Before Mali Moore embarked on a 55-day expedition in far northern Canada with seven other women in 2003, she was given a crash course on bear etiquette.
Mali and her friends — on a trip organized by Camp Manito-wish in Boulder Junction, where they worked — knew they might see not just black bears and grizzlies, but also the fearsome polar bear.
“With polar bears, there’s not really anything you can do,” says Moore. “But we had been taught not to make eye contact with them.” That advice would prove easier said than done.
The group started the canoeing trip in Wollaston Lake in northern Saskatchewan. They then traveled down the Cochrane River, the Thlewiaza River, to Nueltin Lake, up the Thetin River, down the Kognac and Tha-anne rivers and finally into Hudson Bay.
With their trip almost at an end, the eight had seen only one bear, a grizzly, without incident. Although they were camped on the shore of the Hudson, it was low tide and the water was several miles from their camp.
The group set up their tents around their canoes and gear. It was storming and loud, but Moore and her two tent mates heard something outside. “We heard the paddles cling,” Moore says. “We thought it was a fox or something.”
One of the women looked outside and saw a bear, but could not tell what kind. When Moore peeked out, there was no doubt.
“When you see black bears, it’s darker than dark. When you see a polar bear, it’s this white glow. I said, ‘That’s definitely a polar bear.’
“We yelled to the other tents,” she adds. “The next tent heard us but didn’t believe us. But then they saw the bear as it was walking to our tent.”
And then the world’s largest land predator poked its head and front paw inside Moore’s tent, about three feet from the women.
All three did exactly what they were told not to do: They looked the bear in the eyes. “You can’t not make eye contact when its head is in the tent. But it didn’t attack.”
The bear disappeared from view, but they knew it was nearby. All of the women eventually converged together in one tent. They had a shotgun, but since it was rusted from the salty air, they were unsure whether it would fire. They began trying to reach help on a satellite phone and a radio. They also fired a flare in the bear’s direction, but he ignored it.
For about eight hours, a frightful standoff ensued. Moore feared for the worst. “I really thought somebody is going to die. I didn’t think it would necessarily be me, and I didn’t think it would be all of us, but I thought, there’s no way we can all get out of this.”
At one point, Moore had to go to the bathroom, so she huddled just outside the tent. As she relieved herself, she watched the bear.
“It almost looked like a human, digging in our bags,” she remembers. “At one point it laid down with its head on the pack like a pillow. It would eat, but always keep an eye on us. And it would circle us.”
Moore believes the group’s food, which the bear readily devoured, might have spared them. It was food that didn’t have to be killed.
Eventually, two members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrived on four-wheelers. The officers fired warning shots and fireworks, but the bear didn’t budge. Finally, they lit a stick of dynamite and tossed it at the bear. When it blew, the bear appeared stung and it ran away. The officers chased the bear on their ATVs and the bear was soon out of sight.
Unable to evacuate the group on two ATVs, the Mounties suggested a safer camping spot. But the women had had enough. Camp Manito-wish back in Wisconsin arranged for a team from Arviat, about 30 miles away, to come get the group.
Moore says that all eight women suffered from post-traumatic stress over the incident. She became obsessed with polar bears, and for years felt defined by the encounter.
“I don’t understand why nobody got hurt,” she says. She suspects higher powers might have played a role. Her grandmother, who had died years before, had been very involved in Camp Manito-wish.
“When I went on this trip, I felt like maybe I was doing it for her. And so her spirit was maybe with me,” she says. “One of the leaders, one of her best friends, had died just before this trip started. So I felt like we were being protected.”