Ultimate Adventure Contest Winner

Over 300 readers sent OL their stories for our writing contest and this tale, "High-Arctic Adventure", of a polar bear hunt on the ice packs took top honors. Plus, a photo gallery from the hunt, and the second and third place stories.

Feasting

Feasting

The polar bear continues to eat another bear's remains without noticing the author.Outdoor Life Online Editor

I surveyed the lunarlike surface around me as the sunset cast an eerie reddish glow on the icepack. The thermometer read minus 40, and the GPS put us just west of the magnetic north pole. This desolate strip of land was void of everything: no birds, no animals, no noise save for the drone of the arctic wind. By all accounts, it was miserable. Yet I couldn't be happier to have my feet on the ground.

Earlier I set out in a bush plane from the Baillie Islands on the edge of the Beaufort Sea with my outfitter James Pokiak, his son Jacob, three dogs, sleds, gear and a pilot. We were heading farther north to hunt Nanuq, the great polar bear. The bear, it turns out, will hunt man once it gets his scent. Another point to add to my list of concerns, which already included hypothermia, frostbite and ice shifts.

Once we had visual contact with our camp, the pilot made seven passes over the "landing strip" before asking encouragingly, "It looks solid, eh?" He attempted to land when suddenly the stall alarm sounded. The pilot let out an ear-piercing scream and pulled back hard to get the plane's nose up and away before restarting the engine.

The second try was uneventful. We landed, but we were shaken. Later the pilot said that the problem was that the flaps had frozen in the severely cold weather. I couldn't argue with that; it was frigid.

During his 50 years living in the Northwest Territories, James could not recall harsher conditions. I was told of two hunters who had been there in the past week. Both were flown out with severe weather injuries-one with a nose so black the doctor couldn't tell how much would need to be amputated and the other with severe frostbite of the neck and throat. This is my kind of luck. Whenever I travel to hunt, the weather is awful.

[pagebreak] The Bear Highway

Our first night in camp was tough. The tent stayed warm with a kerosene heater and propane stove. The inside temperature hovered near 20 degrees, which actually felt toasty. During the night, the dogs whined and fought as a strong wind whipped the side of the tent. Having drunk too many liquids before going to bed, I was forced to make several bathroom visits in the icy, dark air. Somehow, though, I managed to get a little sleep.

I got up early, to be certain my old Remington 375 H&H; was still on after the long journey. It fired accurately at six ice blocks of varying yardages. The fully degreased firing pin fell, and each round discharged immediately, unlike the gun belonging to a hunter I had spoken to the day I departed Tuk for the ice. His gun misfired with several-second delays on two of his three rounds...when he was shooting at a polar bear only 10 feet away. The big boar had been preparing for his evening meal, a sled dog. I did not want to be in that situation.

With the gun checked out, we moved camp eight miles offshore on the ice fields to what James called the "bear highway." Once there we saw several tracks, including those of an 8-foot boar and a sow with cubs. This would be the place to find Nanuq, James said.

In reading Inuit lore, I came across a passage describing the reverence and respect that is given to the polar bear by the hunter. A hunter "watches his speech and his thoughts about the great bear, lest its spirit hear him."

The polar bear is the only land-based carnivore that regularly stalks and kills man. Annually, the Inuit reportedly kill 20 to 30 bears in self-defense. In ort, they say that to Nanuq, anything that moves on the ice is meat.

That evening I didn't consciously think or speak adversely about Nanuq. But it didn't matter. This was to be a full-moon night of bear visitations.

[pagebreak] The Polar Express

I was told that bears often walk right into camp. One hunter shot his bruin at only a few yards when it was about to eat a sled dog chained in front of his tent. The bear had leisurely walked down the line of dogs, looking for his favorite. It's hard to get a good night's sleep when you're constantly worrying that you could wake up as a bear entrée.

At 10 p.m. the dogs began barking and growling at the darkness to the north of camp. James felt it was a bear, but this visitor ultimately remained bashful. We never got a look at it.

James thought the creature might well return later in the night to investigate further, once we quieted down. With that warning, I slept in fleece pants and wool shirt, and kept a hat and contact gloves at my side and an extra five rounds in my pocket.

I was abruptly awakened from a very sound sleep at 2 a.m., by the dogs barking wildly. James looked out of the tent and said, "Bear! And he's a shooter!"

I threw on my hat and gloves, making for my gun, just outside the door. I had prepared for such a nocturnal bear encounter, so although not having been awake for more than 15 seconds, I was ready. I reached for my boots, but James stopped me.

"No! There's no time! He's moving out!" James yelled.

So I stepped out onto the Arctic icepack, with only thin Thermax liner socks between it and my feet. I knelt and pulled my gun from its case. The 375 fit naturally into my shoulder notch as I found the bear in the crosshairs. He was standing broadside at 40 yards. I don't recall the mental focus, holding my breath or the trigger squeeze, but I had practiced this scenario extensively. The action was a thoughtless reflex.

At the shot, I heard a loud "thump" in an otherwise silent Arctic night. The 300-grain bullet hit perfectly. I heard the great bear grunt loudly. His hind legs collapsed, putting him on his haunches, but only for an instant. He was up and moving over the ice ridge. I immediately worked the bolt, and then in vain tried to locate him in my scope.

He wasn't discernable from all the other big, white snowdrifts and ice blocks out there in the darkness. I knew he was topping the ridge and going down the other side. I shot a desperation round at what looked most likely to be his back side. The shot was a hope and a prayer, attempting to anchor him, or at least slow him down. The round didn't connect.

And then all was silent again, except for us. James and his son Jacob cheered loudly. James said he saw blood behind the shoulder, but the two wanted to wait 15 minutes before tracking the brute.

I reloaded, donned my parka and boots and walked to where the bear had been hit. Surprisingly, I saw no blood, and following his tracks to the ice ridge I found only a small peppering of blood on the snow. I stood in the light of the Arctic moon, which was up 24 hours a day this time of year. I had never before seen the northern star so immediately overhead. The northern lights, as if on cue, began to play, in pale pinks, greens and whites.

The three of us walked over the ice ridge, and there he was, barely discernible among the snow banks. The bear had gone about 50 yards. He was even bigger than we'd thought, over 9-feet square and roughly 1,600 pounds.

James and Jacob masterfully skinned the bear in 50 minutes flat, despite the cold, windy darkness enveloping us. I carried the huge skull back to camp while they dragged the hide, which weighed 202 pounds on the air cargo station scale. My guides were back in the tent asleep at 5 a.m. I tried to sleep but simply couldn't.

[pagebreak] A Picture-Perfect Moment

I left my rifle at the tent and went afield to take pictures. I checked the blood trail again, and the carcass. Out beyond the carcass, I got a strange sensation, as if being watched. I looked behind me twice but saw nothing. Then suddenly, I caught a brief movement between two ice blocks. Something big was coming toward me, and quickly. It was too big for a wolf or fox. Nanuq!

I was in snow to my knees and hampered by big pac-boots. But even if I were able, I couldn't run without triggering the bear's chase instinct. I slowly started backing toward camp and my rifle, as the 8-foot boar barreled over the near ice ridge, stopping and scenting the air 50 yards from me now, and then came in closer, at a trot.

I intermittently threw up my arms, barked, stomped my feet, and yelled, "Hey bear!" I called to James and Jacob as loudly as I could, with no answer. The strong wind carried my voice the wrong way, as they slept uninterruptedly. Even the dogs, upwind from the bear, made no noise.

The bear continued to watch me as he advanced. He went right to the place where I had been standing, 10 yards to one side of the carcass, and sniffed my tracks. He paused and then went to the carcass, eating what he could.

James didn't believe me at first, but he did believe the pictures on my digital camera. He immediately packed up the camp. We had to move out, he said, if bears had found the carcass.

With the hunt completed, I thought the time for physical exertion had passed. But I was told we would take the snowmobiles back to Tuk, 258 miles away. The 16-hour trek was nearly impossible to survive. During a pit stop I saw that my facial gear had become one solid icicle. James said his knees were frozen, and stiff, and he badly blistered a hand on the machine's hand warmer, because his hands were too numb to feel the heat. My fingertips and the sole of my left foot were numb. The cold, combined with exhaustion, led me into a world of hallucinations.

Once darkness fell, I began seeing caribou, people, trees, bridges, tunnels, granite walls and more in the vast expanse of nothing. My mind was so fatigued it was making up sensory stimuli to fill the void. My exhausted psyche, the frigid biting wind and the blowing snow created a hazy dreamscape. By 8 a.m. we made it to the base camp. After a warm meal, I slept.

As I boarded the flight home, I said my goodbyes to the Arctic. This land requires toughness, knowledge and good fortune. Here, man and machines do not dominate. The world belongs to nature, with her powerful forces and her permanent residents-the wolf, the seal and the polar bear.ield to take pictures. I checked the blood trail again, and the carcass. Out beyond the carcass, I got a strange sensation, as if being watched. I looked behind me twice but saw nothing. Then suddenly, I caught a brief movement between two ice blocks. Something big was coming toward me, and quickly. It was too big for a wolf or fox. Nanuq!

I was in snow to my knees and hampered by big pac-boots. But even if I were able, I couldn't run without triggering the bear's chase instinct. I slowly started backing toward camp and my rifle, as the 8-foot boar barreled over the near ice ridge, stopping and scenting the air 50 yards from me now, and then came in closer, at a trot.

I intermittently threw up my arms, barked, stomped my feet, and yelled, "Hey bear!" I called to James and Jacob as loudly as I could, with no answer. The strong wind carried my voice the wrong way, as they slept uninterruptedly. Even the dogs, upwind from the bear, made no noise.

The bear continued to watch me as he advanced. He went right to the place where I had been standing, 10 yards to one side of the carcass, and sniffed my tracks. He paused and then went to the carcass, eating what he could.

James didn't believe me at first, but he did believe the pictures on my digital camera. He immediately packed up the camp. We had to move out, he said, if bears had found the carcass.

With the hunt completed, I thought the time for physical exertion had passed. But I was told we would take the snowmobiles back to Tuk, 258 miles away. The 16-hour trek was nearly impossible to survive. During a pit stop I saw that my facial gear had become one solid icicle. James said his knees were frozen, and stiff, and he badly blistered a hand on the machine's hand warmer, because his hands were too numb to feel the heat. My fingertips and the sole of my left foot were numb. The cold, combined with exhaustion, led me into a world of hallucinations.

Once darkness fell, I began seeing caribou, people, trees, bridges, tunnels, granite walls and more in the vast expanse of nothing. My mind was so fatigued it was making up sensory stimuli to fill the void. My exhausted psyche, the frigid biting wind and the blowing snow created a hazy dreamscape. By 8 a.m. we made it to the base camp. After a warm meal, I slept.

As I boarded the flight home, I said my goodbyes to the Arctic. This land requires toughness, knowledge and good fortune. Here, man and machines do not dominate. The world belongs to nature, with her powerful forces and her permanent residents-the wolf, the seal and the polar bear.