Polar Bears

Polar Bear Sculpture

A polar bear sculpture I made in about 1966; there was one polar bear left at the Vancouver Zoo, and this was him.

Yes, Dave-In-Eden, I CAN tell you some polar bear stories! And these stories are even from York Factory, or the original once-living bear in the story came from there. Augustus Peers tells the best of the stories in my records, but there are some from other books or manuscripts as well. 

Polar bears live in five countries in the world: United States, where they thrive in northern Alaska; Canada, where they mostly live around Hudson Bay and slightly to the north of it (and they may well live all along the shores of the Arctic Ocean as well, but that is something I don’t know. The other countries are Norway, Greenland, and Russia. Northern Alaska is, of course, the place where polar bears are breeding with the Grizzlies, creating huge hybrid bears that seem fairly fearsome. Somehow it appears that the polar bears on Hudson Bay were not so fierce: the HBC men knew how to avoid attracting their attention. Still, I wouldn’t want to meet up with a hungry bear!

Augustus Peers meets his first Polar Bear in 1842, as he sails north from the Thames to the town of Stromness, Orkney. “In the town,” Peers said, “there is nothing to amuse if I except the museum which however is in a very embryo state, the only curiosity therein being a few Esquimaux curiosities and a foot of a polar bear, remarkable for its great size…” His next viewing of one of the actual polar bears was, however, a little more exciting!

In the neighbourhood of Mansfield Island (in Hudson Bay), as the Doctor [Nevins] and I were enjoying our usual promenade on the deck one fine evening, we were suddenly startled by hearing a terrific roar! We turned round and looked enquiringly at the helmsman, who told us that there was a bear alongside. We instantly mounted the the bulwarks and there, to our astonishment appeared swimming about immediately below us, a huge polar bear. Ere I had time to get my gun up from my berth the monster had dived. I waited long in expectation of again seeing him, but as he did not appear I went below, and as I entered my room, Mr. Bruin was reported under our bows, but instantly diving he rose no more till far out of reach.

The ship arrived at York Factory and both he and Dr. [John Birkbeck] Nevins went ashore, to be greeted by the HBC men there. Nevins toured up the Hayes River and then left the Factory with the ship, and Peers remained behind; and one of his lessons was to learn how to handle the polar bears with which he must live and that he must travel through. And here is that story!

And, oh dear, I do not appear to have saved or copied that bit of his manuscript, and cannot find it. The story tells us, though, that the HBC men, if they must walk past a bear, must keep their eyes open and walk quietly, at a distance. The polar bears, if busy with food, would look at them and then ignore them — the food was more important! The HBC men may have been attacked on occasion (and I wonder if there are any stories of polar bear attacks out there?), but perhaps only when the polar bears were starving hungry. So I think they were very careful, and they gave the bears lots of room, and they moved slowly, smoothly, and silently.

Polar Bears are dangerous (in the North, they are the largest animal out there, by far). They are sometimes aggressive, and particularly when they are hungry. There are plenty of small towns in the north where polar bears wander through the town streets, and everyone leaves their front doors unlocked to give an escape route to any person who might have met a polar bear on his walk home. So if you are lying in bed, and you hear the front door open and shut, you know that someone who was out on the road is coming into your home for their own safety, to get away from a wandering polar bear. Its a different existence up there.

 Now to find that York Factory polar bear — the one who caused so much excitement at that place a few years after Augustus Peers had left. And here it is, in Philip H. Godsell’s Arctic Trader — one of the best written books I have about the north and the HBC’s experiences there.

One evening, when we were again making merry in the Bachelors’ Hall, Sammy Grey rushed in crying excitedly that the “Fall packet” had just arrived from Norway House with letters from Winnipeg, and a few moments later a tall, fair haired chap entered and was introduced as Harry Moir. He was to remain at York Factory for the winter, he told me….

One night, about a week later, we were thrown into a state of great excitement by the terrific barking of the sleigh dogs and the sound of piercing cries without. Then the door burst open and Sammy Grey was projected into the room as though shot from a catapult. He was pallid with fright, his normally large eyes almost popping out of his head.

“Okemasis! Okemasis! Dere’s a debbil in the ice house,” yelled the frightened half-breed as he ran aimlessly around the room.

Moir was quietly pulling on his moccasins. Throwing on his blanket capote and seizing his rife, he dashed out into the square, quickly followed by myself, and in a few moments we were in the vicinity of the blubber house. A mob of frightened, jabbering and gesticulating natives encircled the building, though at a very respectful distance, as Moir and I approached. Something grey seemed to move within and I felt my heart jump with sudden excitement. 

“Polar bear! Polar bear!” whispered Moir excitedly. “Look! He’s eating the seal meat inside. Come on! Quick!”

Next moment my companion was near the doorway. I saw the moonlight glint upon the rifle-barrel as he raised it. Two thunderous reports were followed by a terrific noise within the building as the wounded and infuriated animal thrashed about, then fell, a huge grey shape, with paws extended, upon the threshold; the massive head swaying wildly from side to side.

All this time the dogs had been barking excitedly, Indians had been yelling, and squaws and children crying in their fright. The bright moonlight shining on the darkened palisade, the ghostly whitewashed buildings, and the gloomy spruce forest nearby gave the entire scene a weird and almost fantastic appearance. 

It was some time before either of us felt disposed to approach very closely to the mighty beast. When we did, we found an enormous polar bear, stone dead, his thick coat matted with heavy yellow grease. The huge animal furnished a plentiful supply of oil and dog-feed, while one paw, when we weighed it, tipped the scales at over twenty-five pounds.

As you can see, the mighty hunter, Moir, also treated the bear very gingerly, and was sure he was dead before he approached him again. It tells you a lot about these polar bears, I think, and the respect with which they were treated. 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2023. All rights reserved. 


7 thoughts on “Polar Bears

  1. Daniel Marshall

    Dear Nancy, you continue to produce splendid work here! Thank so much, and I like your Polar Bear Carving! Cheers, Daniel Marshall

  2. Tom Holloway

    While tallying the fur returns for HBC’s Columbia District, based on records compiled by James Douglas, I came across an occasional “white” bear, presumably a polar bear hide from the far north.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      The may have traded polar bear skins from the Northern Northwest coast of course, but it is also likely that these white bears were spirit bears, found on the west coast near Fort McLoughlin’s old location. They are black bears, light coloured or maybe white with a little shading, perhaps — Not huge polar bears. But also have also seen a cream coloured bear with eyeliner: it dropped down a foot in front of my car, looked at me, and scampered off. This was a few years ago on the road to Shalalth, so near Lillooet. It was a lovely little bear, but definitely a black bear. Google spirit bears to find them.

      1. Tom Holloway

        Thanks very much for this tip! I did not know about the spirit bear variant of black bear. This makes much more sense. Now I’ll go back to the data on fur returns to see if I can pin down where they were acquired.

  3. Dave Martin

    Well Nancy, I didn’t anticipate an answer to my polar bear question with a formal blog post. What a treat! We had several encounters enroute to York Factory and in Churchill, but nothing quite as exciting as Mr. Peers and Mr. Moir’s. Thank you for sharing these historical accounts!
    We (safely) encountered mother and cub on the end of the derelict Port Nelson bridge, another with a fresh seal kill on the Nelson River near the Bay. In York Factory we slept comfortably, if not apprehensively, within a ‘polar bear proof’ compound. In our group of 12, three shouldered rifles wherever they (we) went. From the waters edge in Churchill, we unexpectedly sighted a bear swimming in the surf some 100 feet in front of us, which initiated a hasty retreat to higher ground. Though the bustling commerce of York Factory is long since gone, the apex predator of her river ways remains. Lots of pics and details to share with you ! I’ll send you an email. Thank you again for the splendid voice you continue to give to the great Canadian fur trade of old. The images you conjured were the impetus of our trip!