Question: How seriously do I need to take the threat of polar bears in the Arctic?
Answer: I have never hunted and don’t like guns much, but the threat is real. On our Greenland, Baffin Island and Labrador trips I have always been a bit skeptical and lackadaisical—carrying a gun, but unloaded; walking into broken ground without thinking; etc. No more. We were wandering around Barentsburg, Svalbard (Spitsbergen) in the summer of 2002 unarmed and discovered that the very next day a bear was on the very floating dock that we were tied to—a real wake up call—and this right in the middle of a Russian mining town.
You need to carry a heavy caliber weapon, and equally important, have practiced with it. A friend of ours, a trapper who has lived in the wilderness of Svalbard (Spitsbergen) for 25 years, never ventures more than 5 meters from his front door without a gun. He also says that there is no such thing as a safe polar bear. They are very unpredictable and can go from merely curious to aggressive with no warning.
In the hope of being able to scare a bear so we will not have to shoot, we also carry a flare pistol with thunder flash loads, and hand thrown thunder flashes. I think these last may be the most useful since the flare pistol is very inaccurate and the charges bounce before exploding so that there is a real risk of having the charge go off behind the bear, making a bad situation worse.