For Some Big-Game Hunters, Polar Bears Offer a Shot at a Dream



Lew Freedman / Chicago Tribune / March 28, 2004


Frank Huschitt of Grayslake, Ill., had traveled 2,250 miles north to stalk North America's most treacherous big game, but for the first time he realized something that can jangle a man's nerves. Late at night, in a blinding storm, the polar bear he hoped to meet might be hunting him.

It was a revelation for a man who has hunted everything from lions to leopards, from Cape Buffalo to elephants.

"I consider the polar bear to be the most risky, dangerous hunt of all game," said Huschitt.

Huschitt, 67, who has hunted for more than four decades, is one of a select number of American big-game hunters who got the opportunity to hunt polar bears.

Polar bear pursuit is the most extreme, most expensive, and probably the most complicated hunting adventure to arrange on the continent. Hunters may wait years for a permit in order to hunt a limited March-May season, spend $25,000 for the privilege and be committed to traveling by dog team and living in extreme cold for up to two weeks.

Of the estimated 28,000 polar bears worldwide, 17,000 live in Canada, and they are plentiful enough to hunt commercially only in certain districts of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.

Polar bears are not listed as either endangered or threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. However, the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 prohibits polar bear hunting in this country, except by Natives.

Alaska is the only state in which they live. And the International Agreement on Conservation of Polar Bears, ratified by several nations, bans the use of motorized boats, planes or snowmobiles while hunting polar bears. That leaves dog teams as the logical mode of transportation.

"Adventure? Whether they (hunters) come for it or not, they certainly get it," said Fred Webb, a longtime outfitter whose 12 to 15 hunters a year are mostly guided out of Coppermine, Northwest Territories. "It's certainly the pinnacle of North American hunting."

Besides the location and weather, the trip promises adventure because the white bear grows to 1,500 pounds, has cutlass-sharp claws, can run at high speed on land, swim great distances in water and has no fear of man.

"It was the real McCoy," said Keith Bates of his hunt.

Bates, a longtime hunter and a founder of Safari Club International, in 1987 shot a polar bear on a trip out of Resolute with Canada North, the same outfitter Huschitt used.

"It was 50 below zero the whole time I was out," Bates said. "I spent eight days on the Arctic ice. It was a lifelong dream."

Given the challenge, the cost, the discomfort, the difficulty of traveling to hard-to-reach Nunavut and the northern Northwest Territories, coupled with the danger, it must be for any hunter.


AN EXHILARATING HUNT

The stuffed bear lives in a glass case in the lobby of the Millennium Hotel, not far from Ted Stevens International Airport. It is a fierce looking creature, enormous, impressive, its whitish coat gleaming. A succinct set of facts summarize the bear's demise on an accompanying plaque.

Until 1972, polar bear hunting was allowed in Alaska, with limited numbers of permits available. Then, as now, only a small number of hunters had the time, the will and finances to undertake such an expedition.

"It was a pretty daunting task," said Burt Bomhoff of Chugiak. "It was mostly for guys from Outside who had money."

But Bomhoff, now 68, was a passionate hunter. He drew a permit and saved until he could afford the $2,000 fee for an April 1971 hunt with a guide.

Then, unlike now, airplanes were employed to search for bears and Bomhoff's hunt took him out onto the Bering Sea ice.

The trip began inauspiciously. A howling blizzard greeted Bomhoff when he flew from Anchorage to Nome to Shishmaref, the jumping off point for the hunt.

Bomhoff, who may be best known as an Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race musher, was snowbound in Shishmaref for a few days. There he made friends with Herbie Nayokpuk, "The Shishmaref Cannonball" of Iditarod fame, and bought some of Nayokpuk's ivory carvings as souvenirs.

When the weather cleared, the hunt was on. Flying in a Cessna 180, Bomhoff and his guide headed west onto the sea ice. He is not sure of the distance, but said they were many miles offshore. The men flew until a track was spotted from the air through the overcast sky. It was windy, blowing 30 mph, and sometimes tracks were difficult to follow when ice pans broke apart.

At last, the search led to a bear.

"We were close to the coast of Russia," Bomhoff said.

The plane landed on the ice, ahead of the white bear, and Bomhoff stalked it on foot. The bear lifted its head, saw the humans and began moving toward them. When it was 100 yards away, Bomhoff raised his .338 Winchester Magnum and fired. The shot crashed into the bear's shoulder and it dropped.

"It just went down, kerplunk," Bomhoff said.

It took about an hour for the guides to skin the bear and Bomhoff experienced a panoply of emotions.

"The hunt was exhilarating," he said. "I had mixed emotions. That bear was such a magnificent creature. But I felt privileged to do it."

The bear weighed 1,500 pounds and the hide squared at 10 ˆ feet.

"It was a big sucker," Bomhoff said.

The trophy in the case is on loan. Bomhoff doesn't visit often, but gets satisfaction from knowing that others do.

"It's nice to have other people enjoy it," he said.

'I COULD HAVE BEEN MINCEMEAT'

The stories of men who undertake the hunt reveal how hardy they must be, how fortunate, and how determined. They are often surprised by what they see.

Bates said he and his guide made a 200-mile circuit with an 11-dog team in the frigid weather, and were running out of dog food when they spied his bear about a quarter-mile away. It did not blend with the scenery.

"Polar bears are yellow and the ice is blue," Bates said. "Everyone thinks it's all white out there. It's not true."

The guide set a couple of dogs nipping at the bear's heels. Two more dogs joined the fray as Bates closed to within 25 feet.

"All hell is breaking loose," he said. "The guide is yelling, 'Don't shoot the dogs!' I got a clear shot. I put a couple of shots into his shoulder and he went down."

The longer a hunt lasts, the more likely the pursuer realizes that he might become the prey.

For Chris Walgreen, 31, a member of the family that owns the drugstore chain that bears his name, that acknowledgment came early. Walgreen arrived in Inuvik in the Northwest Territories in April 2000, and promptly heard a radio story about a polar bear killing a man. The bear waited in ambush under the steps of the man's work trailer. In five minutes, the bear devoured 100 pounds of the man's flesh.

"When you're sleeping out there, you're the hunted," said Walgreen, an experienced big-game hunter.

Or you might be the frozen. Walgreen made an impulse buy in Inuvik -- a muskrat hat -- before traveling overland to Tuktoyaktuk.

"That saved my life," he said.

Almost as soon as his canvas tent was raised on an ice floe an hour's flight north of Tuktoyaktuk, Walgreen's party was caught in a blizzard, accompanied by minus-50 temperatures.

"I never knew what a whiteout was until I was up there," Walgreen said. "It was painful cold. If you took off a glove, you could count 1-2-3 before feeling it. My eyelashes froze together. It was brutal."

The dogs were bedded down near the tent so their barking would serve as an alarm system if a bear approached.

That occurred on the sixth night, and the dogs, said Walgreen, "were going nuts."

The next day Walgreen and guides tracked the bear for six miles over terrain that was flat except for ice rubble before spying it from 200 yards. The barking, charging dogs narrowed the distance to 50 yards and Walgreen unslung his .300 Winchester magnum.

He shot the bear in the chest, but it didn't fall. Walgreen said his guides ran. Walgreen cycled the bolt swiftly and fired again as the bear rumbled within 40 yards. This time it went down. The 1,500-pound bear's hide measured 10 feet, 4 inches.

"Your heart starts thumping," Walgreen said. "I could have been mincemeat."

Close calls are not uncommon in polar bear hunting.

Webb, the Northwest Territories guide, said one of his hunters had to crawl out the back of an igloo because a polar bear was in front, perched on top of his dog sled eating his supplies. The guy shot it.

"Chances are, one or two hunters a year will end up shooting a bear in his underwear and stocking feet," Webb said.

There are other hazards.

In 2001, a group from France was hunting off Baffin Island, north of Quebec, when the Long Island-sized ice floe they were camped on started floating out to sea, Webb said. When the berg began breaking up, a horrific wind stymied a helicopter rescue and they drifted for four days, to Greenland.

"They had an adventure," Webb said. "But they came back the next year and got a bear."

Paperwork can be as daunting as the weather. Huschitt signed up for a permit, but waited 2 ˆ years for his 2001 hunt. Webb said he began taking reservations for 2005 two years ago.

Slots are strictly controlled. Jerome Knap, operator of Canada North, gains access to about 25 hunter permits a year, spread among four districts. Hunting areas are monitored closely for bear population management, and trophy import regulations for U.S. hunters are strict. American and Canadian authorities cooperate closely.

Nunavut was created as a new province in 1999 when it was sliced off of the Northwest Territories.

According to Mitch Taylor, a wildlife biologist in the Department of Sustainable Development in Nunavut, polar bear hunting brings in about $5 million Canadian annually -- a significant amount for cash-poor Inuit villages. Of that, nearly $4 million is spent by American hunters.

Greg Logan, Nunavut tourism development coordinator, said the financial impact is huge.

"It varies from community to community, but in general it's a big boon," said Logan.

In Canada, hunters killed an average of 618 bears annually over the five-year period ending in 2002, Taylor said.

"We are in good shape with our population and get good cooperation from the hunters staying within the law."

PREDATORY PESTS

For the last 32 years, only Natives in North Pacific and Arctic Ocean regions could hunt polar bears in Alaska.

According to Rory Stark, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent based in Anchorage, there are about 2,200 Beaufort Sea polar bears. In addition, the agency estimates 2,000 to 5,000 bears live in the Bering Sea-Chukchi Sea area. Natives may hunt the bears for food and to make crafts and clothing, said Stark, and do not have to report kills. The harvest may be as many as 100 a year, he said, but no one knows for sure.

Polar bears do not populate most of Alaska's 586,000 square miles. Typically, they only come ashore in small numbers during the winter on the North Slope and in the Northwest.

Big Bob Aiken, well known as a former World Eskimo Indian Olympics athlete from Barrow, said that polar bears may be seen as often as "every other week" there. Usually, they appear on the outskirts of town, but sometimes they are seen downtown, too.

During the Barrow Christmas Games in late December, Aiken said, a bear marched right through the downtown lagoon. As master of ceremonies for the event, Aiken issued a warning to spectators not to go out alone and not to walk home.

"We chase them away with cracker shells or rubber bullets," Aiken said.

Aiken, 50, a lifelong hunter, said polar bears may threaten Barrow Eskimos who are whaling.

About 10 years ago, Aiken said, while he was on guard for people slicing up whale blubber, a polar bear climbed up on the ice. The bear came within 20 yards of Aiken and was closer to some of the cutters.

Aiken shot the bear with a 12-gauge shotgun.

"You've got to wait until the polar bear shakes off the water," he said.

"I shot right behind the ear. When they're wet like that (the fur) is like bulletproof armor."

The shot's force knocked the bear backwards and it tumbled into the water and sank.

IN HOT PURSUIT

After the long dog sled ride from Resolute, Huschitt, a heavyset, dark-haired man who wears glasses and operates a woodworking business, spent two days stuck in the whiteout in an 8-by-10 foot tent. It tested his patience.

"There's nothing you can do," he said.

But as soon as Huschitt, guide Adam Kaluk and an assistant could move they picked up the tracks of a female with two cubs being joined by an adult male. Adopting the polar bears' hours, they traveled through the night.

The chase produced nothing. And then the men were pinned down for two more storm days.

"I got cabin fever," Huschitt said. "I told the guide that tomorrow morning, no matter what, we've got to break camp. He said, 'The bear is sleeping.' I said, 'I don't care. I want to get out.'"

On the eighth day of the hunt, traversing a flat area on a sunny, minus-20 degree day, the large track of a wide-awake polar bear was discovered. Riding the sled, Huschitt perched on the wooden gear box -- and he wasn't wearing a seat belt -- as they intermittently lost and found the tracks.

"There are no springs on that dog sled," Huschitt said. "You slide around. You almost fall off.''

After 2 ˆ hours, Kaluk said, "There he is." A half-mile away, the bear was running.

"It was like a horse galloping," Huschitt said.

Gradually, the barking dogs closed the gap at an angle, to within 100 yards. Huschitt readied his .375 Mauser magnum. And then the bear turned away. Pursuit began anew. After 10 minutes, the bear stopped, and this time when it turned the bear came right at them.

"Take him," Kaluk said.

The guide did not have his rifle out, so Huschitt had no backup. Huschitt lifted the powerful gun and fired. The shot struck the polar bear in the heart. It lifted its paws in the air and fell dead. The hide measured 10 feet, 2 inches, and Huschitt estimated the weight at 1,200 pounds.

Huschitt was grateful his aim was precise, and he is proud of the mount in the trophy room of his home, but this adventure is not something he wants to try again.

"The weather, the dangers," Huschitt said, "it is harsh out there."

Once in a lifetime is enough to hunt the white bear.

Chicago Tribune outdoors reporter Lew Freedman is the former Daily News sports editor. Reach him at lfreedman@tribune.com.





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