I had good shots at very close ranges on both of my earlier Polar bear hunts, but the instant my arrows sliced in, the bears charged and had to be killed by rifle.
It happened the first time in April of 1960. On the ice off Point Barrow, [Alaska] George Thiele and I stalked to within 17 yards of a bear. The bear's rump was toward us, and the guide urged me to plunk in an arrow and then kill him when he turned to fight it. I figured George knew what he was talking about, so I followed his advice. It was a good hit, but the bear came for us like white lightning, and George downed him at nine paces with two shots from a Winchester .300 Magnum.
The second time was in the spring of 1962, again off Point Barrow, with Thiele as my pilot and guide. We got within 25 yards of this bear, and the same thing happened. George killed the bear with a 180-grain load in the head at 10 steps.
Perhaps I should tell that I killed a beautiful polar bear on my first trip to the Arctic. A gut shot at an angle that must surely have cut a slit eight inches long because of the angle of entry and because I was using an oversize experimental Razorhead. He ran about a mile. We tracked him in the snow to the edge of a lead only a hundred yards wide. Apparently he took on water through the slit and sank.
The Bear That Broke The Jinx
On the morning of May 11, almost four weeks after arriving on the ice, we took to the air in two light planes in the hope of finding what we'd come for. Bob [Munger] flew with Jim Helmericks, I with Bud [Helmericks].
It was a clear, beautiful spring day. We flew north toward the open leads that were showing up at the edge of the pack ice. Just 15 minutes after leaving camp, we spotted a bear walking along the side of a pressure ridge. He was the first one we'd seen in 25 days, and he gave me a great thrill.
We were about seven miles from the bear when we set the two aircraft down on smooth ice, and he had taken no notice of us at all. We hiked back about a mile in his direction and found an ideal place for an ambush. I crouched behind the pressure ridge where I'd be out of sight but high enough for shooting no matter on which side of the ridge he appeared.
Jim, Bud, and Bob took cover 20 yards in back of me with the cameras and two rifles. A back-up rifle is a necessary precaution when you're hunting with either bow or gun for an animal as quick tempered as the ice bear.
This one was nowhere in sight now, but if he stayed on his course, we were bound to come together. We waited for 1˝ hours, cramped, uncomfortable and cold, before spotting him coming half a mile away. He looked dark against the sunlit snow as he shuffled along, taking his time, investigating every crack and ice pile he came to, intent on a seal dinner. Everything was going exactly as I wanted it to.
Then, when 400 yards away, he swerved and angled off through rough ice, and I could see he was going to pass me beyond bow range. I hated to leave the spot I'd picked, but my trophy was about to slip through my fingers. There was only one chance to get a crack at him.
I waited until he went out of sight behind upturned ice and then ran for a new hiding place. I made it without his catching sight of me, and when I looked around, my three companions were well hidden in new positions behind me. The bear reappeared very quickly, coming straight at us.
He padded ahead, his long, snaky head swinging from side to side to let his nose take in everything within range. He paused now and then to look around, the undisputed king of those silent, white wastes. He'd prowled them all his life — in the sun of the arctic summer and the dark of the long night — served well by his keen nose and eyes, his tireless legs, and the thick pelt that shielded him from the bitter cold of both water and wind. Save for the possibility of infrequent encounters with packs of killer whales, he had only man to fear. As far as he knew, there was no man within miles.
I watched him cut the distance to 300 yards, 200 then 100. I could feel my blood pressure going up. Waiting for any major game to walk into your lap is one of the most pulse-quickening things a hunter can do. In the past, two bears of this same kind had turned on me like infuriated cats. I couldn't put them out of my mind as I watched this one come on.
Sixty yards . . . 50 . . . then finally he was within good bow range and still coming. My Razorhead arrow was on the string, the bow up, and I was ready to draw when the wind shifted just a little and betrayed me.
The bear jerked to a halt, his body at an angle and his eyes looking straight my way. His nose went into the air and I could see his black muzzle wrinkle as he sniffed, not quite sure what he'd smelled. From my earlier encounters, I was sure that one of two things would happen in the next couple of seconds: 1) he'd wheel and run, or 2) he'd come at me full tilt. A charge would almost certainly mean another bear killed with a rifle, and that was the last thing I wanted. I didn't wait any longer.
Raising up behind my ice block, I drove an arrow at him. It looked good all the way, and I heard it hit with a resounding smack. Instantly, a red blotch started to spread near his shoulder.
My first two ice bears had charged like thunderbolts. This one ran like a rabbit. I doubt whether he ever knew I was there. He bolted for the pressure ridge, crossed it, and fell dead 100 yards beyond.
NOTE: Rumor has it that there's another polar bear rug that Fred owned and its whereabouts is unknown. But he didn't shoot it, he bought it in Alaska. Something possible during that time period before endangered species laws came into effect.
In the 1960s and 1970s, polar bears were under such severe survival pressure that a landmark international accord was reached, despite the tensions and suspicions of the Cold War. The International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears was signed in Oslo, November 15, 1973 by the five nations with polar bear populations (Canada, Denmark which governed Greenland at that time, Norway, the U.S., and the former U.S.S.R.).
With the agreement in force, polar bear populations slowly recovered. The Oslo agreement is one of the first and most successful international conservation measures enacted in the 20th century.