Chapter 116: The day I met a polar bear

I spent the summer of ’94 living in Nome, Alaska while my dad did contract work for the military, cleaning up old World War II installations that were left behind to rust. One bright summer day I was standing in a local gift shop, buying my weekly dose of ice cream when my mom came over to me and said:

“Sam, the teller just told me that a polar bear is on the east side of town!! We have to call your dad!”

My mom is terrified of bears, and although our house was on the other side of Nome, in a town of only 3500 people no one is that far from anyone else. We hurried back to our apartment with my two younger brothers and called my dad, who was working at the high school 10 minutes away. Being the man that he is, he promptly rushed back to pick us up and go check it out.

Conservatively, half the town had left their houses to see the bear. Polar bears rarely stroll down into the area around Nome during the summer; the main type of bears you’d see would be little grizzlies munching on blue berries.

After driving the 2 miles from our house, we pulled up to a mass of cars and climbed onto the roof. We were several hundred feet away from the bear, which was then sitting docile on its rear looking shiftily at the crowd. Off in the ocean a lone fishing boat floated its way closer to the shore for a better look.

This wasn’t a little grizzly. This was a full blown “mess with me and I’ll fuck you up” polar bear. Before anyone had come he had found a dead seal on the beach and was munching on it. The road ran perpendicular to the beach, leaving about 1/8 of a mile between shore and roadside. Locals lined the pavement, parked in trucks and anything they could get their hands on, standing on the roofs so they could get a better view.

In retrospect, I don’t know what people thought would happen. Take a hungry wild animal, the top of its food chain and surround him with people leaving no access for escape. What were we waiting for? Did he need to do a little dance and then we’d go home? Something had to happen; all the people were entranced, including me.

Luckily someone took it upon himself to solve us of our problems and cause all new ones. An Eskimo boy of no more than 7 picked up a small rock, and with a surprisingly good effort, threw it as hard as he could at the bear. No one likes having things thrown at them, so although he didn’t hit anything but sand, the bear made a growling bark and reared up on its hind legs, promptly scaring the living shit out of everyone who was standing on their roofs.

The bear then started to charge right towards our car. My dad grabbed me and my brother and dragged us inside. I turned around just in time in the chaos of people rushing for their vehicles and doors slamming to see a lone Eskimo raise a rifle, and gracefully shoot the polar bear 3 times in the side. The bear didn’t break stride after the first shot, stopped after the second, and fell on the third.

Each shot looked like a red paintball had struck, leaving a little bit of paint that just continued to spew. The huge beast, more yellow than white from the dirtiness of living on land, slowly stopped moving, and its coat turned pinkish red. We didn’t stick around.

The Eskimo who shot it got to keep the coat, much to the uproar of the non-native population of Nome. The bear had been in the area for a week, but the authorities didn’t tell anyone because “they didn’t want a panic or an incident.” No mention was made of the little boy in the papers, it appears only a select few saw him throw the rock.

Memory is a funny thing. I might not remember what I had for lunch a week ago, but I’ll never forget those 5 seconds; a moment that began with a rock and ended with a bullet.

One Reply to “Chapter 116: The day I met a polar bear”

  1. The experience was a tragic event and a traumatic one for the family.

    One minute it was a wonder of a large powerful animal. The next minute it was death and tears. While we were part of the problem, the death of this bear was inevitable once it missed the ice and started foraging around the perimeter of town.

    Polar bears go north with the ice in the summer. Those that are left behind have trouble surviving away from their typical food of seals. This one was old and in trouble. Polar bears do not hunt well from land and are sea and ice based creatures.

    The bear carcass was taken to the Inuit Elders group at the Bearing Straits Native Center in Nome, where they used the bear to make traditional crafts. Inuits are allowed to hunt traditional prey, and polar bear trousers are the ultimate in winter gear. The polar bear is unique in that it often is hunting you while you are hunting it.

    The polar bear was attracted to Nome in part due to the gold panning miner camps up and down the beach where miners camp for the summer and pan gold. The bear was also attracted by the smell of food, including the food represented by the many dog teams tied up around the perimeter of the town.

    While we lived in Nome, a camp cook was killed by a polar bear about 150 miles north of town. The cook was washing dished in the hard shelled cabin kitchen with the typical windows over the sink. The polar bear popped the window out, grabbed the cook and ran off with him. They cut his remains out of the bear a few days later.

    While living in Nome, we took guns on family outings.

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