Before coming over to this side of the north, I spent close to a decade as a polar bear guide in Churchill, Manitoba and Hudson Bay, Saskatchewan, where there were lots of polar bears and a grizzly sighting every 10 years or so.
So, on my first trip to the west, I was obviously pretty excited about the possibility of a grizzly encounter. Well, excited and apprehensive. I still am, now that I think about it.
I was working up in Inuvik, so my first real taste of the Yukon was the Dempster in fall colours. It is one of those last gravel roads where every hill and corner gives you that brief and giddy feeling that you are the first person to explore these sweeping landscapes; a badge of honour that allows you to snobbishly recommend the trip to other savvy travellers.
In the fall, the light hangs low, waiting for the next batch of postcards and calendars. The Richardson Mountains run red with bearberry and caribou blood. And while any Dempster trip will churn up wildlife, be it a moose or bear or ptarmigan, the fall is more of a congregation than a glimpse.
North of the Arctic Circle, the traffic decidedly picked up on the Dempster. At first, I noticed a few more pickup trucks amidst the German-rented RVs and white-knuckle semi-trailer encounters. But soon, the road became a traffic jam of family trucks and ATV trailers parked along the side of the road.
The caribou hunt was on.
The herd had begun to move—some years they migrate right along the highway, others along the adjacent valleys, but they are accessible and that’s what matters.
This attracts predators: bears, Yukoners and MacPhoos.
The highway was soon a northern mix of family gatherings and military exercise. Trucks lined the Dempster, some with bannock and Northern Store harvest on the tailgate—a moveable feast that greets strangers with a friendly “stay out of our way” wave as you pass.
ATVs spidered out amongst the gravel and tundra. CB radios and binoculars in hand (there is no cell reception), men scoped out the small puddles of caribou, encouraging them closer to the road and, consequently, the freezer.
The bears for their part observe this alongside the slack-jawed tourist. The difference being that they capitalize on this event as opposed to merely watching in bewilderment.
Once a caribou is down, it seems to be a race between the hunter and the grizzlies to reach the carcass. During my years in Churchill, I met some habituated bears but this is truly the only place where I have seen bears run TOWARDS a gunshot rather than away.
Even without the incentive of a fresh kill, there were bears that knew the score. Just parking your truck along the side of the road would’ve soon attracted them.
One juvenile, a healthy male maybe four years old, walked up to the door, sniffing at the handle before sitting down, nose poking the bottom of the window.
Now, I have a fairly high tolerance for bears (not as much when my two huskies are barking in my ear, but still…) so we filmed and watched. But, as bears are prone to do, he started pushing the limits, learning about the truck and its possible weak points, enough so that I figured it was time to scare him off.
I honked the horn and he just stared at me with… I wouldn’t say “dead eyes”, but maybe a single-minded intensity. I honked again and nothing again. And again.
I started up the truck (no reaction) and then reluctantly drove away, almost over the bear. He just followed the truck until another newer, more interesting vehicle, a rented RV, pulled up.
We watched, bewildered, for another hour as the bear circled and the (assumed) German tourist stepped in and out of his vehicle to film the bear. We filmed too but with the darker purpose of eventually selling the footage.
Of course, all good things must come to an end and as we pulled into Rock River Campground we nervously laughed about sleeping a couple miles from our psycho-bear. It was funny enough that I loaded the gun and slid it into the tent after I brushed my teeth.
Soon we awoke to the sweep and flash of headlights passing, then another, and another. Closing in on midnight, the campground was clamouring with traffic, northern slang and the clank of empty beer cans.
After meeting our new and not-necessarily-wanted friends, we were told that the ramp had washed away at the Fort MacPherson ferry—everyone would be camping here tonight! Fun!
We politely retreated to our tent for a well-deserved rest surrounded with F150s loaded with freshly-killed caribou peeking out of Canadian Tire tarps.
That night, I have to say I got a little sentimental for the safety of polar bear country.
Kelsey Eliasson is a polar bear guide, artist and essentially unemployable in the real world, which is why he spends most of his time in the north. He also writes a blog about bears at www.polarbearalley.com.