The day is Tuesday the 8th of April 2014 and I'm in the village of Coral Harbor located on the shores of The Hudson Bay, more precisely nestled in between the Fisher Strait and the Evans Strait. The town has a population of approximately 900 people. In the month of August starts the season for polar bear for the non resident and ends in April. The resident polar bear season starts on January 1st. Besides the polar bear, muskox and the barren ground caribou are hunted. It's not until springtime when the village starts to come alive. Coral Harbor is the crossroads for the wildlife in the arctic. What can be seen ranges from polar bear, beluga, bowhead and narwhal wales. The harbor becomes busy with ring seals, bearded seals, walrus, arctic wolf and arctic and red fox. Besides the arctic animals there are two large bird sanctuaries where countless bird species nest and migrate to. This area is going to be my home for the next two weeks unless I'm fortunate and connect early.
My journey started on the 7th of April when I departed Philadelphia International airport at 6:30am and flew to Denver international. I then had a three hour lay over before arriving in Winnipeg and spending the night. I departed Winnipeg airport at 10:30am and my first stop was Rankin Inlet. Rankin is the largest community in Nunavut and it continues to grow with the discovery of gold. They currently mine nickel in small amounts which has been done for years. I changed planes and had a 20 minute flight to Chesterfield Inlet. The village of Chesterfield Inlet was established in the 1900s and is the oldest permanent community in Nunavut. Still standing are ancient kayak stands, stone tent rings and fox traps exactly where they were left generations ago. The plane wasn't on the ground for more than 15 minutes, two people departed and no one got on. We were back in the air for a 55 minute flight to our final destination, Coral Harbor. I had a great conversation with a old timer named John Qammanig. John has lived most of his life in Nunavut and he was returning home to Iqaluit. It was interesting to listen to his stories of years gone by when he was growing up about hunting and fishing for food to feed the family.
I was met at the small Coral Harbor airport by two locals Ross Eetuk and Clifford (bobby) Natakok. They were going to be my guides on the bear hunt. We will be leaving in the morning traveling by snowmobiles along the shore line of Hudson Bay to the first camp on the bay for the first night. We will then continue along the shore line to another camp where we will stay for a few days. This camp will be our base camp before we move to another camp if need be. Polar bears are constantly moving looking for food. The food can be either a fox or rabbit that is a fresh meal or looking along the shore for dead seals or anything that washes up. The polar Bear has been known to travel quite a distance in search of food. The Polar Bear is not an animal to fool with, when he sees you there is only one thing on his mind: food, something to eat.
Our travel has taken us southeast from Coral Harbor across snow covered ground , ice pressure ridges ranging from less then a foot to over five feet. It was in one of the higher pressure ridges that we experienced our first major problem. Ross was leading and Bobby and I were following on our snowmobile pulling a wooden sled. The sled that Ross was pulling got hung up on a chunk of pressure ridge ice and broke the sleds left runner. We now had a problem. The sled couldn't be pulled. We unhooked the sled and Ross had to return to town and bring back a replacement. We had traveled well over two hours and now we had to wait for Ross's return. So Bobby and I unloaded the sled, sat down on our sled and had a cup of hot tea and waited. It was well over a hour before he return and now we had to load the replacement sled. After completing the loading we were off once again.
I guess that today was not going to be our day. Our second misfortune happened in less then a half hour. The sled that Bobby and I were pulling broke three of the cross supports that held the sled together. We made a quick repair the best we could and we headed for the closest cabin to spend the night and make a proper repair to the sled. Thank goodness it was only a six mile journey.
After shoveling the snow that was half covering the door of the cabin we had to shovel the snow out of the cabin. The gear that was needed for the nights stay was off loaded. The stove was set up and started to generate heat. Bobby and Ross were doing the repairs on the cross supports. I was tending the pot on the stove filling it with snow and when that melted fill it up again. This is how we would get our drinking and cooking water.
Today has been educational as well humbling. I started off in the wooden sled that Bobby was pulling. That was a bone jarring experience; forget trying to sit up. When we crossed the pressure ridges I had to lay down on the mattresses on my side. At our first stop I decided riding on the snowmobile had to be easier and that was what I did. It was still a jolting ride. It wasn't until later in the afternoon just before we reached the cabin when the sun came out. Up to that point it had been over cast and some light snow. It was very difficult to distinguish whether the shadows that lay ahead were dips or humps looking through the snow goggles and the cloudy conditions. It didn't really matter, it was still bone jarring and you had better be holding on pretty tight. Tomorrow we are traveling another 25 miles to the next camp. The plan is to unload our gear into the cabin and travel looking for Nanook of the north. In all of our traveling today I haven't seen so much as a bird.
This morning I was woke by the bright light of the sun shining through the window. The heater was turned off when the generator was switched off last night. When I was getting out of my sleeping bag it was a mite bit cold. It didn't take me very long to get my clothes on. I had most of my clothes in the sleeping bag with me so it wasn't like putting cold clothing on. The water in the pot had a skim of ice on the top. It wasn't long before Ross had the Coleman stove going and a small heater and it started warming up in just a matter of a few minutes. After breakfast we packed up and headed for the next cabin. The distance to the cabin was around 25 miles. In the beginning the terrain was flat and windblown but that didn't last long before we were picking our way through the ridge ice. In any direction that I looked it was all the same snow, ice and even rocks where the snow had been blown away. It took 2 1/2 hours to arrive at cabin number two. Again we had to shovel the snow away from the front door so we could get in. The gear was unloaded placed in the cabin and we headed south looking for the polar bear. It is hard to believe that all of the ground we have covered we have seen no living animal. Our journey south took over two hours and we traveled 23 miles. Ross made the decision to return to the cabin. The wind had picked up and the blue skies were covered by clouds. I definitely agreed with Ross's judgement call on returning. As we made our way to the cabin it got downright cold. I was chilled to the bones especially my left side. That was the side the wind was coming from. When I got into the cabin I unrolled my sleeping bag took off my coat, boots and heavy paints and got into my bag. It took me almost 15 minutes to get warm. In front of the cabin and slightly to the right there is now open water. The direction of the wind has blown the ice off shore. Maybe that is a good sign of things to come.
Tomorrow we will be heading south east to Expectation point which is the furthest point on Bell peninsula. Ross believes that this will be the area that we will see Polar Bear even if we have to take a seal and use it for bait. I'm looking forward to watching Bobby harpoon the seal through a air hole in the ice. Then he has to chop the hole bigger to be able to land the seal. Having now been sleeping in the little out buildings at night for the past few nights it's not like home when you can get up and go to the kitchen for a snack. Where we are if you didn't bring it with you, you did without. If the heater goes out during the night there is no heat, for water snow is melted in a pot and your bathroom is the vast out doors. I would pity some poor soul that would try to hunt Polar bear with out the proper clothing. All of my clothing, boots and sleeping bag are rated to -20 below 0.
Our journey today has been 65 miles on the snowmobiles, but according to the GPS it was just over 50 miles. There is no way you can travel in a straight line in this country. The day went well until we stopped for a cup of tea and a snack. The snowmobile that was pulling the sled that I was riding in developed a power problem, Bobby took off the shroud to have a closer look only to see there was a major problem with the crankshaft coming out of the engine. Ross made a plan. He unhooked his sled and hooked up the sled Bobby was pulling and I was riding in. He removed a few items and loaded them into the sled. Bobby rode on the back of the sled being pulled I was in the sled. We only had a 20 minute ride to the camp. After unloading our gear from the sled Ross returned to the disabled snowmobile and hooked up that sled and returned to camp.
Our journey today allowed us to see a few animals, but no polar bear. We saw a arctic fox wondering among the ice piles in search of food. We saw ptarmigan and a large dark owl. Fresh polar bear tracks of a sow with her cub. The final sighting was the front door of the cabin we are going to staying in. The front door was knocked off it's hinges, the door knob had been all but bitten off and bear tracks inside. From the size of the track Ross guessed it was in the 8 foot range. This set of tracks appeared to be a few days old. Apparently from the amount of snow that was inside the cabin there was a earlier visiting bear. Bobby and Ross had a lot of shoveling just to get inside the cabin. Then the door had to be rehung, the stove was set up to generate heat in hopes of thawing the ice on the walls and ceiling. We are hoping that tomorrow dawns with blue skies and the sun. This afternoon when we arrived it was in a white out meaning wind, light snow and low clouds and very little visibility. The wind was blowing from the north west and the ice in front of the cabin had been shifted exposing open water.
During the night the wind had shifted to blowing out of the southeast. The open water has now closed. This morning we walked west over a small hill to be able to get a good look with out the noise of the snowmobile. We located two seals on the ice now we returned to camp so Bobby can make a plan and only he will venture out in and attempt to take one of the seals. A small amount of the seal meat will be taken back to camp for dinner what is left along with the skin will remain to bait the polar bear. I didn't think that it was going to be this difficult to at least see polar bear, but so far we have only seen tracks. Bobby was not successful this morning taking a seal, but that changed after lunch. We were east of the cabin down by open water when the ring seal popped up. Bobby wasted no time in taking the seal with a head shot. We then had to put the boat in the water and he paddled to the seal. He then harpooned the seal so it would not sink and paddled back to shore. The boat and seal were dragged out of the water. Ross and Bobby then spotted beluga whale across the open water and south of where we were. We sat and waited for the possibility of harvesting one. The beluga whale can grow to the length of 16 feet and obtain the weight of 800 pounds. They did not get close enough to give us a chance of taking one. It was now getting late and it was time to return to camp. Everything was loaded back on the sled and we headed back to a large open area on the way to the cabin. Bobby made short order of skinning and butchering the seal. The select meat was taken to camp. I had a chance to sample seal meat, liver and intestine. It was very good the meat of the seal is very dark in color but very tasty. So tomorrow we can walk about 200 yards east of camp and using binoculars we will be able to see the carcass of the seal. Hopefully a polar bear will fine it during the night and will be there in the morning.
The day started with the sun out and the skies a turquoise blue. Maybe with this beautiful start of the day Lady Luck will shine on us. Yes, the polar bear was at the bait. We returned to camp gathered up a few things and were off on the snowmobiles. I was in the wooden sled being pulled by Bobby and Ross was in the lead. It doesn't matter what is put down for cushioning to lessen the roughness and the pounding of the ice and snow it's not enough. As Ross raced ahead to cut off the bear there was one big factor not in our favor. That was the wind. It was not in our favor and it proved to be the deciding factor. Before we even got close, the bear was lumbering towards the open bay. Don't let anyone tell you a bear can't move when it is being pursued. The only view I had of the bear was just before he entered the water from the ice. The plan worked perfectly with only one small flaw. We didn't get the bear. The next plan this afternoon is to try to get another seal or two to be used for bait. Ross will be a little more selective on the placement of the bait hopefully to our advantage.
As bright as the sun has been today and the reflection off of the snow it has been a day for sunglasses. I have never experienced snow blindness, but I'm sure this could be the kind of day that will cause it. While traveling and looking for the polar bear I find my mind wandering as I look at the vast emptiness; who or what kind of person could live and survive in this environment? The constant loneliness, the lack of basic necessities that we are all used to. It is tough enough to be here with Ross and Bobby, but I couldn't think of being here any longer than necessary to accomplish what I'm here for.
Our journey looking for seal took us west of camp. The area was relatively flat with a lot of air holes. The air holes are where the seals come to breath fresh air. The seals keep the holes open with a lot of movement below the ice and keeping that areas ice thinner at the hole. Ross picked one hole and Bobby another. They stand down wind off to that side and wait for a seal to come up to take a breath then using a rifle or the harpoon they shoot in the hole in hopes of killing the seal. It is best to use a harpoon because it prevents the seal from sinking into the murky depths of the bay. Ross had a chance and used his rifle it was a bearded seal the largest of all of the seals, but before he could get the harpoon into the seal it was sinking. Well that was a disappointment so close yet so far. If he had been successful they use a large steel bar and make the air hole bigger and pull the seal through the hole onto the ice. The hour was getting late and it was time to return to camp to get a bite to eat and ready ourselves for tomorrow.
The morning wasn't very good. The wind was blowing and a light snow was falling and with the clouds we were experiencing a white out. There was nothing to do but sit and wait for a break in the weather. It didn't take long and then we were off to hunt the seal. We were going back to the open water for what Ross believed to be our best chance. As we stood on the top of the hill and Ross looked to the open water with his binoculars he saw some beluga whales traveling up the channel. As he continued to look along the water edge all of a sudden a polar bear climbed out of the water with a seal. The bear dropped the seal on the ice. The seal squared off with the bear but there wasn't much of a battle one swat with the bears right front paw and it was all over. The bear was a good half mile away, but one thing that was in our favor was the wind. The wind was blowing from the bear to us unlike yesterday. We took our time and headed in the direction of the bear. It was anything but a easy stalk. We changed direction a number of times to avoid the high pressure ridges along the way. The going wasn't to bad once we made our way around the ice fields. The easy going was short lived when we encountered another high ice field. This condition occurred a number of times and the half mile seemingly turned into well over a mile. Finally we made it to the last ice field. I'm certainly glad that I don't have to do this for a living, as I was exhausted. We watched the bear for a good half hour moving from time to time for a better advantage point. Finally the closest we got was 260 yard to the bear. I rested the rifle on a ice block lined up on it's front left shoulder a squeezed the trigger. The shot was a little low my second shot was a little far back on the shoulder, but he was hit and I don't think that he was going to far. We were lucky he didn't try to make the open water and he didn't head for the large pressure ridge of ice that would have been a nightmare to climb through. Both Ross and Bobby chased after the wounded bear. Bobby fired and hit the bear in the hind right leg. Ross continued to pursue the bear, Bobby returned to help me. There was no way that I could run and over take the bear. Ross was being very cautious. The bear was in the ice pressure ridges. Ross had to worry that the bear wouldn't attack him. I had already told Ross not to put himself in danger just put another bullet into the bear and finish him off. When he came up on the bear it was down in among the ice and as it tried to raise up Ross finished it. I don't know who was the happiest, Bobby, Ross or me. I'm certainly glad that I got the polar bear and the hunt was over. If it wasn't for Bobby and Ross I don't know weather I would have been successful. It certainly is not a hunt for a older person. So if you want to hunt a polar bear do it when you are young.