Q&A: Polar Bears, How Serious Is The Risk?

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.

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John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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