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November 16, 2021

Stops Along the Way: Hunting great snow bear

Stock Photo
By Don Bachmann

In the late 1950s, my Uncle Pete and Aunt Ruth lived in an apartment, which on a Saturday night often served as a gathering place for our family. The men would drink beer and play cards on the dining table while the women would sip coffee and chitchat in the kitchen.

All seemed to be content.

But, not my Uncle Joe.

Uncle Joe was many things – fisherman, hunter, adventurer and the teller of tales, but he was not a good poker player. Whenever he had a decent hand, someone had a better one; whenever he bluffed, someone always called him out. In the end, he was normally the first to go bust and leave the game.

One night, my cousins and I anticipated this outcome and awaited Uncle Joe in the living room; we were right. He entered, followed by Uncle Pete, and made for his favorite chair – a solitary piece of overstuffed leather which would serve as his throne. Uncle Pete, mindful of the usurpation, observed from the hallway.

Uncle Joe, now comfortably ensconced, coaxed his pipe to life, while we kids sat cross-legged on the rug facing him; we waited patiently for the inevitable story that was to come. And, when a sufficient plume of smoke emerged, he surveyed his audience.

“Ok, what’s it to be? … Marlin fishing in the Gulf? … Trapping wolves in Alaska?” And then, after a longer pause, “…or perhaps, hunting the great snow bear in Canada?”

The majority of us responded instantly, “The bears, tell us about the bears!” We wanted adventure.

Uncle Joe, with an understanding smile upon his face, paused only long enough to collect his thoughts. And then, he began the tale . . . .

“After closing my Wisconsin lodge for winter, I decided to go hunting with my friends, Bob Bell and Charlie Hutch. And, since Charlie had hunted before with Canada’s native people, the Inuit, we agreed to head north into the Inuit lands – into the domain of the great white bear.

“Charlie arranged for guides amongst the Inuit, but there were conditions. We could only hunt the boars – not the sows or their cubs. The pelt would belong to whoever killed the bear, but the meat must go to the tribal community. And, most importantly, no one could hunt alone.”

He explained.

“The polar bear can outrun, outswim and outclimb any man. In nature, it is the largest of all meat eating land animals and sits at the top of the food chain; no other land predator hunts it. Consequently, the snow bear is a fearless and aggressive hunter; it is even known to hunt man.”

He held out his hand with the fingers spread, “Imagine paws twice this size with sharp 2-inch claws – paws that could crush a man’s skull with a single blow or claws that could rip him apart. Imagine teeth that could bite with more power than the African lion. And, imagine being held helplessly in its grip as it starts to eat you.”

My cousins and I gasped, and the room became quiet.

Uncle Joe looked into our faces and seemed satisfied. We were his captives, and he knew it.

“There were eight of us who began the hunt in the early morning. All eight wore winter gear and were armed with rifles. Our supplies were carried by dog sleds and there were shacks along the hunting route if shelter was needed.

As we approached the hunting ground, we avoided the crevasses and only walked where the ice pack was thickest – falling through into the frigid water was to risk death. But, it was also here, on the fragmented ice shelf near the shore, where the seals grouped; and seals were the primary prey of the white bear.”

Uncle Joe, as if reliving the moment, leaned forward in his chair and whispered, “Six of us in groups of two dispersed over the ice pack; and then, being careful to preserve our firing lines, we waited – waited for the snow bear to appear.”

We kids waited as well. We knew the story was reaching its high point; but, before Uncle Joe resumed his tale, he slowly relit his pipe.

And then, still in a whispered voice, “It was a close call. The bear was swimming near the ice pack, smelled our scent and slowly positioned itself behind us. We didn’t see it until it was upon us.”

And now in full voice and with animation, Uncle Joe exclaimed, “The bear exploded onto the ice shelf and, reaching out with its paw, slashed Charlie’s leg and knocked him down. Charlie cried out in pain. His guide fired a hurried shot that only wounded the bear, but it allowed Charlie to crawl away.

“Both men were in ultimate peril as the enraged bear closed in on them.

“The attack happened so fast, that Bob and I were caught off guard. But, realizing the danger, we hurriedly maneuvered for a clear shot. And, as the bear laid back its ears and emitted a fearsome growl in preparation for its final charge, we both fired.”

The living room fell silent and totally still.

Uncle Joe broke the tension and leaned back in his chair, “In the end, one of our bullets brought the bear down, and Charlie survived the attack with minimal injuries. The Inuit got the meat, and we got the hide.”

We were stunned, but I managed to ask, “Where is the trophy – hanging in your hunting lodge?”

He replied, “No, it isn’t. Bob took the head, Charlie wanted the claws to remind him of his close call, and I got the rest of the hide. I gave the bear skin to your Aunt Ruth to help decorate her living room – this living room.”

Realizing the import of his words, we eagerly looked to the surrounding walls for the trophy. But, not finding it, we looked back questionably to Uncle Joe. He simply said, “You’re sitting on it right now.”

Little Helen jumped off the rug and backed away, while my remaining cousins and I just sat there looking down at the trophy. We ran our hands over it with a new found reverence.

Now Uncle Pete, who had remained in the hallway while the story unfolded, came forward and began to examine the bear skin rug. He poked at the rug with the toe of his shoe and shook his head.

He said, “I don’t know Joe, these sure look like tire marks to me.”

Looking hurt, Uncle Joe responded, “Sir, are you doubting my truthfulness?”

“Well Joe, all I can say is that sure was some tale.”

“I assure you Pete, it happened exactly the way I described it.” And, then he added, “… more or less.”

The men looked at each other and slowly began to chuckle.

We kids didn’t notice their shared moment; instead we just sat on the bear skin rug in continued awe – wondering what great adventures awaited us.

The columnist lives near Orlean.
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