The bear in the ice hole
by Knud Rasmussen
I have been asked to tell about the most exciting moment in my life and I shall try to do so, while admitting that there are plenty of elementary dangers to choose among.
I have fought starvation and been within an ace of perishing.
I have raced against drifting ice and reached land at the moment when everything behind me became a black, raging sea.
I have lost my way in a snowstorm, which so overwhelmed me with cold and exhaustion that I was very near to losing my will to live.
And on a dark winter’s night, half-naked and unarmed, I have fought a bitter and dramatic fight with an Eskimo who would have stuck me down with a knife.
But are not all these adventures common in the life of travelers?
No: if I am to tell about the strangest of all my adventures I have not the slightest hesitation in choosing a small episode from a hunt, when rapid and unforeseen events took such a course that I was to struggle for my life together with a polar bear.
It took place in Melville Bay on a journey with the polar Eskimo Qolutanguaq, a celebrated great hunter from Cape York.
It was in the polar night; a week's gale had kept us inactive in a snow hut, and when at length the wind dropped we had used up our food supplies. We were a long way from people, the only game there could be any question of hunting at that time of year was bear, and we each had a team of dogs to procure food for as rapidly as possible.
We started at dawn after having eaten our last meal. Our sledges were empty, and the same would soon be true of our stomachs. No wonder that we set off with every wish for a good hunt.
The storm had given the dogs a good rest and they took to the ice at a bound. With their tails raised like flying banners they dashed off with an energy which showed that their instinct told them this was no ordinary day of toil and labour but a hunt for food. They sniffed the air; their ears quivered as they strained them; and each time a breeze filled their nostrils with the smell of flesh from a seal's blow-hole they quickened their pace still further.
We were already a long way from our camping place without having seen a single fresh track. The daylight was giving way to dusk, and we were beginning to fear that the night would find us empty-handed. But close to a bank of pack ice the dogs suddenly gave such a tug at the traces that we toppled over backwards on the sledges. A strong, warm scent had crossed out path, and from now on the pace was so furious that the sledge often shot forward with one runner suspended in mid-air, just like a ship with one rail pressed down into the sea during a storm.
Both our teams consisted of trained bear dogs. They kept close alongside each other; it was a race, and we knew that only a bear could excite them like this. It was not long before we drove into fresh tracks: large, deep impressions in the soft snow. But the bear had already heard us; the tracks showed in long bounds the flight that had taken it in the direction of some icebergs which lay a couple of miles to the east of us, not far from the ice-caps.
When possible, hunted bears always seek safety at the top of a steep iceberg, where the dogs cannot follow them. Even though the iceberg has vertical, slippery surfaces, bears can get a hold with their sharp claws. I have only once seen a bear lose its footing, near the top; in falling it broke a hind thigh, and yet was able to smash a hole in the ice and seek refuge under the iceberg.
It was essential that we should catch up with the bear as quickly as possible, while it was still on the level field ice.
At the moment of reaching the tracks the dogs paused and, trembling in every limb, sucked in the smell of the prey as if to determine which side to run. Their red tongues protruded from their foaming jaws, and their nostrils were wide open to the wind. Now Qolutanguaq's dogs lost their heads from sheer excitement; they were flurried, and before he could prevent it they were following the track in the wrong direction.
Hungry dogs become wild beasts at the moment they smell bear. The old wolf instinct wakens in them; they throw off all discipline and no longer hear their drivers' shouts. So here: all twelve dogs flung themselves into the nearest ice packs, and soon they lay in one large heaving mass, kicking out in confusion, the traces hopelessly entangled in the clumps of ice.
I was malicious enough to laugh at this accident; for I was now sure of so much lead that this bear hunt could be all mine. And that was just what I wanted. All hunters are children in the sight of big game, and every bear hunt is a challenge between drivers. The aim is to be the first on the trail and the first to shoot. And now this was to be my bear. I whistled my bear's signal through my teeth, and the sledge was slung right into the air as twelve hungry and desperate dogs gave chase to their old mortal foe.
A fleeing bear tried to put as many obstacles as possible in the way of its pursuers. For choice it makes for the edge of the ice, where it flings itself into the water with the agility of a marine animal returning to its elements. But if this is too far it may be content with impassable pack ice, where sledge and dogs will stick fast. Fortunately, however, the dogs are faster and more agile, and what is even more important - have more stamina. And so as a rule it is overtaken.
The first thing I had to do now was to loose four of my best dogs. And that was not easy at the whirling speed I was now making over the rough ice. I had my work cut out to ensure that I was not flung off the sledge. While having nothing to hold on to, I grasped the front leash which gathered the traces of all the dogs in a large knot of infiltrated reins and began to haul in the team, which was now running at a speed of some twenty miles an hour. I had my knife crosswise in my mouth, and as soon as I could reach the dog I wanted to release, I let go the traces with my right hand, snatched the knife from my mouth, and cut the trace. The released dog at once flew ahead, a bunch of liberated muscles visible for only a few short minutes before disappearing, whirled away by its own passion.
I imagine that the most thrilling situation in the life of any bear hunter is when he balances right out on the ends of the sledge crossbars, holding all his wild leaders in his left hand while with his right he swiftly cuts the traces. If you are thrown off you cannot help but fall in front of the sharp runners, and no shouting the world can stop dogs that have smelt bear.
One, two, three, four quick slashes and the knife was back in my mouth again as with both hands I once more let out the traces to their full length. The best dogs were now the advance pursuers, and even though they would not be able to stop an old bear entirely they would delay it enough for the rest of us to overtake it soon.
Bear dogs have their own tactics; they bury their teeth in Bruin's hindquarters. This may not hurt very much, but the bear finds the joke undignified, and sitting down on the part attacked whisks the impudent insulters off with his broad forepaws. Meanwhile the hunter gets nearer.
The great moment in all this breakneck hunt had come when I had the bear in sight: a great yellow body dancing round in the white snow, the dogs swarming about it as if they had wings, and so aggressively that the bear could only make its way very slowly, with frequent stops, to the icebergs which we had now reached. For the last time I hauled in the front rein, and a single slash of my knife at the bunched traces let all the dogs loose. They were off in a pack, the sledge still speeding over the ice. I grasped my rifle and followed after.
It was necessary to fire at very close quarters so as not to hit one of the dogs. They had now quite surrounded the bear, and it may then occur that a bullet goes right through the bear and gets a dog into the bargain. The shot must be fatal; for as soon as the hunter appears, the bear knows that he and not the dogs is its true foe. Unless it is killed with one shot it will fling the dogs aside and attack.
It was a young male, a regal wanderer of the wastes, resplendent in a long-haired, yellowish coat which sparkled in its fresh-grown glory - a combat-trained, full-size giant come from the open sea of Baffin Bay, still with white, jingling icicles on the fine, waving belly hair. It was now on its way inland to hunt the fat fjord seals which inhabited the crevices opposite the great glaciers.
It was a handsome prey.
I was barely six yards from it when it observed me. Warm, steaming bodies flew about among one another, and I heard the rapid, puffing sound of working lungs. Vicious yelps accompanied each attack and were answered with a deep, rolling snarl. Twelve dogs were settling accounts with a mortal enemy. The scene was wild and magnificent.
At the moment of observing me the bear shook off the dogs and rose on its hind legs, even greater and handsomer than before as it stood there at its full height and stared at me. It remained standing for a few seconds until it had gathered all its breath, then it made a gigantic leap high above the dogs and dropped down on the ice with all the weight of its body and all the strength of its tensed forepaws.
It performed all the favorite maneuvers of bears when they are on new ice. It wanted to break a hole, where it would be rid of me and rid of the dogs; for it knew that we had to keep to the firm foothold of the ice, while it had all the advantages of the water.
I fully realized what the bear was after; from former hunts I was so accustomed to the trick that I only enjoyed the beauty of this display of strength without heeding what would happen later. I knew that it would dive under the water like a seal and go well in below the ice to cool off; but it would not be long before it came back to breathe, and then would be the time for me to fire.
This time, however, everything was to take an entirely different course. The ice was thinner than I had thought, and a very strong current flowed here between the icebergs. The instant the bear smashed the ice beneath it it sent cracks in all directions, and before I could jump aside I was up to my neck in water.
In my first excitement I completely forgot the bear. My only thought was to get out again. With my rifle in my left hand, raised high above my head, I worked my way to the edge of the ice and tried to climb up. But the new ice was now wet and slippery and there was nothing I could hold on to; each time I got my chest thrust up above the edge of the ice broke under me.
I was wearing the usual winter dress of polar Eskimos: long boots and trousers of bearskin and a fur coat of reindeer skin; no sooner had the heavy, long-haired skins become soaked than I had difficulty in holding my head above water. At the same time the strong current pressed me more and more under the ice.
To free both arms, so that I could manage to swim, I tried to throw my rifle across the ice; but my fingers were already so numb that the gun slipped from my hands and went to the bottom. For the first time my thoughts now turned to the bear, which was swimming about in the same confined pool as I was.
I was quite helpless, and all that I could do was to keep as far away from it as possible. To my relief I soon discovered that it was as afraid of me as I was of it. We were both caught in the same hole; the only difference between us was that the dogs had gathered in a knot around it but left me in peace.
Now that I had both hands free I again tried to clamber out, but with the only result that I broke off more ice and exhausted myself. At every movement I made I kept a close eye on the bear; I honestly admit that I was in mortal fear, expecting every minute that it would fly at me. It did not look pleasant, either; for each time I moved it ground its teeth and snarled, just as if it expected that I would attack it.
My excitement did not last long, however; the cold water soon cooled my blood and a singular calm came over me. And without really being able to explain myself why, I began attentively to study my strange companion. In spite of the dangerous position I was in, I conceived a lively interest in it, and my brain worked quickly and soberly.
I, who had been accustomed only to kill, had never before known that a bear's eyes could be so expressive. At first I saw only fear and anger in them, but as it gradually accustomed itself to me in the same way as I had accustomed myself to it it stopped showing its teeth. I now regarded it even more attentively than before. And it struck me that I no longer looked upon it as a piece of big game to be killed, but as a thinking and intelligent creature that was in the same distress as I was. It was almost as if I could see its thoughts take shape. With its eyes alternately on the dogs and on me, it seemed to be wondering why I too had jumped into the water. It knew now that I meant it no harm. But what then? Possibly I too had taken to the ice hole in order to avoid the dogs? Itself, it could heave out of the water at a bound and throw itself well across the ice, if only it dared to do so for all the baying beasts that wanted to tear at its skin with their sharp teeth. And if I did not do so, was it not because we were both fighting the same fight against the same foes, the dogs?
Having got so far in my thought-reading, I almost had the feeling that the bear understood me and felt with me. But I went even further in my inferences. I saw that the bear noticed that while the dogs incessantly pestered it and snapped after its snout as often as they could get near enough, they kept away from me, exactly as if they were afraid of me. Could it be that I, more than it, was master of the situation; that I was stronger, more dangerous?
It now turned its head quite calmly towards me, and I could not help noticing that its expression was friendly. And to my great amazement it began quite slowly to work its way towards me in order to seek protection.
It was only a couple of yards from me; but though to some extent I felt safe from it, I suddenly became anxious again. The constant attacks of the dogs might so far unbalance it that it might vent a fit of rage on me. Acting on a sudden impulse, therefore, I shouted at the top of my lungs to the dogs, ordering them to back. The hunt had now lasted so long they could once more sense that I had power over them; and though it took some time, they obeyed. Snarling with disappointment they drew further back on the ice and stood still at some distance.
For the first time since the hunt had begun, the bear was left to itself; and now something happened which I shall never forget. It understood that I had frightened its attackers away, and it turned its head toward me; this time I could not be mistaken: there was a look of gratitude in its eyes. It was the same expression I had so often seen in my dogs when I patted them or did something else which made them pleased.
It is not easy to describe the facial expression of a beast of prey, but nobody who is used to the company of animals will doubt that even wild creatures can show gratitude. This bear, which could have killed me, not only spared my life but approached me in the cold ice hole as a friend who helped it. It is no uncommon thing that men who fight a desperate struggle for their lives are filled in their impotence with good intentions and make promises they say they will keep if they are saved from death. That was what happened to me. I promised that if I escaped from this adventure with my life I would do all that was in my power to save the bear's life. With my teeth chattering with cold, I promised myself that neither I nor anyone else should kill that bear; if it was left to me, it should be allowed to return to the great hunting grounds it had come from.
___ ___ ___
I had scarcely been in the water more than ten minutes; but it was ten degrees below zero and every minute seemed an eternity. I could not keep up very much longer, and if help did not come soon my arms would weaken and I would skip down under the ice.
I had almost given up hope when Qolutanguaq suddenly appeared from the pack ice a few hundred yards away. No sooner had he seen me almost shoulder to shoulder with the big bear, with the dogs at a distance, seemingly uninterested in the game, than he got so furious he emitted a loud roar, jumped off his sledge, and doubled his speed. I knew that I was saved. In a minute or two I should be out of the hole. Now was the time to think of my promise, and gathering all my strength I shouted to Qolutanguaq: "Don't shoot the bear - don't shoot the bear!"
My teeth were chattering to such an extent that the shout became an inarticulate yell. I had to repeat my words several times before he understood them. At first he was dumbfounded. He thought I had gone mad; but at length he seemed to guess my meaning and shouted back:
"No, of course - I'm going to help you first".
So saying, he let loose all his dogs, and while they rushed to the edge of the ice in order to fall on the bear, he seized a long harpoon line he had on the sledge, extended it with a whip, and threw it out to me; the line reached me and I grasped it. I turned away from the edge of the ice and hung on to it with the back of my neck, and thus having both hands free I tied the line round my waist. It was then only a matter of a moment before Qolutanguaq had hauled me up.
The last I saw of the bear was a bound which it made across the ice in order to keep the new enemy at a distance. But the dogs stopped it and it slipped back into the hole.
Scarcely was I out of the water before the cold hit me with such violence that I lost consciousness. I tried to speak, but the words died away on my lips in a whisper: "Don't shoot - don't shoot -" And then all around me was black.
When I came to again my wet clothes lay frozen stiff on the ice beside me; I myself lay naked, but warm and full of life in my sleeping-bag. The Eskimo stood smiling in front of me with a steaming cup of tea which he held to me lips.
My first thought was for the bear.
"But the bear - where's the bear?"
The Eskimo laughed heartily, tickled at the thought that the slayer of a bear is not always the man who is first on its tracks and the first to catch up with it.
"Never mind the bear", he teased, "I've already skinned it."
Courtesy of: Royal Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1962)