Coordinates: 67.59.840 N, 65.12.466 W
Distance Traveled: 25 mi/ 40 km
Temperature: -20 °F/ -29 °C
Wind: 0-5 MPH/ 0-8 KPH
Cloud Cover: Clear skies all day
Sunrise: 5:27 a.m.
Sunset: 7:24 p.m.
We are traveling through polar bear country. It is early spring in the Arctic and bears are on the move looking for food and mating opportunities. We came across a fresh set of tracks this afternoon from a mother bear and two cubs. I sat down with John Stetson after dinner to hear more about his experience with polar bears and get some tips on being ‘bear-aware’.
Abby: Tell me about your experience with polar bears.
John: I’ve trained dogs in Churchill for about 12 years in the fall during the polar bear congregation. They congetrate in Churchill on their way out to Hudson Bay. I’ve seen hundreds of polar bears over the years. Some a little closer than I would like. I’ve seen lots of polar bear/sled dog interactions.
Abby: What do you mean by “interactions”?
John: Well, I’ve had numerous encounters when the dogs are on their stake outs. It’s interesting that the bears rarely try to hurt the dogs in the initial encounter. The bears typically come in quietly. And the dogs can’t hear them because they are sleeping and the wind is noisy. Eventually the dogs wake up and alert me and startle the bear with their barking.
Abby: Then what do you do?
John: Then I scare the bears away with cracker shells (a projectile fire cracker that is shot out of a gun) because of course they could be dangerous if they are allowed to hang around. Although polar bears are quite curious and would eat almost anything…they are primarily interested in eating seals and not people and dogs.
Abby: What are polar bears doing right now here on Baffin Island?
John: There are about 20 populations of polar bears in the world, and this Davis Strait population, according to local knowledge, is thriving on this side of Baffin. The Western Hudson Bay population, in contrast, has seen significant decline in the last 10 years. This may be attributed to shrinking hunting opportunities due to less ice pack. However, the population here, at least according to local knowledge, seems to be thriving. As we pass through this area we are seeing tracks of mother bears with their cubs. In fact, we are camped right next to a set of tracks from a mother with two cubs that had come by here maybe as early as yesterday.
Abby: What are the mother bears doing now?
John: This is the time of year that mother bears leave the den with the cubs that were born over a month ago, to head out to the sea ice and get the relatively easy pickings of seal pups. Correspondingly, the males that are already out at the floe edge and on the sea ice, now converge closer to shore, as they are also looking for seal pups and the opportunity to mate. The males will also sometimes prey on the baby bears.
Abby: What does this mean for us on the expedition?
John: This means that we need to be alert and and take all necessary precautions in how we set up camp and travel. We want to set up the best situation possible so that the bears are not a threat to us and, equally, we are not a threat to the bears. It’s important to know the habits of the bears. The mother bears are trying to protect their cubs and will most likely go around us if they come towards camp. The danger comes from either a very hungry bear or young 2-3 year old bear who is curious and not very smart. Those bears will be coming towards camp from the sea ice, probably from the downwind side. We set up our camps so that we’re on the inside of a perimeter of dogs. The dogs will alert us if a bear approaches so that we can make an appropriate response with our firecrackers and scare the bears out of camp.
Abby: Will you be able to sleep tonight?
John: I’ll sleep like a baby! My dogs have all seen many bears and they know what to do. Plus I have my lead dog Whisper in my tent vestibule.
Abby and John, signing out