(From a 2000 visit) We passed the Bear Jail, home to as many as 23 “problem” bears who are taken out of circulation, preventing them from establishing bad behavior by hanging around town or the dump. Rubber bullets, pepper spray, and traps that are checked daily, discourage them. As a last resort, they are darted with a safe commercial drug cocktail. While these powerful animals are tranquilized, they are measured, marked with lip tattoos, ear tags, and given penicillin to fight infection from the handling procedure. They have minimal people contact and no contact with other bears during the 24 to 48 hours until relocated by helicopter to a safer zone.
One bear, after release from jail, returned to the offending pick-up vehicle, took a distinctly “and don’t fool with me again” hunk out of it and lumbered off.
The male polar bear is the largest land carnivore in the world weighing up to 1500 pounds or more. Black skinned for better heat absorption, bear hairs are hollow and contain air for insulation. When they are well fed, a fat layer also insulates them. Warmth from their huge toe pads melts enough ice to give them a good ice-walking grip. They stand on hind legs for a better view, possibly to a height of 9-11 feet. If they don’t perceive you as a threat, they will not attack you. That was good news with approximately 1200 polar bears gathered in the area.
Polar bears, who usually do not hibernate, mate on the ice in springtime. Eggs are implanted in the fall. Attempting to keep their babies away from males who prey on cubs and are often several times larger than they are, females traditionally utilize large inland peat banks for birthing dens. The snow covereth. Fine-haired, blind cubs are born in late February, weighing 1 to 1 ½ pounds. They grow extremely fast on rich mother’s milk. Coinciding with March ringed seal births, mothers take their babies and sniff out seal snow caves. Polar bear diet consists of approximately 600 ringed seals per year. This resourceful and exceedingly clever animal hunts with nothing to hide behind so it covers its black nose, the only part a seal can see, with a paw.
Our major activities were helicopter, dog sled, and tundra buggy rides, along with several walks accompanied by three armed guards. We could count on cold, cold, and blowing cold. A playful black dog was our bear-warning device. He did an admirable job of startling winter-white ptarmigan into flight as well.
On a 4:25 p.m. helicopter adventure, our group was too late for photographing polar bears or sunset pictures. The pilot explained what we were “almost” seeing, but his wry sense of humor and extensive experience made the later lecture by our musher and trainer more interesting than the ride. “These dogs are valuable and meaningful. Dogs are just like people, except they are trustworthy and loyal. Dogs are dressed in jackets for extreme climates and always while racing. I wear a facemask for weather less than minus forty degrees. I can’t see much. I’ve traveled 70,000 miles but I’ve only seen 20,000 miles of them. When my fur changes direction, I know I’m off course.” After showing his Antarctic expedition slides, he warned, “80% of those who watch these slides get a team within two weeks.” I considered that and thought, “Hmmm. Hitching them to my motorhome would definitely improve its gas mileage!”
And with that, I’ll finish my story on Polar Bears next week. God Bless until next week.
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At 45, Widow Minshall began 20 years of solo full-time RVing throughout Alaska, Mexico, and Canada. Sharlene canoed the Yukon, mushed sled dogs, worked a dude ranch, visited Hudson Bay polar bears, and lived six months on a Mexican beach. She lectured at Life on Wheels, published six RV-related books and wrote a novel, “Winter in the Wilderness.”