Behavior of polar bears is much different to other bear species, mostly because of their complete isolation from the civilized world and not many opportunities to interact with people. Especially the younger ones are more likely to approach in order to investigate at a shorter distance. Apart from that, in the Arctic anything of a different shape, color or smell attracts attention immediately.
Is there really anything to be worried about?
Better be prepared, rather than caught by surprise. Polar bear encounter, at least in Svalbard, is much more probable than one would think. During only two and a half months spent here and leaving the base once a week on average, I had five encounters of which two were in a distance shorter than 50 meters (~55 yards). Which means that I already had to unlock and aim my gun.
Kayakers who quite recently traveled around the archipelago (and managed to achieve that, as the first ones ever in history), while staying overnight on one of the islands in the Eastern Svalbard, had to scare off as many as nine! Some of them even followed them in the water. So, the risk associated with bears is very real out here.
The very first rule of safety should be avoiding confrontation. During the summer it is fairly easy to spot a polar bear from a long distance, however it happens sometimes that even when it is close enough to throw a stone, a bear may resemble snow or a white rock. Color of their fur may range from beige to yellowish. Sometimes a bear is so dirty, that it is difficult to distinguish it from the surroundings. Therefore, it is a good idea to observe environment and look for objects which don’t fit the landscape. It happened to me couple times to stare at an ordinary rock, because of the sun reflecting from its surface at an unusual angle. If something does not move for a few minutes, it should be safe to continue.
The most dangerous area to walk through are narrow passages between rocks and when approaching valleys. It may occur, that a bear emerges suddenly or you bump into it while asleep (which is especially uncomfortable). Seeing that huge head judging you with a great curiosity at a close distance is an experience shocking enough to remember that lesson. Thus, it is not a bad idea to keep a small bell attached to a backpack. Once you notice a bear moving, keep observing until it wanders off at least 1/4 kilometer in the opposite direction.
A useful indicator of bear presence are other animals. If a reindeer herd is running, what does not usually happen without a good reason, a predator might be the cause. And it does not matter, if you are walking the opposite direction – polar bears are capable of following their preys for kilometers and silently occur from behind just seconds before attacking. Watching your back is not be a symptom of paranoia, but a very reasonable custom to have.
Polar bears usually travel along the shoreline. Sometimes they may climb up a little for a lunch break, however most of the time they keep close to water which is their natural habitat. During winter they may stay in dens, dug at rocks or gulches. Females with their offspring can go as far as dozens kilometers into the land. However, it is unlikely that anyone would be interested in traveling around Svalbard in the middle of the polar night, so it is better to keep focused on the threats typical for the summer period.
You should be extra careful when an ice pack is approaching. There is a great chance that a few polar bears are traveling on top of it. And even when the ice is gone, there still might be a few individuals wandering around who missed the train. Another spots worth mentioning are bird colonies and resting places of seals. Also, it is good to remember that polar bears are active all year round.
How to react?
If you noticed a polar bear, it is better to change your route slowly by taking a wide turn, but under no circumstances you should turn your back, or even worse – run away. If a bear attacks it will be faster, guaranteed. If it starts approaching you, hold your ground, talk loudly with a calm voice, raise your arms and stay within the group.
If a bear makes noise, moves to the sides or acts aggressively, it does so to scare you off. Ironically, the more calm a bear seems, the more dangerous the situation. If it walks silently on a collision course, it probably already considers you a meal and this is the time to get prepared for defense.
It is better not to travel alone. The bigger the group is, the longer the bear’s thinking process will take. Also, in case someone freezes, the other person can take over the initiative. Besides, the more people the more guns available and this may actually save someone’s life – there will be not much time to reload and in high stress one may easily forget to unlock the gun or aim properly. This is the reason why we had trained shooting with a partner before coming to Spitsbergen. Training should also consist of “mental” exercises to help imagine what events may take place and what scenarios to follow in case of a real threat.
I talked to a lot of people about encounters and the common experience is that there are no rules about the way polar bears behave towards humans. Some of them are fearful, the other ones incurious, aggressive or, so to speak: sociopathic. Some run away when an engine starts while the other will not even move when a cracker is thrown under their feet or a bullet misses their ears by centimeters.
You must be aware of the fact that unjustified killing of a polar bear is subject to a judicial punishment. So, if it is not necessary in life-threating situation, you have to deter first. The minimal time to react with a gun is approximately 4-5 seconds (40-50 meters), so you must make your decisions really fast. If a bear is pushing on you directly, try firing a flare first (or few of them at the same time), aiming just under its feet. If that doesn’t work, it is time to defend yourself with a proper gun.
Skull of a polar bear is so hard, that it will most likely bounce the bullet. This is why you should point your gun below the head, on the chest level. The other sensitive area is above the front shoulder. However, if you kill a bear from that angle, it is hard to explain why it was threatening you, since it would have to stand sideways. Another thing to remember: you can shoot to defend other people. But not if dogs are attacked.
A good knife, attached in an easily accessible place, is a good thing to have. There was a case of a man fighting with polar bear using… A thumb. Finger pounded in an eye finished the confrontation with some minor injuries to the attacked one. The other time, as the story tells, some people managed to defend the Polish Polar Station using pole of a brush and a frying pan. When everything else fails, anything that is hard and extends your hands is useful.
In case of a bear attack you have approximately 4-5 seconds to fire two shots, and better one of them was a good one. While training remember not to think too much. Aiming and firing should be mechanical. How important are these unconditional movements reminds a tragic event that took place in 2011, when a starving bear pulled out a teenager from a tent killing him and heavily injuring a few other. It could probably be avoided, if not one of the guides of the group who forgot to… Unlock the gun.
As usual, opinions vary on the subject. Most people consider pump-action shotgun the best solution, along with a flare gun. A rifle has a greater range and accuracy, however the purpose of having a gun in Svalbard is self-defense, not hunting. On the other hand, revolver .44 is much lighter and convenient (what makes it the most popular choice in Longyearbyen rentals), but does not provide enough firepower. Since accuracy is less important at small distances, I think a shotgun is a good compromise. I wouldn’t take bear spray seriously in the Arctic environment. If a bear may not react to a gun shot, it may not even notice a pepper cloud, especially with winds reaching 10-15 m/s.
When leaving the base I load my flare gun and the shotgun in a specific order: two Brenneke slugs go first and a rubber bullet last (to be fired as the first one). The remaining ammunition is kept in a well insulated, dry pocket of my jacket. Cartridge belt, at least in my case, doesn’t work. The barrel can be protected against water with a piece of a bag and a rubber band. Personally, I prefer a cut “finger” of a latex glove. Easy to put on and adheres well. Of course, you don’t need to take it off in order to shoot.
A sad and cruel point to be made in this place: shoot to kill. You won’t have time to reload your gun. Human life has highest priority.
As horrifying as it may seem at first, getting used to carrying gun is not that difficult. Don’t let this inconvenience to stop you from exploring this very special place, which, without any doubt, Spitsbergen is. And the Arctic.