Living with Polar Bears
In Manitoba, residents experience the wonder and caution of sharing space with one of nature's deadliest carnivores.
About 10,000 tourists come to Churchill, Manitoba, every year to look at polar bears. But only a few hundred people live there year-round, dealing with bears and the savage weather as facts of life. One of them is Brian Ladoon.
Picture a wiry, ponytailed, James Coburn lookalike who has been up all night doing something illegal and now, after four cups of coffee, is all pumped up and ready to hit the day. His black leather pants, salacious goatee, headband and wire-rimmed aviator glasses--steamed over from the minus-thirty temperature outside--are so out of style that you have to wonder if he ended up in Churchill after getting turned around on the road to Haight Ashbury back in 1967.
Brian leaves his truck running, in the Churchill manner. Who's going to steal his truck? There's nowhere to go. Opening the passenger door, he sweeps a pile of tools and trash and ammo boxes onto the floor. A beaten-up Winchester shotgun with electrical tape wrapped around the stock is leaning against the passenger seat. He jams it barrel-down into the space between the seats and makes room for me to climb in.
As we drive out to his dog site southeast of town, he tells me he grew up here. But he was a restless kid and he wanted to see the world. When he was 16 he sneaked onto one of the freighters moored at the docks at the edge of town and the crew didn't find him until they were en route to the north Atlantic. He spent four years at sea. "I went all over the world," he says. "But I never found a place as interesting and wild as this." He came back home to Churchill when he was 20 and decided he was going to be a painter. He moved into a shack out on the tundra and started teaching himself to paint. He painted hundreds of landscapes, trying to capture the subtle, shifting colors of the tundra, the sea and the sky. He painted at night and slept in the daytime. "When it got dark I was too scared to sleep. There were too many bears outside!"
He says that if a bear breaks into a cabin at night you don't have a chance. You have to light the lantern, get your gun and so on. "It's too late by then." So he'd sleep in the daytime. He says he loves bears but he takes a "tough love" approach. "I don't encourage any shenanigans," he says. "I know the bears in my neighborhood and they know me. I've plugged a few, but that's the wrong way to go. You only plug them when they give you no choice. The last one I killed there was something wrong with it. It was extremely aggressive and it stunk really bad. It had killed a couple of my dogs and eaten them. That is insane behavior. Bears will not eat dogs because dog meat stinks. Dogs eat meat, and there isn't an animal on this earth that willingly eats another carnivore."
He quit painting when he realized had progressed as far as he could go. "But I don't live a normal life. It's an artist sort of life. I've experimented with everything, alcohol and drugs and sex. But now my passion is the Canadian Eskimo Dog. Everybody wants to know about endangered bears and endangered tigers and the all the rest but what about endangered dogs? The Canadian Eskimo Dog will go extinct too if people don't do something."
The Inuit people came to the arctic about 2,000 years ago and brought the dog with them. He says it's a completely different dog than the well-known Siberian husky and the Alaskan malamute. Very few southerners have ever seen a bona-fide Eskimo dog, because there are so few of them. In the 1950s about 20,000 Eskimo dogs lived in the north. But in the 1960s, the snowmobile made them obsolete, and within a few decades the breed had dwindled to several hundred animals. Since then, a few devotees have managed to keep it from the brink of extinction, and he has 175 of them, the largest group in existence.
Several miles south of town, he unlocks a gate and we drive along a windswept ridge. When his dogs spot him approaching in the truck they all start to howl and scream: God is here. They have incredibly thick pelts. Asian-eyed and powerful, they look as wild as wolves, but when Ladoon gets out of the truck and walks amongst them they fawn and wriggle.
Most of his dogs are chained up, but some of the more dominant members of the group run free and keep an eye out for bears. He says as many as 20 bears frequent the area. As we're walking along, he kneels to examine one dog. Two of the free ones gambol around him. I keep going, checking for bear tracks. Sure enough, about forty steps further on I spot a trail in the snow, footprints the size of cake platters. They look fresh. As I'm following the tracks, a flicker of movement catches my eye. About a hundred yards ahead, a polar bear rolls up onto its haunches. It has been resting on the ground. Then another bear stands up beside it. They are enormous. Sitting up a hundred yards away, they stare at me, sniffing the wind. The truck is a good two hundred yards away. Brian is unarmed, kneeling in the snow beside the dog. "Hey Brian," I call to him in a calm voice. "We have company."
Brian stands up. The two free dogs romp along beside him. "I know those two," he says. "They've been here for two months. Full-grown males. Lords of the Arctic."
"You're not worried?"
"No," he says. "I'd give them a little bird shot in the rear end if they needed it. But these guys are cool, they know the rules. And the dogs would go after them in a second if I gave the word."
We stand there for a long moment looking at the bears. They look at us. The dogs sit at Brian's heels, glancing up at him for the slightest gesture. "That's what people come to see," he says, nodding toward the bears. "Money power isn't good enough for people anymore. They're searching for spirit power. Nature is the true religion, and polar bears are what we have now instead of gods."
"How old are those bears?"
"Ten years old at least. A thousand pounds. They've been around. It's the young bears you have to worry about. They come over the hill like teenagers swaggering into a bar. They'll walk up, and swat the dogs. They have no balance. They haven't learned yet. The older bears like this spot because it's prime territory, and I like having them here because they run the young ones off."
"How do these ones get along with the dogs?"
"Pretty well, but it's random. They get used to each other and then the barriers drop. Some hate each other. Others want to make contact but they don't know how. I've seen the bears come right up and lay down with the dogs and sleep with them. It's like a slot machine."
"What if I was here by myself and I stumbled into these guys?"
"They would woof a warning, then approach you. At that point you'd be smart to throw a mitten down and back off."
"Maybe they'd sniff it, give you time to get away. You don't want to run. That turns them on, gets a predatory response. You know what works the best? Peeing on the ground. That keeps them sniffing for quite a while." He laughs. "Sometimes it's not that easy trying to pee when a big bear is walking toward you."
Excerpted from In Bear Country: Adventures Among North America's Largest Predators, by Jake MacDonald. Lyons Press, 272 pages, $18.95.