All of my travels in the Arctic are in polar bear country. I have had the great fortune of encountering polar bears on many occasions, under many differing circumstances. Polar bears are incredible creatures; They are graceful, intelligent, and beautiful. I am always humbled at their size, and the swaggering strut, as they roam the vast sea ice. The hardships that these animals endure is also a feat in itself. They are masters of stealth, and extremely skilled hunters. Although beautiful, they are also potentially dangerous. Appropriate behavior in polar bear country is essential for your own safety, as well as the safety of the bear.
4 things to remember while in polar bear country:
Local knowledge. Whenever I travel to a new region in the arctic, I speak to as many locals as I can. This gains important insight into the subtleties of the local bear population, as well as any known bears in the area. Polar bear populations vary slightly in their behaviors across the north. Local knowledge can determine where bears are likely to be, given the terrain and season.
Reverse your clock. Traditionally, Inuit hunters in many regions would alter their schedules to be traveling and hunting at favorable times during the day. This often meant being active during the night and in the early hours of the morning, and sleeping during the day. Polar bears behave like this in most regions I have traveled in, so adjusting the schedule means you will have a greater chance to see a bear, and less of a chance to be surprised in the night by one.
Each encounter is unique. Careful attention to bear language can give clues as to what the bear is likely to do. Is the bear curious, defensive or predatory? With training and experience, you can learn a lot from the way the bear holds its head, orients its paws, and direction it travels. Is the bear well fed and healthy? Age of the bear? Male or female? Knowing your bears and how bears behave is crucial knowledge that will keep you and the bear safe.
Practice and equipment. In the event of a close encounter or a predatory bear approaching, you need to remain calm and collected. One of the best strategies may be to deploy deterrents quickly and effectively. This means having an action plan, having the equipment close at hand, and practice using it. There are many products and tools available. I always have ‘Bear Banger’ or noise rounds and Bear Spray on me at all times. The Kokatat Poseidon PFD works extremely well for this. One of the advantages of this system is the ability to easily stow and access emergency equipment on the water, and while landing and launching kayaks.
As always respect for the land where you travel, including the animals that live there, is always best practice. I hope that you too will make the effort to travel to the arctic and bask in the rugged beauty. Who knows, maybe you will be lucky enough to see a polar bear in its natural environment! It will be an
experience that you will never forget.
Happy paddling, stay safe, and see you on the water!
Steve Ruskay is the lead guide for Black Feather - The Wilderness Adventure Company, an Instructor for Raven Rescue, and a Paddling Ambassador for Kokatat. Follow Steve on his Arctic adventures: @ruskayvision #intothewater
"You can learn a lot from the way the bear holds its head, orients its paws, and direction it travels."