High-Arctic Adventure

A winning tale ofclose encounters and extreme conditions

FIRST PLACE: PAUL C. BUECHEL, NOLENSVILLE, TN

I surveyed the lunarlike surface around me as the sunset cast an eerie reddish glow on the ice pack. 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 and 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 planted firmly on the ground.

Earlier I had 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 yell 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 stall happened because the flaps froze in the severely cold weather. I couldn't argue with that; the air 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 nasty 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.

THE BEAR HIGHWAY

Our first night in spike 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 make sure 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 native hunters. A hunter always "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 people reportedly kill 20 to 30 bears in self-defense. In short, 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 long night, under a full moon. And there would be plenty of visitors to our camp.

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 at any moment as a bear entree.

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 door 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 I hadn't 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 ice pack, 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. It 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 quickly over the ice ridge. I immediately worked the bolt, and then tried in vain to locate him in my scope.

He wasn't discernible from all the 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 backside. 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 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 North Star so immediately overhead. As if on cue, the northern lights began to play in the sky, in pale pinks, greens and whites.

The three of us walked over the ice ridge, and there he was, barely discernible among the snowbanks. 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.

A PICTURE-PERFECT MOMENT

I left my rifle at the tent and went afield to take pictures. I checked the blood trail again, and my bear's 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 to be a wolf or fox. Nanuq!

I was in snow to my knees and hampered by big pac boots. But even if I were able to, 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. If bears had found the carcass, we had to move out.

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 he was 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 knowledge, toughness and good fortune. Here, men 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.

A hunter always "watches his speech and thoughts about the great bear, lest its spirit hear him."

Wilson's Slough

SECOND PLACE: JERRY HANSON, BIG FORK, MN

The monster pike made a sharp turn and swam hard toward the boat, straining my 10-pound-test line. Dark water churned as the fish's tail broke the surface. Whirlpools followed as the tail slammed back into the water. My arms ached. I could feel the fish jerking, trying to free itself from the lure.

Pulling hard, I stopped the run and turned the fish. The pike surfaced, admitting defeat. I guided it into a net. After releasing it, I gazed across the lake and prepared to make another cast. The spinner hit the water.

I started my retrieve. The line went tight. Another trophy was hooked. And then I woke, sweating, thoughts racing, heart pounding and arms tense. A fishing dream should be a good dream, but not this one. It wasn't just a dream, though. These thoughts were the memories of a trip to Alaska. Sure, the fishing had been spectacular, but the experience was marred by the wilderness paranoia that beset two members of our group.

In 1972, assignment orders sent me to a radar site in the Alaskan wilderness. I was a young airman and looked forward to the fishing opportunities at my remote home. On base I asked around for some local advice and everyone agreed that I should talk to Sally.

Sally was a hermit. She lived in an isolated cabin 12 miles from my radar office. Even for guys at the edge of civilization, Sally was rough looking. She wore a greasy black snowmobile suit that matched her dark hair. All but five teeth were missing from her grin and her skin resembled a well-worn leather coat. Locals claimed she took two baths a year: one after ice-out and one prior to the fall freeze.

I wasn't there to judge hygiene, though. I wanted to find record-breaking pike, and this woman, according to everyone I asked, knew exactly where to go. Her cabin, which stood in a small forest opening, was adorned with miner's lanterns and a potbelly stove. That was all she needed.

When I approached her, she said in a soft voice, "Yes, Sally knows where the fish are." Not the most charming person, but I believed her. After a short conversation she agreed to be my guide.

At the base my enthusiasm was hard to hide. Two civilians, Peewee and Jim, asked to come along, too. Why not, I thought? But their hidden instabilities would, in fact, push our fishing party to the brink....

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One Night inDixie

THIRD PLACE: ANTHONY ISOM, GALAX, VA

Our boots slid through the mud as we struggled to climb up the embankment. The beams of our flashlights danced across the mountainous terrain. My friend Eric's voice echoed off the ridge above us through the night air. He called to his lost dog, Lady, but there was no response. It was late, and we were deep in the wilderness of western Virginia.

Lady had been hot on the trail of a raccoon. We chased her howls and moans through the bottoms, trying to keep up. Eventually her sounds faded into the distance. The search for this lost hound seemed futile, but it's hard for a man to leave his dog behind. Eric and I made it to the top of a craggy ridge, gasping for breath, muscles aching.

I looked down at my bloody, dirty arms. "I think we should go home," I told him. "Lady will show up and someone will call you."

For a moment he deliberated, then agreed. He surveyed our surroundings with his flashlight. A look of concern came over his face.

"Don't tell me you don't know where we are," I said.

"No, no," he said. "We need to go this way." He motioned us on. I could tell he was uncertain.

We trudged on through the muddy briar-covered bottoms and over steep rocky ridges. Fifteen minutes passed, then thirty, then an hour. My throat was parched and my limbs ached. Each time Eric spoke, the panic in his voice increased. It was near midnight. I could only imagine the verbal thrashing my parents would give me when I showed up several hours late. And then it hit me--I might not make it home.

The two of us stopped to rest. In the distance we could hear Lady's faint cry. We jumped to our feet and set off toward the sound. The sound grew nearer and nearer, and then a glimmer of light appeared in the dark. The light belonged to the old Carico bridge, a looming, rusted steel bridge spanning the New River about 10 miles from nowhere.

Again the dog howled, her voice echoing in the distance past the bridge. I couldn't believe it. In one chase we had covered six miles.

"At least we know where we are now," I said to Eric. Just as I thought about the change in fortune and the chance to go home, the first drop of cold rain hit my arm....

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