Polar Bear
Credit: Nathan Bittin

It's hard to predict how one would react upon meeting a marauding bear...

I was halfway through a 500-kilometre solo snow trek on Ellesmere Island. One night, a noise woke me up. I don't remember what it was. It was just different, and different is not good. Up there, few sounds crack the silence. A different sound reminded me that I was in polar bear country. Grabbing the shotgun that lay beside my sleeping bag, I peeked out the tent door. My sled, with all my food and fuel, was gone.

The next few minutes seemed to unreel in slow motion. I looked around and there, far to the left, about 130 feet away, lay my sled, upside-down, its contents scattered on the snow. A large polar bear sat beside it, eating my food.

The High Arctic has no trees to climb, no refuge. I was 250 kilometres from the nearest person. I didn't have a radio or a satellite phone. I had to get my food and especially my fuel back. In spring, you need fuel to melt snow for water.

I'd bumped into polar bears before, but I'd never had to face a camp marauder. But I had rehearsed in my head what to do. First, put on clothing. I slept in my underwear, and I didn't want to confront a polar bear wearing only Stanfields. I threw on my parka, pants and camp boots. Then I muttered some quick words about what was happening into the little recording device that I carried for journal notes, in case the encounter ended badly for me. And I flipped the safety off the shotgun and stuffed extra shells into various pockets.

The polar bear had heard the rustling nylon as I dressed. When I stepped out of the tent, it was striding toward me from 25 feet away, head lowered, eyes raised and boring into mine. There was no time for a warning shot. I raised the gun to my chin and sighted down the barrel at the vulnerable hump behind the bear's neck. My shotgun at the time was a borrowed stockless model, like a police riot gun. I'd never fired it before. I hoped it would work.

The blast set my ears ringing as the gun slammed into my mouth. I missed the bear completely, but the noise made it wheel in its tracks and hurry away. It disappeared behind some pressure ice and I never saw it again. As blood trickled into my mouth from a split lip, it dawned on me that you are not supposed to sight down the barrel of a stockless shotgun, because of the recoil. But my ignorance had been a blessing: Had I fired from the hip, as you're supposed to do with a riot-style shotgun, I might actually have hit the bear.