Odds ‘n’ Sods: Close encounters of the polar bear kind

Polar bear walking along Hudson Bay near Churchill, Manitoba. Credit: iStock/GomezDavid

Field geologists — those lucky souls — contend with a lot of wildlife. We hike, bang rocks, hike some more, eat lunch, watch cute critters: all very National Geographic. But the reality is somewhat more sinister. There’s payback for being so perfect. We have bloody great targets on our backs; huge red letters etched into our skin that spell “Eat Me” to anything that flies, slithers or walks.

Most of the wildlife we come across may be small, but it’s blessed with an unnatural hunger for blood. Midges, blackflies, mosquitoes, horse flies, and moose flies top the list of blood-crazed flying nasties that will torment you -stinging or ripping off chunks of flesh until foaming insanity takes hold. You don’t see them coming but you’ll hear them, whining away like a mini Luftwaffe, hunting that small, piece of skin; the one that’ll swell up into a red, volcano-sized hive. Nothing protects you.

Prospecting for base and precious metals in the Middle East, I got off lightly. Sure, there were bugs, but all the large animals that could do any serious harm were shot for fun or eaten years back. We did come across snakes, nasty looking spiders and the odd tick latched onto the inaccessible places only medical specialists have any interest in, but the biggest threat came from the enormous Kangal dogs bred to protect sheep from wolves.

Canada is different. Field work here is more serious. It’s home to many animals that can do unspeakable damage to a geologist, leaving very little of you to send home to mum. Yes, I mean bears.

Everyone who’s explored in Canada has a bear story, but they’re usually predictable fare (“It was THIS big” and “Gosh I got up that tree fast.”) At the risk of sounding like an ursine snob, black bear tales are a dime a dozen. Stories about grizzlies or brown bears — much  much bigger with lots of sharp teeth and a really bad attitude when they’re hangry — are more interesting. However, the holy grail of close shaves is the polar bear story. Very few people who’ve encountered one in person, outside the confines of an armoured tourist vehicle, have lived to tell the tale. As the saying goes: “If it’s brown, lay down. If it’s black, fight back. If it’s white, goodnight.”

They are the largest land predator, measuring up to 10 feet (three metres) from tip to tail when standing up: 10 feet of bleached death with claws and bad breath. At the low end, a female weighs in at 150 kilograms. At the top end, a big male can weigh 500 kg; a thousand pounds of unsentimental, hungry death that runs at 40 km per hour. Luckily, polar bears generally stick to the high Arctic, along a 10-20 km strip near the coast, but occasionally, the summer melt strands them on the Arctic coastline outside their summer feeding areas, leaving them dangerously hungry.

Statistically, polar bear attacks on humans are rare. Most involve injured or starving bears and people who should know better. Mind you, statistical rarity is little comfort to people unlucky enough to find themselves in the “Stalked by Polar. Check.” column of the stats. If you were about to become the stomach contents in a bear autopsy, I doubt you’d draw much comfort from thinking “Don’t worry, the chances of this happening are slim to none. Phew.” My friend Dave is the only person I know personally to have survived a protracted encounter with one of our snowy antagonists.

In 2006, he was part of a small field team working a huge nickel exploration property in northern Quebec, that came across a very persistent bear while unarmed. It was in the Raglan belt, south of the Raglan mine. Nickel was flavour of the day and the industry fed off an Old Faithful geyser of flow through money begging to be spent. Camps were huge — money no object — and helicopters buzzed here and there like flies around bear scat.

Back then, few in the Raglan carried guns. Polar bears hadn’t been seen inland for decades. There wasn’t much for them to eat unless they could catch caribou or forage for berries. They were thought to be seasonal, coming across from Baffin Island on the winter ice to hunt along Quebec’s northern shores, heading back in the spring before the ice breakup. Plus, there were no black bears above the treeline. So no bears = no guns. Simple.


It was a 40-minute chopper ride from the eastern limit of the concession to the camp. Rather than the daily grind of a long, expensive commute, Dave’s team of two English-speaking geos and two French Canadian prospectors decided to camp for a couple of nights. It would save helicopter time and they’d have themselves an adventure, singing kumbayah round the campfire.

They kitted up, packing the bare minimum camping gear, radios and a Globalstar sat phone, planning to camp about 20 km from the coast. This was uncomfortably close to bear country, but there weren’t any so it didn’t matter. On the flight out, the team were nervously cracking polar bear jokes. “What do you get if you cross a polar bear with a geologist? A polar bear.” “Ha ha, very funny … Shut up.”

As they circled the target area looking for a spot to camp, Dave spotted a lone wolf; a big, white, lone wolf loping across the tundra. Excited to see an, er … wolf, Dave snapped a blurry picture just before they landed to unload on the banks of a small lake. The helicopter flew off and the guys started to put up the tents, looking forward to a nice break from the dull confines of the main camp; the safe, boringly secure, bear-free main camp. A true field geologist, Dave’s notes mention that the far side of the lake was a raised reddish hill, probably a large pyroxenite sill. It’s the little details that make a story.

Some minutes later, they spotted Mr. Wolf again, a few hundred meters away across the lake, checking out the pyroxenite sill while it strolled towards the water.

“Hey there’s that wolf again, on the other side of the lake!” said one of the team hopefully. And as they watched, the wolf … okay, polar bear — may as well drop the flimsy pretence — jumped in and started paddling vigorously, straight toward them. One of the prospectors, turning a nice shade of white, started muttering; “Non, non, ça c’est pas un loup … non, ça c’est pas un loup, c’est un ours polaire!” which loosely translated means: “Damn, that’s a polar bear- I hope I can run faster than you.”

In moments of terror, with death lurking just around the corner, the thin patina of civility we possess can be stripped away pretty damn quick. And so it was, everyone panicked, wisely deciding that running away was the correct choice. They abandoned their packs, lunch — everything — and ran as fast as they could, dodging boulders and frost heave, trying not to break an ankle on the rough ground.

Mid-panic, one of the guys remembered OF COURSE! that they had a sat phone. They could just call the chopper back. Except, he didn’t have it. It was in his pack, back with all the other stuff they’d dumped at the camp, dangerously close to the bear, which was still making a bee line across the lake.

Showing surprising force of will, he dashed back to grab it. Despite —or maybe because of — their predicament, he made pretty good time, screaming: “You f…ing wait for me! Don’t you leave me behind!!” at his colleagues as he ran, although the exact language he used was a bit fruitier. Arriving back at the camp, he fumbled around in the discard pile and found his pack. Then, the four of them turned and ran off again like their lives depended on it, which they did. Dave, in what he thought might be one of his last lucid moments as a live geologist, remembered thinking that he’d soon know if the bear flossed regularly.

As he ran, Mr. Sat Phone was digging in his pack for the hand-set but the effort slowed him down. The contents of his pack were unceremoniously chucked over his shoulder; bad weather gear, hammers, sample bags, lunch bag — because yes, two small white bread tuna sandwiches were bound to slow down the bear.

Finally he got to the phone. With a superhuman effort, he got the antenna up and they tried calling the camp to get the chopper to return. When they connected, the project manager picked up the receiver but all he could hear from the team was grunting, panting, and heavy breathing noises.

“Will you look at that, I think we’re getting our first pervert crank call!” he said to the camp manager, and hung up.

Back near the lake, as the call abruptly ended, more panic ensued. The team had run up the next slope to a small plateau, where several large glacial erratic boulders offered some cover. They couldn’t see the lake or the polar bear, but this was as good a place as any to hide while they tried to call the camp.

The phone connected again. “POLAR BEAR – COME AND GET US!” (again, the language has been slightly toned down here.)

For some reason, this message resonated more with the camp manager, because he assured them that he’d do everything possible to get the chopper back. The helicopter pilot took off at maximum speed towards their location. For 40 interminable minutes, the team took it in turns to peer nervously around the boulders fully expecting to see a slobbering white head clear the crest of the small hill at any moment.

Dave — like a true outdoorsman — had his trusty Leatherman multi-tool strapped to his belt. It occurred to him — briefly — that he could use it to hamstring a colleague, serving him up as bear bait while he ran away. Creative, I’ll grant him that, a tad selfish perhaps, but also likely illegal, so last resort stuff. There was nothing to be done but hide, pray, and wait.

Finally they heard the high pitched whine of an Astar coming in. Knowing they’d have to break cover, Dave’s head was full of mental images of himself running for the helicopter and being grabbed by the lurking bear at the last moment: reaching up to the sky, Platoon style, pleading for rescue, leg clamped in bear jaw, as the pilot circled unable to see them. Which is when the bird flew directly overhead, missing them completely.

Blame Fashion

With a jolt, the group suddenly realised that the pilot had no way to find them. They’d left their handheld VHF radios and anything remotely colourful or reflective in the pile of discarded gear at the camp. And their field clothes could well have been the final nail in the coffin. Geologists have a very specific fashion sense, usually described by their spouses as “Hmmm. Interesting.” Or: “You’re not wearing that to my mum’s are you?” Up north, freed from the vital marital constraints on their clothing choices, our heroes were all wearing tundra-coloured pants, tundra-coloured checked shirts, tundra-coloured jackets, and tundra-coloured hats and thus blended in to the tundra splendidly. They were effectively invisible. So the four of them began to jump up and down (on the tundra, if you must know), shouting and screaming, waving their tundra-coloured arms as hard as they could. Fortunately, there was still no sign of the bear.

After several awful minutes flying a search pattern, the pilot spotted them and landed. There was a brief Q&A to find out which one of them was the heavy breather, before they clambered in, suffering from shock. Once they’d taken off, the pilot went looking for the bear. They found its tracks in the snow but couldn’t see the animal. He wasn’t far away, but they saw no sign, belying the old truism that “if there’s a bear around in the tundra, you’ll see him for sure.”

That night a large amount of illicit hooch was consumed. Some of the crew had built a still out of an old fire extinguisher, a diesel stove using copper tubing as a condensation coil. It bubbled away constantly, delivering a steady trickle (2 litres a day) of 120-proof happy juice. For mash, they had a couple of plastic garbage pails full of fermenting fruit, sugar, and whatever they could scrounge from the camp cook.

It was the end of their fly-camping misadventure. Inuit hunters were promptly hired to accompany the field crews for the rest of the year, although they didn’t encounter any other bears. One of the Inuit told them that the mistake had been to make jokes about the polar bear ahead of time. “When you joke about Nanook like that, he will appear, out of nowhere.” And so it was.

David Clark started carrying a gun after his Arctic adventure. Photo Credit: David Clark.

Dave hasn’t joked about bears since and treats them all — black, brown or white — with the greatest of respect. His partner used to wake him up from the nightmares and could always tell when it was the one about the bear. He bought a 12 gauge shotgun as a mark of his intense respect for them. The following year, he bought a small .45-70 lever action rifle, which he still uses for bear protection, although he’s never had to use it.

*Credit where credit is due. A huge thank you to my friend and colleague Dave for a) suggesting this great story, which he first told me years back, and b) writing it all down coherently and engagingly so that I — with the minimum of work — could turn it into this piece. Despite my natural tendency to add in some humour, this is a true story. At the time it was terrifying and gave him nightmares for years after. He tells me that this post is in lieu of therapy, which really means he’s too cheap to pay the hourly therapist rate but will never admit it.

–Ralph Rushton is a geologist and has worked at mines and exploration projects around the world including stints in South Africa, Turkey, Bulgaria, Yemen, Iran and Pakistan. He is currently the president of Aftermath Silver (TSXV: AAG; US-OTC: AAGFF), a silver development company with projects in Chile and Peru. In his spare time, he writes about mining and exploration for his popular blog, urbancrows.com. He graduated with a geology degree from Portsmouth Polytechnic in the U.K., and completed a masters degree in geology at the University of Alberta researching the source of the placer gold in the Klondike.

David Clark is a Vancouver-based geologist and has worked in exploration in countries around the world. He graduated from McGill University with a bachelors and masters degree in geology. He is currently the president of Bonavista Resources, a private exploration company currently working on an IPO that is exploring for epithermal gold in Newfoundland. When not being chased by polar bears, he plays Irish traditional music on fiddle and banjo, and dodges tankers in English Bay at the helm of his sailboat.


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