Polar Bears: Big, White... And Harmless?

If you run into the big white bears, should you be scared?
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If you run into the big white bears, should you be scared?

Like most Lower 48ers, I've long heard tales of 1,800-pound polar bears stalking and munching hapless Arctic explorers. Then I arrived on Baffin Island and came across this comment from an Inuit who'd recently bumped into a great white bear while walrus hunting: "I'm not really scared of [polar bears]...they're harmless...they're not like black bears or grizzlies." I wondered if the Arctic bruins are getting a bad rap.

To find out, I started asking around and discovered that villagers love to tell bear stories. My favorite was the one about three well-fed polar bruins drifting past town on a whale carcass. Truth be told, Auyuittuq National Park Reserve has never had a mauling, although three years ago a bear harmlessly visited a hiker's camp at Summit Lake. Because of the potential for an encounter, hikers must sit through a lecture at park headquarters that explains how to behave around Ursus maritimus. Here are the highlights:

  • Always be alert because polar bears are predators and occasionally eat people.
  • Ask about where bears have recently been active and avoid those areas.
  • Cook food away from camp and store it in bearproof canisters.
  • Don't camp near shore or behind icebergs, where bears seal hunt.
  • Avoid den sites and other known bear congregation areas, where they wait for the annual pack ice formation.
  • Stay away from animal carcasses (bear leftovers).

Although Parks Canada and many bear experts advise carrying pepper spray, the pressurized deterrent is unavailable on Baffin because airline regulations prevent transporting it. Instead, Parks Canada officials suggest such extreme measures as using a portable trip wire, taking dogs experienced in polar bear encounters, or carrying a high frequency radio to call for help. As far as I could tell, no hiker in Auyuittuq's Weasel and Owl river drainages has ever needed to go to such lengths.

For more information, visit the Auyuittuq's bear Web site (http://parkscanada.pch.gc.ca/parks/nwtw/Auyuittuq/english/polare.htm#menu) or write for the brochure Safety in Polar Bear Country from Parks Canada, Nunavut District, P.O. Box 353, Pangirtung, NT X0A 0R0.