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Alaskan And Polar Bear





"And round about the bleak North Pole
Glideth the lean, white bear."


Nearly forty years ago, when down from the Indian country to sell some
skins in San Francisco, I saw a great commotion around a big ship in
the bay, and was told that a Polar bear had been discovered floating
on an iceberg in the Arctic, and had been taken alive by the ship's
crew.

I went out in a boat, and on boarding the ship, just down from Alaska
with a cargo of ice, I saw the most beautiful specimen of the bear
family I ever beheld. A long body and neck, short legs, small head,
cream-white and clean as snow, this enormous creature stood before us
on the deck, as docile as a lamb. This is as near as ever I came to
encountering the Polar bear, although I have lived in the Arctic and
have more than one trophy of the bear family from the land of
everlasting snows.

Bear are very plenty in Alaska and the Klondike country, and they are,
perhaps, a bit more ferocious than in California, for I have seen more
than one man hobbling about the Klondike mines on one leg, having lost
the other in an argument with bear.

As a rule, the flesh is not good, here, in the salmon season, for the
bear is in all lands a famous fisherman. He sits by the river and,
while you may think he is asleep, he thrusts his paw deep down, and,
quick as wink, he lands a huge salmon in his bunch of long, hooded
claws.

A friend and I watched a bear fishing for hours on the Yukon, trying
to learn his habits. I left my friend, finally, and went to camp to
cook supper. Then, it seems, my friend shot him, for his skin, I
think. Thinking the bear dead, he called to me and went up to the
bear, knife in hand. But the bear rose up when he felt the knife,
caught the man in his arms and they rolled in the river together. The
poor man could not get away. When we recovered his body far down the
river next day, the bear still held him in her arms. She was a long,
slim cinnamon, said to be the most savage fighter in that region.

All the bear of the far north seem to me to have longer bodies and
shorter legs than in other lands. The black bear (there are three
kinds of them) are bow-legged, I think; at least they "toe in," walk
as an Indian walks, and even step one foot over the other when taking
their time on the trail. We cultivated the acquaintance of a black
bear for some months, on the Klondike, in the winter of '97-'98, and
had a good chance to learn his habits. He was a persistent robber and
very cunning. He would eat anything he could get, which was not much,
of course, and when he could not get anything thrown to him from a
door he would go and tear down a stump and eat ants. I don't know why
he did not hibernate, as other bears in that region do. He may have
been a sort of crank. No one who knew about him, or who had been in
camp long, would hurt him; but a crowd of strangers, passing up the
trail near our Klondike cabin, saw him, and as he did not try to get
away he was soon dead. He weighed 400 pounds, and they sold him where
he lay for one dollar a pound.

I fell in with a famous bear-hunter, a few miles up from the mouth of
the Klondike early in September, before the snow fell, and with him
made a short hunt. He has wonderful bear sense. He has but one eye and
but one side of a face, the rest of him having been knocked off by the
slash of a bear's paw. He is known as Bear Bill.

The moss is very deep and thick and elastic in that region, so that no
tracks are made except in a worn trail. But Bill saw where a bit of
moss had been disturbed away up on a mountain side, and he sat right
down and turned his one eye and all his bear sense to the solution of
the mystery.

At last he decided that a bear had been gathering moss for a bed. Then
he went close up under a cliff of rocks and in a few minutes was
peering and pointing down into a sunken place in the earth. And
behold, we could see the moss move! A bear had covered himself up and
was waiting to be snowed under. Bill walked all around the spot, then
took position on a higher place and shouted to the bear to come out.
The bear did not move. Then he got me to throw some rocks. No
response. Then Bill fired his Winchester down into the moss. In a
second the big brown fellow was on his hind feet looking us full in
the face and blinking his little black eyes as if trying to make us
out. Bill dropped him at once, with a bullet in his brain.

I greatly regret that I never had the good fortune to encounter a
Polar bear, so that I might be able to tell you more about him and
his habits; for men of science and writers of books are not
bear-hunters, as a rule, and so real information about this white
robber-monk of the cold, blue north is meager indeed. But here is what
the most eminent English authority says about the nature and habits of
this one bear that I have not shaken hands with, or encountered in
some sort of way on his native heath:

"The great white bear of the Arctic regions--the 'Nennok' of the
Eskimo--is the largest as well as one of the best known of the whole
family. It is a gigantic animal, often attaining a length of nearly
nine feet and is proportionally strong and fierce. It is found over
the whole of Greenland; but its numbers seem to be on the decrease. It
is distinguished from other bears by its narrow head, its flat
forehead in a line with its prolonged muzzle, its short ears and long
neck. It is of a light, creamy color, rarely pure white, except when
young, hence the Scottish whalers call it the 'brounie' and sometimes
the 'farmer,' from its very agricultural appearance as it stalks
leisurely over the furrowed fields of ice. Its principal food consists
of seals, which it persecutes most indefatigably; but it is somewhat
omniverous in its diet, and will often clear an islet of eider duck
eggs in the course of a few hours. I once saw it watch a seal for half
a day, the seal continually escaping, just as the bear was about
putting his foot on it, at the atluk (or escape hole) in the ice.
Finally, it tried to circumvent its prey in another maneuver. It swam
off to a distance, and when the seal was again half asleep at its
atluk, the bear swam under the ice, with a view to cut off its
retreat. It failed, however, and the seal finally escaped. The rage of
the animal was boundless; it moaned hideously, tossing the snow in the
air, and at last trotted off in a most indignant state of mind.

"Being so fond of seal-flesh, the Polar bear often proves a great
nuisance to sealhunters, whose occupation he naturally regards as a
catering to his wants. He is also glad of the whale carcasses often
found floating in the Arctic seas, and travelers have seen as many as
twenty bears busily discussing the huge body of a dead whalebone
whale.

"As the Polar bear is able to obtain food all through the Arctic
winter, there is not the same necessity, as in the case of the
vegetable-eating bears, for hibernating. In fact, the males and young
females roam about through the whole winter, and only the older
females retire for the season. These--according to the Eskimo account,
quoted by Captain Lyon--are very fat at the commencement of winter,
and on the first fall of snow lie down and allow themselves to be
covered, or else dig a cave in a drift, and then go to sleep until the
spring, when the cubs are born. By this time the animal's heat has
melted the snow for a considerable distance, so that there is plenty
of room for the young ones, who tumble about at their ease and get
fat at the expense of their parent, who, after her long abstinence,
becomes gradually very thin and weak. The whole family leave their
abode of snow when the sun is strong enough to partially melt its
roof.

"The Polar bear is regularly hunted with dogs by the Eskimo. The
following extract gives an account of their mode of procedure:

"Let us suppose a bear scented out at the base of an iceberg. The
Eskimo examines the track with sagacious care, to determine its age
and direction, and the speed with which the animal was moving when he
passed along. The dogs are set upon the trail, and the hunter courses
over the ice in silence. As he turns the angle of the berg his game is
in view before him, stalking along, probably, with quiet march,
sometimes snuffing the air suspiciously, but making, nevertheless, for
a nest of broken hummocks. The dogs spring forward, opening a wild,
wolfish yell, the driver shrieking 'Nannook! Nannook!' and all
straining every nerve in pursuit.


155.]

"The bear rises on his haunches, then starts off at full speed. The
hunter, as he runs, leaning over his sledge, seizes the traces of a
couple of his dogs and liberates them from their burthen. It is the
work of a minute, for the motion is not checked, and the remaining
dogs rush on with apparent ease.

"Now, pressed more severely, the bear makes for an iceberg, and stands
at bay, while his two foremost pursuers halt at a short distance and
await the arrival of the hunter. At this moment the whole pack are
liberated; the hunter grasps his lance, and, tumbling through the snow
and ice, prepares for the encounter.

"If there be two hunters, the bear is killed easily; for one makes a
feint of thrusting the spear at the right side, and, as the animal
turns with his arms toward the threatened attack, the left is
unprotected and receives the death wound."





Next: Monnehan The Great Bear-hunter Of Oregon

Previous: The Bear-slayer Of San Diego



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