A polar bear decided to have a sleep over while I was a 15-year-old boy on a summer outing in a canvas tent with my parents. My parents were elders at the time and my dad was working the last several years as a janitor at our school (Victor Sammurtok Iliniarvik) before he retired. As long as I can remember, Pops would take the summer off and we’d load up the boat with everything we’d need for several weeks and off we went. We’d bring enough bug spray for several families.
Often, we would fish for char or catch a couple of caribou. Every time we went, nets were put out first and things laid out and the tent put up. Mom would start making bannock. I’d get the rod out and start casting. It wouldn’t be long before I had a nice little pile of fish. When Arctic Char go down to the sea water, they are as skinny as a twisler and as hungry as a sumo wrestler. I remember one time when I cast my rod and a black blurb followed my lure. I was in the ocean with tall hip waders and at first, I didn’t know what it was so I backed up to the land. On second look, I saw thousands of Arctic Char following my lure. I still back up to the land it; it just doesn’t feel right otherwise.
As my parents got older, we started camping closer to our hometown of Chesterfield Inlet (Igluligarjuk). We still caught char, just not as much caribou. When my parents were younger, we’d go further up the inlet where there was less chance of spotting polar bears.
This time we were close to Chesterfield Inlet and we weren’t going to do a long stint like we did years ago. We were only 25 km from home. There was another family close by the tent who my parents hung out with, playing cards all evening after all the chores were done. The kids made sure the scopes on the guns were set to kill a game animal at 350 yards and we’d sharpen the knives to make them ready for the next use.
Inuit have this saying: Never wish to see a Polar Bear as it can hear you! Growing up from very early on we respected the white beast and, to some degree, feared it. My dad always told me that when coming into a new area, look around and view the surroundings. Sometimes you may not see him sleeping slumped down in a couple of rocks and he won’t wake up from his dream world of sun tanning ring seals right away. So never wish to see a Polar Bear as he may come say hello when you are defenceless!
Most of the time polar bears have very little interest in humans. Then again, they are unpredictable, or, like us, sometimes they may have had a bad day, so they will attack. I’ve had a polar bear walk by me 20 metres away barely even look at me and he didn’t look too well fed. I was lucky.
I had my Bro’s pup with me for the weekend one time and was on the way back home. It was late spring and my adopted puppy for the weekend had a 20-foot rope on it. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to catch him so I had purposely done this. We were doing about 10 km an hour as there were many cracks and holes near Chesterfield Inlet. The rope got tangled in a piece of ice. I got off the snowmobile and walked about a hundred yards behind me to untangled the rope. As I was walking back, I saw the white beast no more than 20 metres in front of my snowmobile and my sled was still at least 30 metres away with my rifle. It looked at me and kept walking like it was on a mission to get somewhere. The further it got from my sled, the faster I walked to mine. I’ve never been so happy to grab hold of my rifle. After that, it was slung on my back and almost all the time I do this now. That day could have easily turned out different. The polar bear just walked by and was gone, going towards the ocean.
When we camp, Pops always made sure the tent was set up in an area with gravel, not moss or sand. One, it’s cleaner and there are less little critters, but, more importantly, when you walk on gravel, you make noise, so if unwanted company approaches, then we are sure to hear it coming.
This one time our neighbours shot a seal and they decided they were going to dry the seal skin within the camping area. Guess whose favourite food is seal? Yes, the Polar Bear. My mom cautions us that a visit is highly probable now.
We had a bigger tent and my dad always slept near the edge with his rifle always loaded and easy to get to. I was at the opposite end of the tent. It was a long tent. I snore. That night I was snoring away to the point my mother threw a boot at me to wake me up. I was like, “what!” She smiled and said come over and have some breakfast. I grumpily put on my shoes and sat on a plastic grub box yawning and drinking tea and eating hot bannock. A minute into our moment of happiness, my mom starts looking at me weird and looking to where I was sleeping. I was still trying to wake up and was confused when she looked at me again and then back at the corner where I had been sleeping. The third time she looks at me, I was annoyed and said, “WHAT!” She shushes me. Dad was right beside her and he looks at mom and she points to the corner where I was sleeping minutes ago. We all went quiet. Outside the tent, we could hear someone or something snoring. Dad sprung up like a jack in the box but very quietly. I was wondering, “who’s the idiot sleeping outside the tent?” Growing up, I was taught not to sleep exposed to the wilderness and I was wondering why dad wanted to take his rifle to see whoever was out there.
My dad was in his birthday suit, rifle in his hand, looking out the flap of the tent. Bang! Bang! That’s about the time I realize it was the unwanted visitor who we were advised of the day before! It turns out, it was a mother and two cubs but these cubs were as big as momma and I guess coming into camp the one pup and mom decided to pick away at the drying skin seal and the other cub thought it was nice and warm here and my snoring sounded like his brother or mom and he decided to sleep with me. The only thing separating us was the canvas tent!
After a couple of shots in the air, the bears jump into the ocean and swim to the next island. That was the end of the trip. The gravel tent site didn’t help that time!
Peter Autut grew up in the community of Chesterfield Inlet, located on the western shore of Hudson Bay in the Kivalliq Region, in Nunavut. Population 405.