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


I went
ut 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


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


"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


"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.


"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."