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Trouble on the Tundra

By Warren Hill

Hunter: Russ Wang
Russ Wang was responsible for three of the six bullets - the first two and the final one - that struck this would-be caribou camp marauder. Photo by: Warren Hill

The morning at our Farnie Lake caribou outpost had started out normal enough. But as I shoved the bullets into my buddy Harold Pirsig's .30-06, a scene from the movie "The Ghost and the Darkness" flashed through my mind. The mental blur dealt with one of the movie's characters borrowing a weapon before taking up the trail of man-eating lions.

Just in case you didn't see the movie: When one of the lions is encountered, the hunter unfamiliar with the rifle panics and jams the action, much like I had done earlier that week while using Harold's rifle to shoot a caribou.

Not many people have died as the result of a caribou charge, but, then again, this morning I wasn't going after a caribou.

About five minutes earlier, we had a big white problem show up in camp. After guiding for several years on the tundra, I thought I had seen it all, until I heard Ray Ellis, another guide, holler, "BEAR!"

The tent emptied immediately. Being one of the first out, I knew what I was about to see. There, about 40 yards from where I stood, was a 1,000-plus-pound polar bear. As members of the party ran for their weapons, I scrambled to grab my camera. It might've made a great joke ... "Did you hear the one about the guide who got eaten by a polar bear when he grabbed his camera instead of his rifle?"

With the sound of first one, then a second rifle shot ringing in the cool air, I knew things had just become more serious, much like they had the previous afternoon as we viewed the video footage that was taken of two polar bears that morning. 

Hunter: Russ Wang
Conservation officials are not sure why Russ Wang's bear traveled so far inland, or why similar polar bear incidents are on the rise. Photo by: Warren Hill

Steve, another fellow guide, had taken Mary and Clyde Thurnau, both hunting with muzzleloaders, out in search of a caribou bull. The trio had hitched a boat ride with guide Ray and hunters Brian and John down to the south end of the lake. After a short stalk and a well-placed shot, Clyde was proudly standing behind his trophy, waiting to have his picture taken.

As Steve prepared to field-dress the bull, he spotted a very nervous timber wolf trotting along the ridge to the south. But as the group would soon learn, it was not their presence that had put the wolf on edge.

Steve glanced in the direction the wolf was looking, and he spotted two polar bears walking up the bank from the lakeshore. After a brief standoff, the larger bear started toward the group. Armed with one loaded muzzleloader, Steve gave the order for Clyde to reload, if need be. Mary was not to shoot until Clyde was ready with a second load.

The bears had come up between the trio and the lakeshore where the boat was moored. As the humans yelled and threw stones, the larger bear continued toward them. The hunters headed down the ridge to give the bears a wide berth, but were unable to avoid a close encounter.

Steve gave the order to shoot over the bears' heads, but it had little effect.

Ray, John and Brian had been hunting below the ridge that ran to the east.

They knew something was amiss and decided to investigate. Luckily, John was armed with his rifle and was able to offer some comfort to the group. After firing several shots, none of which were meant to kill the bears, the group managed to get to a relatively safe location.

The band of hunters watched in awe as the larger bear claimed Clyde's trophy bull for its own. With massive jaws, the bear picked up the bull and carried it to a small clump of spruce. Halfway there, it became annoyed with the troublesome rack, dropped the bull and bit the bull's skull. With the rack now split and hanging limply, the bear picked up the bull and continued toward the stand of trees.

Thinking that they were now safe, the group was startled when the bear emerged from the cover and began to walk toward them. They had just experienced a once-in-a-lifetime event, but sometimes enough is enough. They quickly loaded into the boat and pushed off.  The larger bear continued down the slope to the scene of the kill, but then it turned around and went back to the cached bull. The smaller bear and the wolf kept their distance.

Upon returning to camp and relating the events to the rest of us, a call was made to the main lodge. Someone there contacted Conservation Officer Earl Simmons to inform him of the encounter. The bears were about 4 miles south of the camp, but with the meat of several caribou hanging upwind, we knew that there was a good chance the bears would find us. Just how quickly, we did not anticipate. With daylight fading, Earl said he'd come via helicopter the next morning to assess the situation.

He was too late.

The two shots had been fired by Russ Wang. He and Harold had walked down the shoreline and were getting the boat ready for the morning's hunt. Both were startled when a bear stood up from amidst a clump of spruce that they had just walked past. The white bruin within 5 yards, they quickly boarded their craft and pushed off into the lake. As the breeze caused them to drift out, the bear dropped to all fours and began to follow the boat's progress.

Manitoba law states that firearms must be unloaded while in a motor boat under power, but they were drifting with the breeze. Russ quickly stuffed two shells into his 7mm Magnum and closed the action.

With 12 people and several hundred pounds of fresh meat in camp, Harold knew things were about to get worse.  When they were 50 to 60 feet from shore, the bear became bored with them and turned its attention toward the camp. Harold told Russ to shoot the bear as soon as he felt confident of a solid hit.

About that time, Ray spotted the bruin. Man and beast were locking gazes when the boat's hull scratched the rocky beach just as Russ was hopping out to aim. When the bear turned to face Russ, Ray was off to the side - out of the bullet's path.

With the bear focused on Russ and Harold, Ray fled back to the camp to warn the others.

Russ' first shot struck the bear low in the chest. The second, fired as the bear turned to go back uphill, hit the midsection and angled up toward the vitals.
The thick stand of spruce that sheltered the camp now held a mortally wounded bear.

A plan was quickly formed. Harold would take Russ, Brian, Arnie and David along the east edge of the long strip of brush. I would take Harold's rifle, Steve and John around to the opposite side. If the bear came out of there, we'd all be in position.

My posse's route took us north, then west and back to the south. We were about 1⁄3 mile from camp when John spotted the bear exiting the south end of the spruce. As the bear headed out onto the tundra, we saw the other group of men 300 yards behind the wounded bear. The route it was taking led between two small inland lakes.

Knowing its path would lead the bruin to the north, our group set about trying to get ahead of it. The only cover on this land bridge was a 100-foot clump of dwarf spruce and willows. As the bear entered the thicket, we closed to within 50 or 60 yards of the cover. The bear, now aware of our presence, rose up from the junipers and began to walk toward us.

Read More Stories From RACK MagazineWith the bear facing them, Russ and Brian each picked a shoulder and fired. Appearing unfazed by the two hits from the magnums, the bear stood its ground. Arnold, armed with a .308, waited to see what would happen. And when the bear turned broadside, he fired, immobilizing the bear.

Russ worked his way forward to a sapling and again took aim between the animal's black eyes. And that ended it.

I have seen 500-pound black bears. This creature made them look like toys. The paw pads were the size of dinner plates. To lift the head, I had to grab the bear's neck and throw my weight backward. In that position, I was able to get it about a foot off the ground.

As the bear was rolled over, Steve noticed the soiled flank. It was the smaller of the two that he had seen the previous day ... "Small" ... With the bear lying somewhat bunched up, it stretched to nearly 10 feet. It would have stood nearly 5 feet at the shoulder.

During the fall of 2003, the Department of Conservation saw polar bear problems nearly triple. The reason for the dramatic increase is still unknown. In our case, we were nearly 150 miles from Hudson Bay. What were two bears doing that far inland?

It is truly a shame that this magnificent animal had to be shot. The DNR investigated the event that same morning, and all involved were cleared of any wrongdoing. Polar bears are protected, but human life is given first priority.

-- Reprinted from the September 2006 issue of Buckmasters RACK Magazine

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