Siege of the Polar Bears
Credit: RGB Ventures LLC / Alamy
Leo Ikakhik, the bear monitor, patrols the town's perimeter alone, with no cell phone or radio. Kukik told me that he is skilled at what he does, but "there are just too many bears, and I'm pretty sure he's getting burned out – it's too big a responsibility." Sometimes he manages to keep bears out of Arviat, but he doesn't expect to. It may take him an hour to complete a patrol circuit, so bears have plenty of time to enter town undetected. Without a radio, Ikakhik can't respond to sightings or emergencies or coordinate with the town cop on duty.

"It'd be good to have someone else out there with me, and I could back him up and he could back me up," Ikakhik told me at my guesthouse before taking me out on patrol. "The bears can get pretty spooky – sometimes they run behind me before I can see them."

Ikakhik is 52, short, rotund, and full-faced, with narrow eyes and a wispy goatee. He wore a smudged white ball cap with bear prints on it and carried a stuffed polar bear key chain. Around his blue parka – shiny where it rubbed his belly, with rents stitched here and there – he'd clipped a shotgun cartridge belt.

"Sometimes it's an easy job, and sometimes it's tough," Ikakhik told me. "But I love what I'm doing. I always approach the animal as the animal's behaving. If they make a lot of stops and wait for you and look at you, they're uncomfortable. They hardly ever charge, but you never know. I make sure I'm at the right, safe distance, and I watch the condition of the terrain very carefully."

I showed Ikakhik my gear, which I'd bought in a rush at an REI. "You might want some more stuff," he said, and offered to lend me some clothes. We agreed to meet at his house an hour or so before midnight for re-outfitting.

When I arrived later that night, Ikakhik met me on the porch stairs to tell me the house had no electricity; he hadn't been able to pay the bill. "We're running on a generator, so we still have TV and other good things like that, but we're trying to get it turned back on," he said. "I'm not asking, just letting you know what the situation is."

From the porch, Ikakhik brought in wolf mittens, a traditional parka with a wolf-trimmed hood, wind pants, and beaver boots. I exchanged my Sorrel boots for the beaver ones, pulled on the pants, slipped the parka over my goose-down jacket and shell, and pulled the enormous wolf mittens over my Gore-Tex mittens. My REI gear amounted to a good base layer. (The Inuit parka hood – an integral part of the garment, stiff enough to maintain its shape in hard wind, extending far beyond the face – is phenomenally engineered. It's a chimney for body heat, which flows upward and recirculates as the wolf trim delays its escape. The trim keeps tailwind from bending around the hood edges, and just a few overlapping fur filaments cut wind flow noticeably.)

Around midnight, Ikakhik and I hopped on a Polaris 550 snowmobile and glided down empty streets. He quickly turned out onto the shore, which we followed until we passed the cemetery – rows of white crosses on a ridge – and turned onto the ice. Fog hung shiftily over the bay, the moon occasionally visible through it. The snowmobile skis clattered over ragged ice – bladed, hummocky, gravelly where we hit spits of land.

We swung away from the cemetery and headed west to check on some sled dogs. Curled in front of their houses, they looked up at us with tranquil, thick-lashed eyes. Ikakhik studied the ice for tracks, but calm dogs mean no bears. We circumnavigated two electric fences, paid for by the WWF, with more dogs inside. We could see the dark forms of Arviat's homes, a few glinting, a few immersed in diffusions of sodium streetlights. We inspected a bearproof shipping container filled with cuts of seal and whale for the dogs. The WWF had also paid for this, and several additional storage containers around town. If they were making Arviat less attractive to bears, it was hard to tell.

We continued on toward the airport and tank farm. At a scrap yard, Ikakhik slowed down and began nosing in among corroded trawler hulls and staved-in shipping containers and dead bulldozers. Bears make sleeping nests in the wreckage, so what we were doing seemed insane to me, an excellent way to startle a bear in close quarters.

We crossed the airport road and descended to the bay ice on the other side, inspecting an isolated pump house on a long point. As we headed back into town, Ikakhik pointed out fresh bear tracks.

Hours later, the sun showed a fraction of itself, and we made for the dump. Behind snowed-over trash, Ikakhik pointed out sleeping hollows from the night before – inexplicably small depressions in snowdrifts. "They're big, but they can curl up real small," Ikakhik said. "They're very flexible."

We turned away from the dump, and there in the middle distance was a bear. It was about nine feet tall, and moving away from town, but it was close enough that Ikakhik felt compelled to hurry it along. He gunned the Polaris. A good-size polar bear could probably pick up a snowmobile and throw it some distance. We gained on the bear, which was stirring and scary. Had it turned and charged, it probably wouldn't have been able to catch us, and Ikakhik would have had time to lob a few flash-bang cartridges before we took off; but snowmobiles can stall and guns can jam, and polar bears are fast. This one kept on going, though, and we paced it until the ice became uneven. Ikakhik turned around. All I could see was white, but he said we weren't far from slush and open water, and it would be a bad place to get stuck.

On our way in, we met three hooded hunters on snowmobiles, one trailing a handmade sled. A local elder named Michael Ivu was leading the hunt. The others were young men from nearby Rankin Inlet. One had a bear tag and had chosen to hunt in bear-rich Arviat. Speaking in Inuktitut, Ikakhik described what we'd seen, and they disappeared into the white glare of the bay.