A Marine Voyager’s Dilemma in Northern Labrador

We have sailed the coast of Labrador many times and appreciate its rugged scenery, beautiful light, and isolation. So when the government of Canada decided to make the northern part a federal park, we were thrilled. But now that we can’t visit the Torngat Mountains National Park, we aren’t so thrilled anymore.

Parks Canada has a policy of not allowing national park users to carry guns, which may make sense for parks that don’t have a polar bear presence. However, Labrador has polar bears in spades, and we believe that the Park’s policy of excluding firearms from the list of “approved deterrents” is dangerous.

Parks Canada will, I’m sure, say that  if we feel this way, we can always “engage the services of an Inuit guide since they may use a gun” within the Park. However, we feel this is impractical on a small boat (vs. a cruise ship), nor are we in the practice of taking people on board our boat and home whom we don’t know. Even more important to us is that voyaging to Labrador is an attainable self-sufficient wilderness experience; taking a guide on board totally changes that.

Compare Parks Canada’s policy to the Norwegian approach in Svalbard (Spitsbergen), where you are encouraged to carry a firearm—along with deterrents such as flare guns—to protect yourself from polar bears, which they consider “extremely dangerous for humans”. Hiring a guide is an option for visitors to Svalbard, not a requirement.

So, until Parks Canada changes its policy (probably after some unarmed visitor is killed by a polar bear), we won’t be visiting the Torngat Mountains National Park by sailboat, since we won’t go ashore without a gun and we don’t wish to hire a guide.

Let us know what you think by leaving a comment.

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Phyllis has sailed over 40,000 offshore miles with John on their McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, most of it in the high latitudes, and has crossed the Atlantic three times. As a woman who came to sailing as an adult, she brings a fresh perspective to cruising, which has helped her communicate what they do in an approachable way, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 18 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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Eric Schlesinger Sue Peterson

Dear AAC,
I understand your discontent with the Can. policy; however, as a disinterested observer, I feel that the life of a polar bear might be too high a price for your curiosity. It is their habitat, the sailor is the visitor. Do no harm. If you feel it is not safe, don’t go.

richard

I tend to agree with the above; however, as I am an adventuresome sailor, although I am not in your elite league for that mainly because of obviously more limited financial resources, I would strongly consider going anyway and, with my properly secured concealed weapons permit, carry my 357 magnum pistol under my coat displaying it only if threatened by a bear and first firing it over his head to ward him off before taking the last resort of killing him if necessary then facing any consequences from the authorities as they may develop…I doubt there will be any authorities in the area at the time of this situation and I will be long gone before they discover the dead bear…most of us take chances daily…some more consequential than others…Tampa Bay skipper

John Harries

Hi Eric and Sue,

A very good point and one that is part of the larger question about visiting remote places at all. Obviously we come down on the careful visit side of that argument, but it is not something that we don’t think about.

Do recognize that in some 16 years of going north we have never shot a bear. Also, we carry a full set of deterrents to use to scare a bear off so as not to have to shoot. Shooting to kill would be our very last resort.

In evaluating this situation, keep in mind that Parks Canada is actively encouraging visitors to the Park, so the “just not go option” that you suggest has already been violated. And at least one bear, that we know of, has already been shot by an Inuit guide to protect his clients.

So, given the above, the issue seems to us to be that someone will be using a gun to protect humans from bears, it is just a matter of who.

John Harries

Hi Richard,

Another way of looking at it. Do be aware that Canada has very strict laws against short guns (restricted weapons) and that even getting caught with one, never mind carrying concealed, is to invite serious consequences, which (I am guessing here) might include prison time.

richard

Depending on how much of a priority it is for our friends to continue passaging to the north, my guess is they can afford whatever legal means possibly required to reverse the possible wrath of any apprehending Canadian authorities given the conditions for the event as I have described above…anyway, I doubt I would be particularly interested in passaging that far north…my blood is too thin having lived and frolicked on the waters of the Tampa Bay area these last five years.

David Hayward

Re: polar bears and firearms: Somewhere I read/heard that due to the remoteness and lack of visitors, the staff on site are “allowing” firearms. Think it was a web site from a person who kayaked through the area.

I agree “services of a guide” would be a deterrent for several reasons (plus a few random thoughts):
– Changes the group dynamics. It’s hard enough getting a group of friends through a trip without adding a stranger. Though if the guide is a professional counselor, they may be a help:)
– Nice honeymoon; a newly married couple and a guide:)
– Increases costs, probably $200-$400 per day, everything is more expensive up north (except scenery and weather)
– Turns the park into a Disney experience
– Wilderness and the North are an important part of a Canadian’s identity and mindset. I do not know about others, but a guide does not appear in my dream
– Guess they would have to have their own transport (boat) if escorting kayakers or small boat sailors
– If a guide becomes a requirement, here’s hoping they are trained as eco-guides: knowledgeable of history, geology, natural history, group dynamics, first aid, etc., and enthusiastic and not another hungry mouth with a gun
– Let there be guides for those that want them or do not have the skills/experience for the Park
– Plus in my travels, the locals always grow to resent the tourists/venturers and over time lose their good natured hospitality as it becomes a job looking after the rich. Tourists are always rich!
– Tourism is not the basis of an economy. You cannot export your environment and you are competing against the world and dependent upon global factors. One year you’re hot, the next you’re not.

Parks Canada might take-up this idea: The Tourism Department for Labrador West makes available through local hotels in Labrador West, Churchill Falls and Happy Valley-Goose Bay, satellite phones for persons traveling the Trans Labrador Highway, at no cost, for a 24 hour period. The phones are for personal safety and are programmed for 911 connection only.<
Parks Canada at Gros Morne, NL, used to and may still do, loan radio positioning rabbit collars to back country hikers. Make them easier to find if the hiker is overdue.

Brenda

It’s sort of amazing how people react when it comes to their perception of their right to carry a gun wherever they want and to use it, too.

Take a deep breath and read The Family Canoe Trip by Shepardson. They were a family, including an infant in diapers, canoeing across Canada in a 20 ft canoe. On one part of their journey, they were stalked by a polar bear for at least 24 hours as I recall. (It’s been 20 years since I read the book.) They were keeping it at bay in the darkest hours by shining a flash light towards it as they continued to paddle through the night (couldn’t stop—that durn bear was there…) http://www.amazon.com/Family-Canoe-Trip-Approach-Canoeing/dp/0934802157

Bottom line, you do what you have to do. Sailing our boats where we please is a wonderful privilege afforded to us by the countries we travel within. This is not a right nor is it a necessity.

I’d just take a better than usual arsenal of flares to dazzle the bears with AND I wouldn’t be planning on spending a lot of time away from my boat. But, to each his own.

Fair winds.

Phyllis

All very good comments. Thank you. A few further thoughts in response:
1. Labrador has an indigenous population that has co-existed with (and hunted) the polar bear for many generations. Parks Canada is not opening up a previously uninhabited area.
2. Though Svalbard has a policy that visitors should carry firearms for protection from polar bears, the number of bears that have been killed is actually very small. The Governor of Svalbard has a strict policy of how to behave when faced with a polar bear to try and avoid the tendency to go for a gun before trying every other method possible to avoid killing the bear. In fact, it is a criminal offense to kill a bear unnecessarily and people have been charged for doing so (which we heartily support). However, there have also been a number of tragic incidents (including one just outside the town of Longyearbyen) where people have been killed who were not properly armed.
3. If I had a gun and faced the situation the Shepardson’s faced, would I go as long without using the gun as they did? Maybe not. However, I also think they were lucky: If the polar bear wanted to it could outlast them, outswim them, outrun them.
4. As an analogy: we carry an EPIRB on our sailboat but that doesn’t mean we don’t do everything we can do to make sure we and our boat are as prepared for our voyages as possible. However, if something were to go very seriously and potentially fatally wrong, I would deploy it and hopefully help would come. There is very little opportunity for self-sufficient adventure left in our world and I believe we shouldn’t stifle the few opportunities that are left by over-regulating things or by forcing people to take unnecessary risks.

David Hayward

A further thought. While I have never encountered a polar bear nor traveled in their territory, I’m of the mindset that, if they are so dangerous, why do we not hear of attacks and fatalities? Or are their attacks not covered in the southern media? I think not…an attack would be sensational news. Are they curious animals always looking for easy prey/food and shy away when the prey gets hostile or are they really the tyrannosaurus rex of the modern world?

Perhaps Parks Canada can give us some feedback or statistics on the number of close encounters, events requiring scaring bears off or attacks on their crews in the Torngats and across polar bear country.

Let’s put this in perspective and look at other animals and media events across Canada:
– Coyotes killed a person in Cape Breton Highland National Park last year and there have been two attacks on people in Nova Scotia within the last few months.
– Cougar attacks are not an uncommon occurrence in British Columbia.

Two differences are:
– Polar bears are much larger and powerful than humans.
– The Torngats are a long way from an emergency department.

We plan to sail to the Torngats this summer and my approach is that every environment has dangers. For example I drove a car in Ireland (wrong side of the road for us) for a week!

As to the danger of polar bears, we’re the visitor, so let’s be nice. Be aware, be alert, travel in groups, carry bangers and bear spray.

I do not see the issue as whether we need a gun, but rather do we need a guide who happens to have a gun.

Plus, even if the person with the gun has training with firearms, unless they have where-with-all, what will they do when this 1000+ pound monster jumps up at them from 20 feet away? I suspect most will have a quick dump in their pants!

Plus given the probability of a low number of events requiring the discharge of a firearm with the intent of killing the bear, the bigger risk is accidental discharge and self-inflicted injuries.

In my experience Parks Canada personnel give good advice and tend to err on the side of visitor safety and caution. This is probably since they often do not know the capabilities of the visitor. You can never go wrong taking their advice.
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Gary Ramos

Hi Phyllis & John;
In 2008 when I was anchored at Devon Is. 74’30N I had a polar bear who I believe was just curious, tried to climb up the back of my boat. I just yelled at it and off it went. I did have my rifle at the ready just in case, only to be used if it did get onto the boat and was thinking I was the next meal. I feel that a proper weapon should be onboard any vessel traveling in bear waters. http://www.arcticwandering.com

Bruce Hynes

We have few polar bears, but many people. We can’t afford to lose a polar bear.

Colin

If I sail down the US coast I have to check in with Homeland Insecurity every time I stop. Coasties hop aboard at will to make me prove I am not a terrorist and then make me flush green dye down my head. “I am not going to ‘cite’ you today”. I can’t drop anchor because there might be a local by-law against it, and you are upset about not being able to shoot a polar bear. There are other options besides gunning them down. I hope they keep the rule and maybe start treating Americans the way they treat us “aliens”.

John Harries

Hi Colin,

Not sure I get the connection between the two.

By the way, Phyllis is Canadian and I’m Bermudian and a Canadian resident. We have to check in at each port in the US too.

Finally, we do not wish to shoot a bear. See Phyllis’ comment above.

Harold

Carrying a hunting rifle into such a remote place as the Torngats is common sense. Clearly, it’s the option of last resort when all other deterrents fail. Ideally, you and the bears will see each other and go on your separate ways; however, Polar Bears have little or no fear of humans and do hunt them. With all respect to Parks Canada, this policy appears to be made in Ottawa. It is not reasonable to expect people to risk their lives – and the risk is real – to visit a National Park.

Robert

I have to admit I was a bit put off and surprised when I first read this article; however, the resulting comments and clarifications have done a good job of putting this in perspective. Thank you.

For several years I was a Law Enforcement Ranger in a large U.S. National Park and have had to put my share of large animals down. It takes knowledge, skill and the proper weapon to drop a large animal, like a bear, in his tracks. (note to poster with a concealed .357…that isn’t it and the probability is high that you will loose that encounter). Most people are just going to get in more trouble by shooting a bear….what’s more dangerous than a large, ornery Polar Bear? An injured one. I think one has to perhaps actually work in law enforcement to realize the astonishing number of firearms owners that don’t maintain their weapons and can’t shoot them accurately, especially under the pressure of an attack….the latter is a completely different skill set than hunting or target shooting and one that needs to be practiced once in awhile. So does allowing people to carry firearms in a National Park to protect themselves help matters or make them worse? Honestly, I don’t know. I do appreciate the Svalbard example though.

To emphasize a point made above, a knowledgeable and experienced outdoors person is extremely unlikely to NEED to shoot a bear….but there exist bears that are sick, injured, overly aggressive, etc and in rare cases, they need to be put down, preferably by someone who knows what they are doing.

So based on my following of your most fascinating and informative blog, I believe I can assume that you treat firearms and the required skills the way you do other tools on Morgan’s Cloud. In my mind, you would be a responsible and proficient gun owner. Had I run across people like you in my official capacity, you would not be displeased at how I handled the situation. I believe people like you are very valuable to the wilderness. Unfortunately, the laws are put in place for those that don’t take these subjects seriously. Frankly, most gun owners make me nervous and I do feel bad for the serious minded gun owners….just not sure what the solution is.

Btw, I was quite fond of cracker rounds to convince Grizzlies to go somewhere else, if you have a shotgun. But again, they take some practice to be proficient.

Phyllis Nickel

Robert, thank you for a very well-reasoned comment. It means a lot coming from someone with your experience.

Hargrave

Hi. I know this is an old thread, but I can’t help commenting. In 1998 my wife and I flew to Kangiksuulajak(sp?) on the Labrador peninsula and backpacked for a week, carrying a pump Remington 12 gauge with slugs backed up by buck shot. The absolute last thing we wanted to do was discharge that shotgun. We never saw a bear. However, every person we met in town, all Inuits, agreed with us that it was mandatory to carry a gun. They disagreed with my weapon, however, suggesting that at least a 30 06 was necessary.
There is no avoiding the fact that the shotgun would not have helped us while we were asleep. It was strictly for short range defense, and I did not have a lot of confidence in it. But I would not have gone in there without something.

We knew the risks. We took our chances, and the country was surpassingly beautiful. We had one key advantage. We were able to fly over the countryside, looking for bear, before we went. I hope to sail up there in the next few years, and you can bet your bottom dollar I will have a shotgun onboard.

Dave McCullough

Parks Canada’s ridiculous policy of not allowing firearms is intended to make sure the only people who visit the park are well heeled foreign tourists who will hire a native guide…And no doubt someone will eventually be killed by a polar bear; then the government will use this as an excuse to require all visitors to hire guides. Most Canadians will never get to know the beauty of their own country. The result of course is that fewer Canadians will support the very idea of national parks as too restrictive, and this fits in well with this government’s ideas for unrestrained resource development.

Gary O'Connor

“Parks Canada has a policy of not allowing national park users to carry guns, which may make sense for parks that don’t have a polar bear presence. However, Labrador has polar bears in spades, and we believe that the Park’s policy of excluding firearms from the list of “approved deterrents” is dangerous.”

Here is another interesting thread (as long as we can keep “politics” out of it as that doesn’t change the current situation). Given that there is less ice now and that means the Polar Bear’s main source of food (seal) isn’t as abundant, I would guess there are going to be more Polar Bear intrusions now as they are hungry.
In all probability, Transport Canada requires you to carry a flare gun aboard your vessel. I know they aren’t the end-all, be-all, but I do know they make quite a large “bang” and are very bright, these are two deterrents against a polar bear without killing one. That said, if the situation arose, I’d certainly be the first to try feeding a hungry polar bear with a couple flare shots.
Thanks again for the great site, always thought provoking subjects, and always learning from them.

Brad Bassi

Go and bring your gun. Do you really think you will run into someone up there to enforce this rule?

John Harries

Hi Brad,

That’s probably true. (We transited the entire park coast late this summer and did not see any people at all.) However, that’s not really the way we would like to see the problem addressed.

John Lawson

No guns allowed is the absolute dumbest decision I have heard of. Canadian authorities obviously regard animal lives over human lives. Idiots.

John Harries

Hi John,

We agree. Our thinking is that either Parks Canada should make the area a bear sanctuary with no landing allowed, or they should allow people to carry firearms for protection. The current situation where they actively encourage people to visit the park and then prohibit them from carrying guns is just plain stupid and will eventually lead to a tragedy.

Todd

In the 1990s I got to spend some time in Resolute Bay and Grise Fjord in the NWT, now Nunavut. Bear vigilance was very real among the locals, mostly Inuits. Dogs were kept around for sledding and to warn of the bears should they approach and houses had alarms to warn of bears nearby. We were not allowed to bring firearms and if we wanted firearms, required to hire a local guide. We did so and we never had a close encounter, but would not have ventured around without them. One day while flying in a Twin Otter at low altitude we came across a good sized boar loping across the ice pack. I asked the pilot to circle so I could get some close up shots (pictures). As we banked around the bear got extremely agitated and jumped in the air as if to grab at the plane and gnashed his teeth! It was very striking behaviour. Our Inuit guide laughed with a toothy smile, but I saw him reflexively check his rifle between the seats. I learned then that in the polar bear’s icy kingdom, anything that moves is prey – anything.

As a pretty skilled big game hunter and I have used large caliber firearms for 30 years. It’s clear to me that shooting one of these is a very last resort because they are an extremely hard target and you are unlikely to be successful in killing the animal. Large bears (Browns and Polar) have a well deserved reputation for not dropping easily. A 30.06 that someone is likely to carry aboard is actually a fairly small round to try to take one down. Much bigger is better and you would likely need several well placed shots to do that. That is going to add up to be a heavy gun that takes practiced skill just to shoot properly and you would likely need a standing shot (not many trees to lean on up that way) while under extreme duress. The question is, when you see a bear, by the time you can tell if it is really going to try to attack you and sort out that there are no other options, will you have the time, skill and the accuracy to take it out? Or would you just make him mad and more determined? I wouldn’t want to find out!

My recollection is that Canadian Parks are no different than the US National Park System: no firearms allowed. I prefer what appears to be the sensibility of the Svalbard policy and according to people I have spoken to it works effectively and safely, though I have not yet been there.

I would not consider traveling in known large bear country (that includes just about anywhere in Alaska) without sufficient firearms and I would not consider any of the (paltry) alternatives as sufficient.

Also, if going near shore, I would not have a plastic boat, but a metal one. (Add that to your list of advantages of Morgans Cloud, John) That MIGHT just keep them from getting in to feast on you, but after I saw what they could do to buildings in Nunavat, and they way they can tear through solid arctic ice after seals, I am not so sure. They can be like a buzz saw with white fur.

The arctic regions are vast and the polar bear population small in comparison. Chances of dangerous bear encounters are certainly low, but like a Force Ten Storm, they are better avoided altogether.

Todd

John Harries

Hi Todd,

I think you are right about rifle caliber. After having consulted with an experienced bear hunter, we now carry, and practice with, a .338 Savage with big game rounds.

Having said that, even though we practice before every Arctic trip, I would guess that in a situation where a bear hunted us, our chances weighed against the bear’s are about 50/50, particularly in broken ground where the bear can get close by stalking before making its charge.

On fiberglass boats, I can see your point, however, as far as I know, there is no recorded incident of a bear breaking into a GRP boat, even though scores of them go to Svalbard every year.

Phyllis is currently engaged in a lot of reading of books on polar bears and as a result of that we have changed our policy for north Labrador and Baffin to simply not going ashore. The reasons are complex and I think Phyllis will be posting on them at some time in the future.

Todd

Hi John,

These are interesting topics.

The .338 us certainly up to the task. It remains a difficult task to drop large moving animals with a standing shot. Might think about a shooting stick. It adds another element of complexity, but for sure shooting I prefer it to standing, certainly under pressure. Not sure I am as optimistic about the 50/50 in a real confrontation. I don’t ever like to be placed in a situation where I am in the open and not at the top of the local food chain.

If the bear goes into a charge it can easily achieve 25 mph. When something nasty and ravenously hungry is running at you at over 35 fps and you have a bolt action rifle, how many shots can you effectively manage?

I appreciate your policy abut not going ashore. Even in the open the bears are stealthy and can seem to appear out of nowhere. They would have to be in order to successfully hunt in a part of the world where visibility on land can be almost unlimited.

I agree with your observation about no recorded incidents of bears breaking into boats. Nevertheless, like Orangutans bears are much more powerful pound for pound than people and much more clever than they look. I could certainly see one smashing a coach roof on some boats and easily chewing/clawing through the heavy teak wood slats in my own companionway and making short work of larger deck hatches. 1,000 lbs. jumping up and down on something with purpose is a powerful force.

In northern Minnesota even small black bears can look into a parked car, recognize a cooler and smash the auto glass and get in and out with you lunch. It happens regularly this time of year. Try smashing a car window with your bare hand and tell me that is easy! There is power in those paws!

They can be so determined that I have even observed scars on the back of (live) narwhals caused by polar bears unsuccessful efforts to catch them in the water. Imagine a 1000 lb. bear going after a 20 ft long 3500 lb whale!! Hunger makes you brave!

Todd

Robert

Todd –

I agree dropping a 1,000+ pound charging animal whilst being scared out your wits is more difficult than it looks. I would argue that’s actually a huge understatement. I hope people don’t equate this to hunting.

I fear that people get complacent with their situational awareness because they have a firearm. It can lead to a false sense of security.

With regards to having a metal boat, I don’t think it matters. The Black Bears of Yosemite routinely open up cars. I can’t see a cruising boat presenting much of a challenge to any bear, let alone the arctic coastal variety, which are much bigger and quite a bit more ornery.

Robert

Todd

John, Robert,

As if on cue: Maine Lawyer mauled by Polar bear in Torngat.
The worst known case since the park opened in 2005. “A Parks Canada spokesman says the group was advised to hire an armed polar bear guard but decided against it.”

Todd

Corey W. Randell

I’ve sailed to Labrador in my wee Bayfield 29 and I agree fully! Once again I see Ottawa making arbitrary decisions on issues they don not understand. Have gun will travel, I would not go ashore without ample protection it just doesn’t make any sense. Even the black bears can be a concern. If you only have a flare gun to shoot I would suggest you shoot it straight up,..It may be helpful per attract in guiding the the authorities to the location of your scattered remains… R.I.P.

John Harries

Hi Corey,

I agree about flair guns. Not useful at all at least for polar bears. But to us the key take away is just to stay on the boat so shooting a bear never needs to happen. That was our strategy during our last Arctic cruise in 2011.