Tundra Terror

When polar bears stalk a tiny outpost in arctic alaska, the workmen become the bait.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

November 24, 1993 -- "You fellows stay alert." The security guard's words hung as a coda to the grim report that had just been delivered to the tiny population of Oliktok Point radar site: Two polar bears were definitely roaming nearby, and a third had been seen in the vicinity earlier. It seemed the bears were drawn to the tiny outpost near the Beaufort Sea in northernmost Alaska by butchered bowhead whale meat that Inupiat Indians had stored near their fishing cabins, a mere 300 yards away. Under ideal conditions, polar bears are able to smell food from 20 miles. With the bears already in the neighborhood, it was only a matter of time before they investigated cooking odors and garbage coming from the radar site as well.

Oliktok Point once housed dozens of military personnel as a link in the "DEW line," the United States' highly secret Distant Early Warning defense network guarding against over-the-pole attack from the Soviet Union. But with the thawing of the Cold War, the site crew was gradually pared down to a civilian staff of six, and security patrols had been eliminated. Which is why sympathetic ARCO security guards from the nearby Kuparuk oil field frequently shared what they knew with Oliktok personnel.

Alex Polakoff, 53, a hunter and 13-year veteran of the DEW line sites but a recent arrival at Oliktok, took bears very seriously. He had heard the horror stories. In 1985, a polar bear stuck its head through the kitchen window and had to be beaten back with a pool cue and iron skillet. Another time, a driver delivering water from Prudhoe Bay was chased up a 20-foot fuel tank ladder by a bear that surprised him from behind his truck. A site worker ran it off with a bulldozer. The next bear in camp was a grizzly. Back in 1990, near Point Lay radar site over on the Arctic Ocean, an Inupiat couple were confronted by an emaciated polar bear as they walked down a dark street. To secure his pregnant girlfriend's escape, the courageous 28-year-old man faced down the bear with his pocketknife. Fifty pounds of his body were eaten.

Polakoff's fellow Oliktok crew member, mechanic Don Chaffin, 55, was less concerned, almost cavalier, about polar bears. On one occasion Polakoff complained that the site's Chevy Suburban ought to be plugged into the living quarters building to keep the engine from freezing, arguing that he shouldn't have to risk a 200-yard walk in the dark to the garage every time he was required to go to the air strip in the middle of the night. Chaffin chided him. "Alex is afraid the polar bears will get him." True. Polakoff had also been frustrated by what he considered the lack of concern exhibited by both the Air Force, which owned the site, and Martin Marietta Services, which had contracted to run it.

Oliktok was built in the 1950s by sledding 20-by-20-foot insulated aluminum modules into place, raising them onto pilings and joining them end to end. The site was composed of a "train" of these modules 300 feet long in which six men lived and worked. Despite the fact that a leaping polar bear can reach as high as 16 feet, the windowsills built five feet off the floor would serve as "bear-proofing." The six-foot pilings would raise the total height of the windows to 10 or 11 feet above ground level. However, this safety cushion was compromised by road gravel and snowdrifts that had accumulated beside the building. And recent tracks under and along the building indicated that a bear had been looking in the outpost windows -- windows that were snap-in, double-pane and without security bars.

But what clinched the employee's status as bear bait in Polakoff's mind was the firearms rule. Each man could have a rifle, a shotgun and a pistol for hunting and hiking, but they were kept in a locked gun case and signed out as needed. The gun safe was mounted six inches off the floor between some lockers, its lock mounted so low it could be reached only by kneeling. "Myoom is 30 feet down the hall from the incinerator room (where a snow shovel propped against a broken outside door was all that kept it shut)," says Polakoff. "The inside doors couldn't stop a bear, either. Any hunter knows you're lucky to survive against a bear when you already have a gun in your hands."

On November 26, a Nuiqsut villager killed one of the three bears that had been reported by the ARCO guard, and the sense of vigilance intensified around the compound. Within the next few days, biologist Richard Shideler was even invited to Oliktok to suggest means to better bear-proof the site. His recommendations: increased outdoor lighting; doors that opened outward and closed against strong inside metal frames; bars over the windows; the removal of road material close to buildings; an end to storing garbage cans on the porch; chain link skirting to prevent bears from hiding under buildings; perhaps even substantial iron cages surrounding outside doors so personnel could appraise the situation in safety before leaving. No immediate actions were taken.

At 8:30 p.m. on the night of November 30, just hours after Shideler left, Don Chaffin and support services worker Gary Signs, 38, were sitting on stools at the bar in the day room. Chaffin was hunched over a crossword puzzle, his back to the window. On the bar's opposite side, Signs was working on a report when his peripheral vision caught a movement at the window. Polar bear!

Chaffin looked up, saw Signs staring past him and swiveled toward the window. Signs says Chaffin slapped his magazine at the window to frighten off the bear. Chaffin recalls no such action. "Get out of here!" Signs yelled as he raced to the fire door leading to an adjacent room. The bear's head dropped below the three-foot-wide window frame as Chaffin stumbled over a stool while trying to escape from behind the bar. Signs pulled the magnetic latch, stepped inside the doorway and held the door to their escapeway for Chaffin. After regaining his balance, Chaffin sidestepped the stool and was rounding the bar when he heard glass explode. He looked back and yelled, "Oh, no!"

Like smashing ice to get at a seal, the polar bear leaped through the shattered window in a shower of glass, taking the frame with it. The giant animal landed beside Chaffin and reared up in his terrified face. Chaffin, still several feet from Signs in the doorway, grabbed the bear's muzzle in a attempt to protect himself. But the bear, standing a full foot taller than Chaffin's six feet, stretched its head and neck forward and sunk its teeth into Chaffin's jaw. With almost surperhuman effort, the man pushed against the bear's black nose and tore himself free for an instant, only to have his hand and arm severely bitten. As if experimenting with how best to kill its unusual prey, the bear began swatting its victim.

A terrible realization came to Signs as he watched this bloody encounter. The gun safe was in the next room, but the key was in an office 200 feet away in the opposite direction! Signs would have to scramble around the bear to get to it, and even if he made it, there was a good chance that Chaffin would already be dead by the time he got back." Signs must have thought, "Should I close the door and sacrifice him to save myself and the other four?"

The bear solved this dilemma by batting Chaffin's 240-pound body through the doorway. Signs bolted for the opposite door, found a phone, dialed the public address system and screamed, "Bear in building!" With nothing else at hand, he grabbed a fire extinguisher and rushed back to Chaffin. The bear was on top of his coworker now, biting at the back of his head.

Chaffin could feel fangs grating on his skull. He saw flashes of lightening and felt a neck vertebrae snap. He thought blood filling the right eye was blinding him, but in fact the eyeball was now resting on his cheek. He could only weakly cry, "Help me."

Signs aimed the extinguisher's nozzle at the polar bear's face. A weak stream of water arced into the bear's face. The bear raised its head and looked at Signs quizzically, then merely resumed its grim work on Chaffin.

Mechanic Joe Peterson, 37, hadn't been able to make out the loud message over the public address system, but he heard a commotion and came running to investigate. Grabbing the extinguisher from Signs, he shouted, "Get the gun case key!" Not a chance, thought Signs. The bear was now 10 feet from the gun cabinet. Even if he already had the key it would be sure suicide to kneel that close to the bear while fiddling with the lock. Right now he had to find something more persuasive than a dribbling fire extinguisher. Signs ran to the hall and grabbed another extinguisher, this time a Halon model that would suck oxygen from the air and produce a hopefully distracting woosh.

He came back into the gun safe room just in time to see Peterson throw the empty extinguisher at the bear. Signs handed the second extinguisher to Peterson and was running for a third when Alex Polakoff arrived on the scene and was able to make out white fur through the thick haze of halon fog.

Polakoff's hair stood on end and his strong fear of bears put him in a primal "fight or flight" mode. He raced back to his room and grabbed his fully loaded Mossberg 500. He had brought the gun from his previous work site intending to put it in the gun cabinet, but put it off when he saw the unsafe conditions at Oliktok.

When Polakoff returned. he saw the bear jumping up and down on Chaffin. He approached to within seven feet, squatted so that the slug's upward trajectory would be safely away from his unfortunate coworker and fired into the bear's chest.

No visible reaction.

Polakoff fired a second slug into the animal's broad chest. The bear arose from Chaffin in slow motion and walked through a door into a small library room. Polakoff stepped to his left and fired two more slugs he hoped would find the bear's chest. Of the four 1 1/4-ounce slugs from the three-inch 12-gauge magnum, one found the polar bear's heart. The animal dropped dead.

Signs and Peterson got the key, retrieved their rifles and hurried out to search for any other of the three bears that had been sighted. Polakoff was left behind to make Chaffin comfortable and try to keep him talking so that he wouldn't go into shock. "I'm cold," the badly mauled man mumbled, choking on his blood. Polakoff covered him with a blanket, slid a pillow under his head and jammed an upholstered chair into the shattered window in an attempt to block the wind current carrying minus 20- to 30-degree temperatures. He had already called the ARCO oil site for an ambulance.

In the confusion, the paramedics thought the message was for them to, "Help me."

Signs aimed the extinguisher's nozzle at the polar bear's face. A weak stream of water arced into the bear's face. The bear raised its head and looked at Signs quizzically, then merely resumed its grim work on Chaffin.

Mechanic Joe Peterson, 37, hadn't been able to make out the loud message over the public address system, but he heard a commotion and came running to investigate. Grabbing the extinguisher from Signs, he shouted, "Get the gun case key!" Not a chance, thought Signs. The bear was now 10 feet from the gun cabinet. Even if he already had the key it would be sure suicide to kneel that close to the bear while fiddling with the lock. Right now he had to find something more persuasive than a dribbling fire extinguisher. Signs ran to the hall and grabbed another extinguisher, this time a Halon model that would suck oxygen from the air and produce a hopefully distracting woosh.

He came back into the gun safe room just in time to see Peterson throw the empty extinguisher at the bear. Signs handed the second extinguisher to Peterson and was running for a third when Alex Polakoff arrived on the scene and was able to make out white fur through the thick haze of halon fog.

Polakoff's hair stood on end and his strong fear of bears put him in a primal "fight or flight" mode. He raced back to his room and grabbed his fully loaded Mossberg 500. He had brought the gun from his previous work site intending to put it in the gun cabinet, but put it off when he saw the unsafe conditions at Oliktok.

When Polakoff returned. he saw the bear jumping up and down on Chaffin. He approached to within seven feet, squatted so that the slug's upward trajectory would be safely away from his unfortunate coworker and fired into the bear's chest.

No visible reaction.

Polakoff fired a second slug into the animal's broad chest. The bear arose from Chaffin in slow motion and walked through a door into a small library room. Polakoff stepped to his left and fired two more slugs he hoped would find the bear's chest. Of the four 1 1/4-ounce slugs from the three-inch 12-gauge magnum, one found the polar bear's heart. The animal dropped dead.

Signs and Peterson got the key, retrieved their rifles and hurried out to search for any other of the three bears that had been sighted. Polakoff was left behind to make Chaffin comfortable and try to keep him talking so that he wouldn't go into shock. "I'm cold," the badly mauled man mumbled, choking on his blood. Polakoff covered him with a blanket, slid a pillow under his head and jammed an upholstered chair into the shattered window in an attempt to block the wind current carrying minus 20- to 30-degree temperatures. He had already called the ARCO oil site for an ambulance.

In the confusion, the paramedics thought the message was for them to