the trip to their boat. Once packed, we head into the fog-shrouded Hudson Strait for the 80-kilometre journey to Andrew Gordon Bay. The sea is as still as a mill pond, which is just as well given the limited visibility.
We ease past rock islands and hazy Inukshuks perched on pinnacles like ghostly sentinels. Seals surface and lazily survey us before disappearing with a plop. Along for the ride are the Alariaqs’ daughter Nak, their granddaughter Kimmie and grandson Tapau. This is what the Alariaqs like to do best: leave town and head off camping, the way their ancestors had done for centuries. To be able to join them was a great privilege, both humbling and inspiring. The voyage remains uneventful, even out here, and eventually the fog lifts and we follow the coastline before turning into the bay.
“Tomorrow we go fishing,” says Timmun. “No fish, no dinner!”
“Do you get polar bears here?” we ask, wondering if northerners ever get tired of fielding that question from southerners. But with true hospitality, Kristiina simply says “yes,” and adds we’ll hear all the stories over dinner later that night. Timmun then steers the boat toward the shore and we quickly offload our supplies. He grabs his rifle and heads for the small cabins set back from the shoreline where we’ll overnight it.
“He’s checking to see if there are any polar bears around,” says Kristiina.
Their camp had been built over the course of several years. No electricity, bar a small portable generator to run the radio and other basic appliances, and no running water, except from neighbouring rivers. In winter, they make the trip across the ice by snowmobile, the rest of the year by boat. They bring enough food for the first day, after which they are dependent on what they catch.
“Any of you ever use a rifle?” Timmun asks, handing us a Winchester with an impressive scope. “You don’t go anywhere without a rifle, and you keep it by your side at night when you sleep.”
Later, as we huddle around the table in the main cabin, Kristiina points at the large plexi-glass window.
“See the scratches?” she asks us, referring to a series of ice-skate marks. “Polar bears come around the cabin and stand on their hind legs to look in the big window. One pushed in that end window when we were asleep, and his head was inside before we even woke up. Luckily, we scared him away, but the window is still bent. Another time we arrived to find a bear asleep in the cabin. He’d pushed open the door while we were away. You don’t mess with polar bears.”
Behind their little station were ancient Thule and Dorset campsites. Stone circles and cairns, some still with human skulls and bones inside.
“They’ve never been studied,” Kristiina says. “Some may be thousands of years old. They were likely living much the same way we live when we come here, except for the plywood and the generator.”
"Given Team Outpost’s encyclopedic knowledge of all things seal, we know this doesn’t fit the description—until we realize,
of course, it’s not a seal and never was a seal"
Lemmings dart across the spongy tundra, hiding beneath rocks, as Kimmie and Tapau try to catch them. We set off for the river to collect some water, rifles slung over shoulders and eyes alert for company. Over dinner, we hear more polar bear stories and tales of what it’s like to live on the land of the Canadian Arctic.
“Tomorrow we go fishing,” says Timmun. “No fish, no dinner!”
Team Outpost slept soundly that night in our cabin, situated well away from the family’s main shelter, so as to act as a decoy for hungry bears. (Clearly, we’re joking.) The next morning is cool and clear. Seals bob in the bay, while black and white plovers hop across the rocks. We take the boat out to the Iqalugaaqjuit River; while we vainly cast lines into the crystal water and eider ducks sweep by,
Timmun rakes in several enormous Arctic char. Back at camp, we clean the fleshy salmon-like fish, before slicing them into cubes, using the traditional Inuit ulu curved knife, then eating it raw. No soy, no lemon juice, just unbeatably fresh, unspeakably delicious fish. Meaty but creamy, like churned butter.
Over the coming days, we hike the tundra and hills, and accompany Timmun as he hunts for seal. On the last morning we board up our cabin and carry our supplies back to the boat. Near the shore we sit on a rock, gazing out at a seal hundreds of yards off swimming in the bay, resignedly accepting that another part of our expedition has passed, polar bear free.
The seal continues to make its way across the water, when suddenly it turns and we see a big black nose and a big white head. Given Team Outpost’s encyclopedic knowledge of all things seal, we know this doesn’t fit the description—until we realize, of course, it’s not a seal and never was a seal. Suddenly, someone grabs a camera.
“Polar bear, polar bear in the bay!” we scream in high-pitched but (we’d like to stress) highly controlled voices.
“Wow,” says Kristiina.
“I’ve never seen one that big or aggressive.
I think he could smell our fear”
Timmun grabs his rifle and comes alongside. The bear climbs onto a small rock island in the bay, its enormous body sopping wet from the swim. It turns its head, takes one look at us, changes direction and plunges back in, heading—incredibly—directly our way. Kristiina tells the children to go to the cabin. Timmun loads the rifle for contingency. As the bear approaches the shore, Timmun fires a warning shot; the crack stings our ears and rings dramatically out across the tundra.
The bear climbs out of the water again, just sniffing the air and watching us. It feels like he’s looking right at us, almost human-like, and in fact, it’s what they’re known to do. Several more warning shots zing off neighbouring rocks, sending splinters into the air. The bear edges forward, then rears up onto its hind legs, clearly wondering if he’s invited for lunch. Suddenly, he drops to all fours and begins cantering forward. Timmun calls for more ammunition. More shots slam off surrounding rocks. At 50 feet and counting things become tense and our palms get sweaty, even as we’re standing there, mesmerized.
“We can’t let him get any closer,” Kristiina says solemnly. Finally, a sixth shot landing near an enormous paw gives him pause for thought, and he turns and charges back down the beach. Additional shots drive him back into the water and toward the other end of the bay.
“Wow,” says Kristiina. “I’ve never seen one that big or aggressive. I think he could smell our fear.”
“The Inuit say that if you talk about polar bears too much, they will come,” says young Nak, as Team Outpost shuffles its feet and gazes at the ground bashfully.
As we make the return trip to Cape Dorset, the bear initially follows us along the shoreline, until distance reduces him to a speck. We sight bowhead whales, more seals and even a distant orca, and all are spectacular; but it is the polar bear that dominates conversation.
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