The bear issue...

As the latest in what is becoming a series of pre-Dark Ice Project articles and in response to a Twitter request, let's talk polar bears.

Always a tough subject since these magnificent carnivores are under severe threat across the majority of their arctic range and any conflict between them and humans can only be due to us invading their habitat. Given this and once it has been accepted that an expedition will enter the realm of the polar bear, precautions must be taken to try and limit the chances of problems arising.

Bears are large, powerful and effective predators and they have an extreme annual lifecycle. This involves adapting their behaviour to the fluctuations of the arctic seasons; fasting through the less plentiful part of the year and frantic feeding and social behaviour for the remainder. The Dark Ice Project will be travelling on sea ice in a high risk area of the Nares Strait. The region has a polynya (open water where seals and other bear prey collect), coastline where dens can be dug and areas with a combination of consolidated ice and fractured ice with leads (cracks which leave water/thin ice exposed).

There are a number of things that we can do protect ourselves, and the bears, from a confrontation that would almost certainly end fatally for one or both of us. These are in an escalating series, from initial action to a last resort.

1. Knowledge of polar bear behaviour

This can include avoiding likely polar bear hotspots, like large snowdrifts in winter where males hide from the worst of the weather and also interpreting polar bear tracks to make sure we end up going in different directions. In the case of an encounter, bears can unpredictable - sometimes shy and sometimes spontaneously aggressive. Showing the bear overtly human behaviour can, with luck, persuade the bear that attacking would be a risk and lead to a stand-down.

2. Warning systems

An ideal system for a highly mobile expedition like ours (i.e. not a static camp) would be a Greenlandic sledge dog with experience of bears, but the amount of dog-food we'd need to haul would be a non-starter. Dogs can sense bears at a distance and throughout the day and night, giving us time and advance warning to react. As an alternative for the night-time when even our best efforts won't stop food odours emanating from our tent, we will use a trip-wire system. 

Trip-wires and early warning systems have routinely failed on other expeditions in recent years and so our system is entirely custom. Up to five posts will be placed with a slightly slack line in between (to stop minor ice fluctuations giving false-alarms). A moderate tug on the line will set off an explosive charge housed within each post, hopefully alerting us and scaring the bear away.

3. Non-lethal projectiles

If a bear approaches during either the working day or the night, flares can be used to frighten a bear away and persuade it that being curious or predatory isn't in its interests. Small pencil flares can be used first and will be kept in a smock pocket at all times. If a more serious warning is needed, a large rocket flare can be fired. 

4. Last resort

In the case that an aggressive bear is taken by surprise or takes us by surprise, or does not respond to flares, the only way to save our lives could be to use a weapon. Blank cartridges and buckshot can be used as further deterrent, but ultimately a solid 'slug' cartridge would be used. Both of us will carry a single barrel shotgun with its stock removed to save weight. Six cartridges will be stored in a neoprene sleeve along the rib/barrel so they are close to hand. In extreme cold conditions gun oil, to keep a weapon free from rust and working smoothly, can 'gloop' up and stop it functioning at all. Before leaving Qaanaaq, we plan to experiment with both a specialist synthetic oil and using the shotguns 'dry'.

Whilst seeing a polar bear in its natural habitat, especially in the striking conditions of the polar winter or early spring, would be a privilege, it is one I would rather miss on this journey. Fingers crossed for a safe few months for both parties.

Alex Hibbert3 Comments