Meeting the Arctic King« The tent started shaking, waking me up from my heavy sleep. It took me half a second to understand what was happening : POLAR BEAR ATTACK ! »
It had been a long day under a grey sky, but I couldn’t complain, I was finally reaching my cruising speed goals: about 20km a day in a straight line. While the start had been slow and difficult, I finally adapted and felt « comfortable » in the polar environment. Despite my big toe frostbite, I had made good progress since I left Naujaat (or Repulse Bay). Crossing « Wager Bay » (Ukkusiksalik National Park), dangerous for its open waters and abounded wildlife, had almost gone along smoothly despite the Naujaat wildlife officer heavy warnings. “You should call your parents and say goodbye!”, did he tell me. Psychology was probably not his forte… It produced unnecessarily stress and led to several bad decisions or risk taking. None of consequence fortunately. The guy was right about wildlife however, even if hadn’t seen any, I could tell by the many tracks they were plenty, including bears!
My progress had been particularly fast these last days. Once Wager Bay crossed, I had ski-kited more than 54 km in a straight line through canyons, passes, frozen rivers and lakes, under almost blizzard condition. My smallest kite (Flysurfer peak3, 6m2), untangled the day before in the tent, was barely controllable, but I succeeded however to reach the Hudson Bay again in less than a day, I was delighted! Jumping out of nowhere in this half-storm, I even had the chance to see my first Caribous. I had then continued along the shore, kiting when conditions allowed it. I hoped to reach Chesterfield Inlet in about then days if I could maintain the good rhythm.
Even though I hadn’t seen any polar bears yet, I could notice more and more bear tracks… I had asked to Chris, police officer in Naujaat, what they looked like, whom replied: “Don’t worry, you’ll know it when you see polar bear tracks! Can’t miss them.”. Chris was right: they were huge! However, despite the few caribous I hadn’t seen any living thing since I’d left the hamlet: fine to me. Today, nonetheless, I had crossed the path of several big bears tracks, maybe a big male?! Once my daily goal reached, I installed the tent, ready to sleep.
For security reason, I was supposed to install my « Bear Watch » daily as well. A trip wire alarm for bears, made of four poles, two fishing lines and two booby traps for shotgun blanks. Its main purpose was to wake me up in case of polar bear intrusion in order to have time to react. In certain cases, the alarm blast could also scare the bear away. The bear watch had several inconvenient however, including the hard and too long set-up which I wasn’t mastering yet. I did a few unsuccessful tries during the early expedition, but after completely entangling the lines I had simply given up to set the alarm once and for all. Despite buying new fishing lines in Naujaat I discovered myself being too lazy to set them up, and relied on my luck: “So far so good! Why should I install a device that’s going to freeze me to death?”.
I had the intuition however that my luck would probably fade away, and these bears track didn’t look good! But I survived to Wager Bay without Bear watch, and the bad weather would certainly hold the bears in their dens, right?! I fell quickly asleep, exhausted by the day.
The tent started shaking, waking me up from my heavy sleep. It took me half a second to understand what was happening: POLAR BEAR ATTACK! The tent stood still, all at once, enabling me to better emerge. I read a lot about polar bears and studied the best attitudes to adopt in case of unfortunate polar bear encounter… none mentioned a tent attack! I was uncertain if the best solution was to scream or play dead. My two sleeping bags and VBL (damproof liner) were acting like a straitjacket, hindering me to move or grab my weapon. Each zipper had to be opened one by one in order to liberate myself, an incredible long and noisy operation considering the situation. I was trapped, powerless: “Damn, Arnaud you’re stupid! …”
The polar bear attacked again, only a second later, trying to drag the tent on the ice. His disproportionate force moved the refuge and myself over half a meter. The tent, firmly fixed to the ground had held up, but it would not take much to put it in pieces. I had chosen to remain silent until now, waiting for the right moment to react, if moment there would be… I didn’t know the bear intentions, it seemed clear to me that he could easily shred the tent if he wanted to. The heavy screech of his steps on the ice as well as the power of his breath were terrifying, taking full consciousness of the gravity of the situation. The bear was moving alongside the tent…
A few seconds only went by since my awakening, during which I had started liberating myself progressively and silently from the embrace of my sleeping bags. An ultimate shock hit the tent while the bear appeared to be further away: « He’s attacking the sledge! ». This was the moment of distraction I was looking for, now or never! I rushed out of my sleeping bag, grabbed the weapon. « SCRRRRR… » the rascal just eviscerated my pulka bag! By the time I was ready to face my enemy: I yelled as hard as I could, a roar of rage, of an animal ready to fight until the end… but nothing happened. Determined to take control of the situation I made a small opining in my tent zip and shot through the tent door. I carefully opened the door in order to face my opponent: gone!
The bear had disappeared in the night before I could see him. The tent did not look great and my pulka laid a few meters from the tent, now only held by two strap. The ropes linking the sleds to the tent had prevented the animal from taking them away, causing the ultimate shaking. The loss or destruction of on of my sledge would have been a tragedy, and would probably have put an end to the Arctic journey, anyway I was safe and sound! I had to hurry up, the animal could return at any time. I plunged immediately back into the tent and dressed warmly, it was three o’clock in the morning, I expected the night to be long. The priority was to install the bear watch I had avoided to put in the first place… so much for laziness. Once done, I put the tent back in place and analyzed the damages: a big tear into the pulka bag, a long rip at the end of inner tent, minor holes in the outer tent, and a big hole in the mattress… nothing serious! I couldn’t believe it, the outer tent had resisted the fangs of a polar bear, which probably saved my life. The impressive hole in the mattress also meant that my feet were close to be crunched away.
I cheered myself up with some chocolate and a Hudson Bay tasting salty tea, before entering a sewing frenzy. Hours went by whilst darkness gradually faded. It was seven and I was patching the tent up, my head buried in the back of the tent, when footsteps suddenly burst out of nowhere: “The polar bear is back! “. I seized the weapon and screamed as hard as possible! Nothing… I went out, ready for a second round, but the bear was already fifty meters gone, heading North. Good for me, I’m travelling south. He turned a few times, throwing me some disinterested glances, I was a just a curiosity at best!
Stressed by the events I accelerated the repairs, and around 11:30 I had patched most damages, the rest would be for later: “There is good wind, it is time to fly away!”. I ate a quick breakfast and packed up, eager to put as much distance as possible with the lord of the Arctic. Despite a difficult start and a few falls on the ice I managed my way between the ice blocks, and two hours later I had already kited 18km. I imposed myself a few more kilometers by ski, and at 4pm, exhausted by the eventful night I decided I was far enough to set up the tent for some rest. This time I even installed the bear watch… good night!