At dusk after settling into camp on a large island in the Severn at the mouth of the Beaver River Allan, who has been filming the far shore, calmly says “there’s a polar bear over there.”
We look over at what appears to be a large white rock part way up the far bank about 200 m away. But then the rock moves with the slow, deliberate, agile foot steps that can only belong to a bear who, after sitting on its giant haunches watching us, lumbers down to the water’s edge. Seeing its size and sloping profile it is clear that this is Wapusk – a polar bear – the largest of all land-based hunters on the planet.
Wapusk gets into the river and starts floating downriver, and downwind of us. Being downwind will allow Wapusk to get a better sense of what we are, but it is also a classic hunter’s move because it means that we will no longer be able to catch his scent if he chooses to approach. We cluster in a group, try to look large, and wait to see whether Wapusk will move on, or take an interest in us.
Before long Wapusk begins swimming quickly across the current towards our shore, aiming for a spot just around a small bend that would hide his landing. We walk as a group down the beach to keep him just within site. We don’t want Wapusk approaching us unseen.
As Wapusk comes to shore on our side he does not get fully out of the water. Instead he crouches and walks in the
shallow water by the shore towards us, hiding behind the steep drop off by the waters edge where the river has carved into the gravel banks.
Having had a good long look, and with our full scent in his nostrils, Wapusk now knows that we are not caribou or moose. But he continues to walk towards us slowly, calmly and deliberately. Wapusk is clearly interested in us.
Summer is the lean time for polar bears, who mostly hunt in the winter on the pack ice where seals emerge through their breathing holes. During the summer polar bears take what they can get, foraging and scavenging as they wait for the ice to form. Wapusk is likely hungry, and food is almost certainly on his mind. Polar bears are the only animal in North America that routinely treat humans as prey. They do most of their hunting at dusk and during the night.
As his back emerges and he shakes off the river water we decide that it is time to establish who is dominant in this situation, and make clear that we will not be an easy meal.
We charge as a group towards Wapusk, shouting and throwing rocks. He gets back into the water and swims slowly away, his eyes still trained on us. Bob fires a warning shot over the head of Wapusk. He continues to swim across the river until he reaches the far shore, but he does not look alarmed.
As we we walk back to camp Wapusk mirrors our movement on the far shore. He is clearly still interested in us and not moving on. As the final bits of twighlight fade the last thing we can see is Wapusk getting back into the river towards us.
The thick clouds fully obscure the stars and moon making for a pitch black night. The sky opens up and and a pouring rain is driven by a cold wind that makes it impossible to hear any of Wapusk’s movements. We build up our fire, turn on our headlamps, and scan the 50 foot radius of visibility around us for any sign of movement. This is the coldest weather we have hit yet, and we are thankful that Katie had the foresight to set up the tarp well and that we have a warm fire with a good bed of coals that can handle the rain.
At this point Wapusk could approach us from any direction at any time – from the close shore, along the beach in either direction, or through the woods that are directly behind us up a small slope. If that happens we would have only a handful bear strides and a few seconds to put the fire between us, dump some cooking oil on the fire to startle Wapusk while increasing our range of vision, and aim the old lever action rifle.
Wapusk may have left, we don’t know, or he could be stealthily approaching us. A lifelong hunter that is smart enough to hide his black nose in the snow could easily sneak up on us humans in the night. If he comes at us the situation will not be pretty. There would be a high chance of having a dead polar bear on our hands, and perhaps some badly injured canoeists.
Aware that we are intruding on Wapusk’s territory we decide to err on the side of safety for both us and Wapusk and we call for help using our satellite phone. On the other end of the line is Stewart, the priest in KI who blessed us along with the KI elders as we set out on journey! After a few hours we get confirmation that the Fort Severn Rangers are on their way in a motor boat, they have around 12 kilometers to travel up the dark, braided river to reach us.
As we wait, always on alert, our wood pile runs low. We are forced to send groups out down the beach to gather more firewood from a grove of dead poplars that fell over this spring as the ice piled up on the beach and gouged the sand out from under their roots. As the night wears on we must go further and further into the inky night to gather firewood to keep fire burning in the downpour.
At around 3:30 a.m. four Fort Severn Rangers arrive in one boat. It is clear that they do not have space to take us out, but they leave us with a big 12 gage shotgun, a box of large game shot cartridges, a pile of firewood cut with their chainsaw, and instructions to shoot to kill if Wapusk comes near again.
Their confidence lightens the mood. They leave telling us not to worry, most polar bears will leave us alone, “except for those that go after people in their tents.”
In a few hours the first glow of dawn widens our field of view. We finish packing up quickly and head out towards Fort Severn into a stiff headwind. A few short hours later we see power lines peeking above the high sandy banks, and before long we have that dazed, blissed out feeling of sitting in a heated space at the beautiful (really) Fort Severn motel after two weeks exposed to the elements.
Looking back we are awe struck to have had such a close encounter with this powerful animal, and thankful that we are all safe, including Wapusk.
If you are interested in reading up on how to handle yourself next time you encounter a wild polar bear out on the land, here is a good resource: