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The habits of black bears, brown bears, and polar bears are described as they relate to Eskimo life.

January 1, 1911

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My Life with the Eskimo - Black, Brown, Polar Bears

Man The Fat Hunter
Eskimo
Carnivore Diet

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Ursus americanus Pallas. Black Bear. 


The Black Bear is very common along the Athabaska River, and we saw eight Bears in less than four hours of drifting on the river below the Grand Rapids, May 14th , 1908. This part of the Atha baska has the reputation of being the best place for Black Bears in North America. They are seen most abundantly just after the ice goes out in the spring and they come down to the edge of the river to look for dead fish which have been pushed up by the ice . In the fall the tangled brushy slopes along the Athabaska are said to be much frequented by Black Bears which feed largely on blueberries at that season . It is, however, more difficult to see the Bears in autumn on account of the thickness of the underbrush . Black Bears are said by the Indians to be fairly common around Great Bear Lake and occasionally north to the Mackenzie delta . 


Ursus richardsoni Swainson . Barren Ground Bear. Ak'lak (Es kimo name for Brown Bear from Bering Sea to Coronation Gulf). 


Brown Bears, or Grizzlies, are found sparingly throughout the Arctic mainland from western Alaska to Coronation Gulf. There are undoubtedly two or three races or species in this region , but, owing to lack of specimens from important localities and lack of time for critical examination of the material at hand, I am obliged to nominally refer to the Arctic Brown Bears under the above heading. In northern Alaska they do not appear to be very common on the north side of the Endicott Mountains, and seldom, if ever, come out on the coastal plains. The inland Eskimo occasionally kill specimens and often use the skin for a tent door. I saw the skins of two which were killed on the Hula-hula River, in October, 1908, by a Colville River Eskimo named Auktel'lik. Auktel'lik told me he had killed forty four Aklak in his time, and that only two of the lot came towards him and tried to attack him. From what I could learn he had not hunted very far west of the Colville or at all east of the Mackenzie. Most Eskimo, however, speak with much greater respect of the pugnacity of Aklak than of Nannuk (the Polar Bear) and are much more cautious about attacking him. On July 3d, 1912, Mr. Frederick Lambart, Engineer on the Alaska - Yukon Boundary Survey, shot a Brown Bear on the Arctic slope of the mountains on the 141st meridian, about forty - five miles from the Arctic Ocean at Demarcation Point. From three photos of the dead Bear, it appeared to be of the long -nosed type, with a pronounced hump on the shoulders. Mr. Lambart informs me that this bear has been examined by Dr. C. Hart Merriam and declared to be a new species hitherto undescribed . In the Mackenzie delta tracks of Brown Bears are occasionally seen, but the bears are seldom killed, owing to the impracticability of hunting them through the dense underbrush on the islands in summer. 


I have been warned many times by natives against shooting at a Barren Ground Bear unless from above — as a wounded bear has greater difficulty in charging uphill. So far as our experience goes, however, the Barren Ground Bear is an inoffensive and wary brute, preferring to put as much ground as possible between himself and human society. I saw but one unwounded bear come towards me, but as he did not have my scent his advance was perhaps more from mere curiosity than from hostility. As the bear was on the uninhabited coast between Cape Lyon and Dolphin and Union Straits, and he had probably never seen human beings before, this inference seems plausible . Wounded bears are another story, of course, and it is generally admitted that the Barren Ground Bears are tougher or more tenacious of life than the Polar Bears. 


We found the center of greatest abundance of the Barren Ground Bears in the country around Langton Bay and on Horton River, not more than thirty or forty miles south from Langton Bay. One was killed at Cape Lyon, and another on Dease River east of Great Bear Lake. In this region our party killed about twenty specimens, most of which were obtained on our dog-packing expeditions in early fall. The Bears here showed two very distinct types, which for convenience we designate as the long -snouted and short- snouted types. The skulls are readily separated on this basis. It is rather hard to distin guish them by color, as late summer skins are usually much bleached out. In general the long-snouted Bears were inclined to a reddish brown cast of color ( sometimes almost bay color) , while the others were often very dark —dusky brown, with tips of hairs on dorsal surface light grayish brown on fulvous, sometimes with tips a faint golden yellowish tint. The Barren Ground Bears go into hibernation about the first week of October and come out early in April while the weather is still very cold . 


While ascending the Horton River we saw at intervals the nearly fresh tracks of three Barren Ground Bears on December 29th, 1910, and January 1st, 1911, going along the river and over the shortest portages, at least forty miles in approximately a straight line. Neither the Eskimo or the Slavey Indian who were with us had ever before seen evidences of Brown Bears out of their holes in midwinter. They seem to be nearly as fat on their first emergence from their long sleep as in the fall, but speedily lose weight, and early summer specimens are invariably poor. This is natural from the nature of their food , which is to a large extent vegetable. Although the Bear's native heath is often conspicuously furrowed in many places by the unearthed burrows of Arctic spermophiles (Citellus parryi or C. p. kennicotti) I believe that the Bear's search is more for the little mammal's store of roots than for the little animal itself. The Bear's stomach is much more apt to contain masu roots (Polygonum sp. ) than flesh . A bear must needs be very active to catch enough spermophiles above ground in spring and early summer, and if carcasses are not to be found, the Bears evidently suffer most from hunger at this season, when they can neither dig roots for themselves in the frozen ground nor dig out the spermophiles and their caches. One specimen was killed by an Eskimo of our party on Dease River, east of Great Bear Lake, after the Bear had gorged himself on a cache of Caribou meat, having more than fifty pounds of fresh meat in his stomach. A few Bears were met with in the Coppermine country, but throughout the Coronation Gulf region they are apparently rare. The Eskimo say that the Aklak is not found on Victoria Island. The fact that the Barren Ground Bears seem to always have at least two cubs at a birth, that old bears are often seen followed by two young cubs and one yearling cub, and that we never saw more than one yearling cub accompanying its mother, is evidence that there must be considerable mortality among the cubs in the first year, probably during the second spring. The new -born cubs, of course , are nursing in the spring, while the older cubs presumably have to depend upon their own foraging. Otherwise these Bears have practically no enemies besides man. As there is little market for their skins, neither Eskimo nor Indians make any special effort to hunt them, the specimens obtained being in general upon summer Caribou hunts. 


Thalarctos maritimus ( Phipps) . Polar Bear. Nan'nuk (all Eskimo dialects) . 


The Polar Bear or White Bear is a circumpolar cosmopolitan, although seldom found very far from the sea ice. In winter these bears are apt to appear anywhere along the coast, but in summer their occurrence depends largely upon the proximity of pack ice. Along the Arctic coast of Alaska, east of Point Barrow , the species is not very abundant, and the same may be said of the coast east and west of the Mackenzie delta. Numbers are annually killed near Cape Bathurst. The Polar Bears seem to be most abundant around Cape Parry and the southern end of Banks Island, very rarely passing through Dolphin and Union Straits, into Coronation Gulf. Around Cape Parry, in August, 1911 , we saw fourteen Bears within two days roaming about the small rocky islands, evidently marooned when the ice left the beach. They are often seen swimming far out at While whaling about twenty miles off Cape Bathurst ( the nearest land) and about five miles from the nearest ice mass, we saw a Polar Bear which paddled along quite unconcernedly until he winded the ship, then veered away, heading out toward the ice pack . Shortly before Christmas an officer from the schooner Rosie H., with a party of Eskimo, killed a female and two newly born cubs in a hole in the snow near the mouth of Shaviovik River, west of Flaxman Island. It was said to be unusual for a Polar Bear to have cubs so early in the winter.