The Sea Elephant
By Glen Steen
My Walrus Hunt- Nunavut
"Why a walrus?" - The usual question I get from most people, including a few hunters. Well, walrus are just so damned unique, as are their Canadian Arctic haunts, and they occur in good numbers. Annual subsistence hunting by local Intuits takes many walrus, narwhal (sea unicorns) and belugas (white whales). The few sport hunt permits for walrus, issued to nonresidents only, accounts for less than 10 percent of this annual harvest. I was fortunate in landing a sport hunt permit, and my successful hunt took place July 2010 in the Arctic summer. I'll also have the satisfaction of doing the taxidermy on this spectacular trophy.
The Atlantic walrus ranges throughout much of east-central Arctic Canada, plus Greenland and Arctic Europe. They live in waters and along shorelines free of winter ice. These pinnepeds swim only with their webbed rear feet and can cover vast distances at sea. Clams provide their main food in waters up to 100 meters deep, making walrus powerful divers and swimmers but very awkward when hauling themselves out onto ice floes and shoreline rocks.
Lesser food can include any other sea floor organisms, plus seal and whale remains found on shore. Their enemies are polar bears and killer whales, plus man. Walrus can be very noisy issuing snorts and grunts when alarmed, but are otherwise quiet. They mate in April/May, gestate for a year and 10 days, and give birth to single calves on the ice about every two years. Males have a large 1/2 meter penal bone - and ospenus - which aids in their mating activity.
Bulls are huge, reaching over three meters in length and 1.5 tons in weight. Females reach about 2/3 the bulls' size. Their hides are very wrinkled with short brown hair. This thick, tough 20-millimeter thick skin is underlain by 70 millimeters of fatty blubber. No tail or external ears are present. Bulls are equipped with prominent canine tusks (up to 60 centimeters long) of beautiful ivory. In females these are much smaller. Tusks are only used to aid with heaving up onto rocks or ice, and are rarely used for fights.
A heavy growth of sensitive muzzle whiskers detect mollusks in the bottom sediment and are used to sweep these into the mouth. Strong mouth suction separates the soft morsels, ejecting the shells that are ground up by short peg-like molars. Eye sight is poor, and only limited senses of hearing and smell, apart from their tusks, provide means of protection. Walrus numbers in Nunavut territory are estimated at 14,000.
NUNAVUT & INUITS:
Canada's newest territory of Nunavut was carved out of the Arctic in 1999, encompassing some mainland and most of the Arctic Islands and waters. This area of 2.1 million square kilometers has only 33,000 Inuit inhabitants, located in about two dozen remote settlements. Nunavut is Canada's largest subdivision, and ranks 15th in area among the world's countries. Federal Canada's developments in Nunavut have included high speed broadband internet services in all communities. This provides some of the best communications in the world to the majority of its peoples. Transport is very weather-dependent (ice) on land and by sea; however, air services are good throughout.
Inuits are a sturdy stock of small to medium height, with strong independent constitutions from centuries of harsh survival. They are clever, very methodically minded and readily adapt to modern mechanizations. They speak their own language, plus, in many cases, some English and/or French. Writing involves the Latin alphabet, and also their unique script. Villages are fully electrified by diesel generators. Inuit housing is plain yet comfortable, and transport is by trucks, four-wheelers and boats. Most consumables are shipped in from southern Canada during the short four- to five-month open-water season. Occupations include the usual small town services, subsistence and sport hunting, fishing and limited mining. Dogsleds are utilized in more remote winter hunting, but igloos are no more.
A six-day hunt was booked for last July. By that time of year most of the near-shore ice has melted or drifted out to sea. I flew north from Winnipeg on Calm Air's SAAB 340 and ATR 42, stopping at Rankin Inlet and Repulse Bay, then on to Coral Harbour Inuit-Katudgevik, on Southampton Island at the north end of Hudson Bay - five hours flying.
The flat terrain is full of lakes everywhere, ranging from rain-filled in Manitoba to increasingly frozen as we headed north, until white lakes and much snow cover prevailed at Repulse Bay. Coral Harbour was sunny at 10-15 degrees C and dry, a mid-Arctic summer with only minor snow remaining. My Inuit guide Luke Eetuk and his brother-in-law, Lyle, met me. We went into town -900 persons- to Leonie's Place 'Hotel.'
The next morning we boarded Luke's boat with our gear. His Hi Tech is a purpose-built aluminum 7.5 meter boat with 2.7 meter beam, powered by a 225 HP Evinrude outboard. We were joined by Luke's son, Roydan, as another crewman. With a five-hour trip ahead of us at 20 MPH, you need both power and safety in those icy waters. We ran into two low, dense fog banks, each for about 1/2 hour, with zero visibility. Luke had his GPS and lateral sonar scan, so we could monitor the shore lines. We had no depth gauge, but she's plenty deep. A radio was aboard but had poor reception in the fog. I saw my first walrus group suddenly swimming, along including a bull.
We broke out of the last fog bank, nosed into a creek mouth, landed and set our tent camp up on a gravel terrace. The arctic latitudes enjoy 24 hours of daylight with the sun only dipping below the horizon between 11pm and 2am in mid-July. We hiked around some old wind-broken hunting camp remains, found huge bowfin whale, walrus, polar bear and caribou bones. Time for some shuteye, but the sun was still high in the 'evening'. After some good grub on an old Coleman, you still crash as it's been a full day.
Next morning, sun already high naturally, Roydan went out of the tent first. Suddenly, he charged back in warning, "Nanook!" In one roll Luke came up with a rifle, and we all poured out of the tent. About 200 meters off by the whale bones, there shuffling along with nose to the ground was a bloody big polar bear. It disappeared over a gravel bar down to the shoreline nosing around for food. It went out of sight, but the rifle was kept handy. The Inuit have a genuine fear of these bears, which can and do immediately charge a man and won't hesitate to kill and eat humans.
Next we looked at the boat, which was high and dry over three meters above the low tide. It had swung around on its anchor rope and lodged against a large boulder. This rock stopped it from floating several hundreds of meters along a now dry channel, had its anchor been dragged along. With no option, we waited another eight hours for the rising tide to refloat Hi Tech back into the creek. Caribou were seen upstream. The changing tidal currents and winds had brought in masses of shifting ice floes a couple of kilometers off shore. We could glass brown spots - walrus that had hitched a ride on the ice. Eventually we refueled, shore-cached more fuel, tied down the tent and headed out to check the critters. The sea was like glass and many walrus cows, calves and young bulls were sunning on the ice.
We quietly circulated among the floes, some piled up to 10 meters high, with walrus in small groups and up to a couple of dozen at times. We saw no alpha bulls out of perhaps 150 animals. Close glassing gave me the chance to evaluate and compare the walrus with Luke's advice and comments. I had the use of Luke's .338 Magnum with 220 grain PSP ammo and Leupold Scope set to 3x with a fine crosshair reticle. The need for an instant killing shot on the ice is a necessity, or the animal can easily be lost into the deep. With a twitch, a walrus can slide into the sea with scarcely a ripple and not reappear. They can swim long distances under water and stay submerged for many minutes.
After an hour or so, we went further easterly offshore of Southampton Island and into a huge area of packed ice floes. These carried over 300 walrus, which we closely glassed and checked over several hours. Again, largely non-trophies. They lay under and over each other, on their sides, bellies and backs, so you could never fully evaluate them all. Finally, around 5pm, three big bulls were seen mixed with family and harem groups, maybe 30 to 40 animals over a 50x50 meter area. The ice constantly shifted and always drifted with the currents.
It's one thing to spot a trophy bull you like, but you must be able to reach it, then retrieve it. A harpoon with detachable head must be driven into the game, attached by a rope to a float, in case the walrus slips away. Judging from skulls seen at the tent campsite, the nose to eye is about 20CM. And wanting to preserve the skull intact, I would aim a further 20CM back of the eye to smash the upper neck. You never take a frontal shot for fear of damaging those amazing tusks. You should always wait for that side shot.
Two bulls slipped silently away. The third bull lay on his side and kept lazily scratching himself with his huge hind flipper. We circled then decided to take him. Luke cut the motor, so the boat quietly slid into the ice floes. I had the bull in my sight, safety off. I'd told Luke to fire his .300 WIN Magnum right after my shot as insurance. We'd done too much planning not to. With my first shot at 15 meters his head dropped out of sight on the ice. Luke felt his shot was high in the neck. At any rate, Luke's muzzle blast has nearly destroyed my left hearing. The bull tried raising his head so I hit him again and he was down for good.
Luke grabbed his harpoon-rope-float gear and pussy-footed across the ice blocks, then drove the barb into the walrus. Lyle and I followed. Suddenly, the bull, stone dead, slipped off the heaving ice. Lyle and Luke got the rope around the Achilles tendon joints of both hind legs in time and held him. Otherwise the walrus would rapidly sink and be lost. By now Luke, Lyle and bull were drifting away with 10 meters of open water yawning at me. The boat and Roydan were also drifting away from me, but the other way. I grabbed the iced anchor and heaved it to Roydan, then I had no choice but to dive flat out and was able to grab the gunwale with my hands. Roydan grabbed my jacket and helped me aboard. My feet had swung down into the water, but I luckily didn't get wet. The weather was so perfect that we hadn't worn the flotation mustang jackets, but this was a close one.
Roydan and I navigated the Hi Tech back about a kilometer till we could get through and around the ice floes, then back to the guys and bull. It was lashed securely to the boat's side, and we slowly cruised back for 2 hours to the mouth of our camp's creek in a falling tide. We got ropes onto the bull and pulled and rolled its huge carcass into the shallows, then finally took stock of what we had. My trophy was 3.3 meters long, girth 3 meters and neck a meter plus. Tusks were each over 50CM long, heavy and even. On removal from the skull later, these were over 61CM - great. His unique ospenus bone is 50CM long and 4CM in diameter. Butchering and cape skinning took a good 3 hours. All the meat, the cape, head, plus hide/blubber strips were heaved into the boat. By that time a rising tide let us motor back closer to camp. Chow and pit by 11PM - we were all beat.
The next morning, we broke camp and caught a rising tide out of the creek into the sea. One relief was seeing the tidal change had floated all the walrus remains into the sea, which otherwise would have attracted hungry polar bears. The day and sea again were an azure blue and mirror-like. We looked for seals on the way back to Coral but drew a blank. I was permitted a couple for the skins. Parts of the next 3 days were spent fleshing the massive cape and boiling out the skull, jaw, tusks and ospenus. These were bagged and put into the community freezer. I was able to weigh this trophy bag and prepay air freight charges down to an Ontario expediter. He will prepare the skin and bones for export along with CITES paperwork for shipping to New Zealand. They reached Ontario within 2 weeks. What an experience all round! - Story and photos by Glen Steen, Sept. 2010.