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The last great polar bear hunt

There I was, a pre-adolescent girl, sitting on the back of my father's
qamutiq (dog sled). I was staring at the snow, praying that we wouldn't
catch up with the owner of the massive footprints deposited there. Please,
please, I silently begged, let the tracks be at least a few days old.

I've always had a dire fear of polar bears. Most Inuit do. They can eat
your dogs and kill your family (or vice versa). So I was rigid with the
fear of all that might ensue if we caught up with that thing my father was
hunting. It had left tracks the size of pie-plates. I watched in mingled
horror and fascination as the deep impressions filled with errant,
wind-borne snow. Disappointed, I knew enough to realize that the bear had
at least been here this day, since these impressions were concave. Older
prints would have been raised.

At least the dogs hadn't caught scent of the bear, since they weren't yet
going mad. The comfort in that was diminished, however, by my knowledge
that bears carry little scent, so the dogs had to be fairly close before
they detected it. I was making plans concerning what I might do if things
went wrong, slipping my mitted hand under a piece of lashing to hang on in
case the dogs bolted. I wouldn't be dumped and left behind, weaponless
before the land's most capable hunter.

In the Arctic, throughout the ages, Inuit have held second place only to
the top predator. A bear was beyond all but the most skilled hunters. It
was never sport. No one ever took it lightly.

Once, I ran into a venerable hunter who told me of his worst bear
encounter. He had been caught without dogs and unable to reach his rifle.
Only his knowledge of the bear's habits had saved him -- knowing that it
attacks with the left paw; that it rears up to strike; that it needs a
victim to be down so that it can incapacitate by biting the eyes away. That
hunter spent a small eternity resisting the bear's attempts to batter him
down, but he paid a heavy price for his survival. His head was one massive
scar, his skull concave like a soup bowl. Nevertheless, all the while that
old hunter talked, he never once spoke ill of the bear -- referring to it
only with the deepest respect.

I clutched at the qamutiq, muscles taut. Why, I agonized, did my father
hunt these animals? They tasted terrible (though my father disagreed).
Their skin was not worth the danger to life and limb -- my life, my limbs.
What if the bear maimed my father, leaving me to try shooting it with the
.303 that, frankly, I didn't feel confident with? How would I get back to
camp with his body and the injured dogs? Would the dogs even obey me? I
started counting dogs I thought were loyal to me, ultimately depressed with
the results.

Every time I looked down at those dread prints, those pie-plates with toes,
panic gripped me. Rips the face off, I kept thinking, like a seal...

My mind was jolted back to reality as an electric current suddenly passed
through the entire dog-team, even though my father had not signaled to
begin any chase. They quivered with instinct, with utter focus, sniffing at
the air.

Bear.

No! Now what? It was bad for the dogs to bolt too soon. They needed to save
their energy for surrounding the bear, containing it for the hunter's shot.

One or two of the experienced dogs were already accelerating, a sure sign
that their instincts were kicking in. Kusik, the matriarch of the team,
kept her usual steady, mature gait, attentive but not foolishly overeager.
She was seasoned, knowing my father as the leader, and it wasn't a hunt
until he signaled.

He glanced over at me, ordered me to take the .303 out of its case. I
passed it to him butt-first, keeping the muzzle well away from both of us,
as per firearms protocol. I was prepared to jump at his signal. My job was
to carry the extra cartridges, keeping well behind him and the dogs.

I could already see a distant, yellow-white form, contrasted against grey
clouds and glare. It was walking in its pigeon-toed bear way, seemingly
oblivious to our presence -- or perhaps only to our importance.

"Qu-qu-qu-quq!"

My father's shrill call had only one meaning. The dogs shot forward as one,
domestication set aside, reveling in their wolfish heritage. Aside from
pulling, this was their purpose: to aid their ancient ally against their
ancient foe. The hair along their backs stood straight like spines, teeth
flashing ivory in the crisp air. But their attack was disciplined,
sustained, heedless of individual concern. Circling, pinning the bear with
their very lives, they waited for my father to sight in.

A crack of gunfire -- the one shot, one kill my father always taught -- and
it was over before it had really registered with me. Fear dissipating, I
simply stared at the body of that majestic creature. It was a moment before
I realized that I had been admiring it the entire time; its irreplaceable
beauty, its power and grace. This time, we had been the predators, stacking
the deck in our favor with cunning, guns and dogs. But "next time" always
hovered over us. It was impossible to always keep the deck stacked, for
this playing field tended to level itself.

My father thanked the bear's spirit for allowing us to capture it that day,
saying that we hoped we would be as brave if, one day, we stood in its
stead. As though of their own volition, my thoughts seemed to project
themselves at that great dead bear: It would take a lifetime to summon
enough courage to face you, I thought. And perhaps I will never be as brave
as you have been today, in defending your life. But I am inspired.

Pijariiqpunga. (That is all I have to say.)

Rachel Attituq Qitsualik was born into a traditional Igloolik Inuit
lifestyle. She has worked in Inuit sociopolitical issues for the last 25
years, and witnessed the full transition of her culture into the modern
world. She is a columnist for Indian Country Today.