Siege of the Polar Bears
Credit: RGB Ventures LLC / Alamy
Before I flew to Arviat, I arranged to talk to a young woman named Rebecca Nariyak, who'd been chased and nearly killed by a bear four years earlier. I gave her a call a few hours after I returned from patrol with Leo Ikakhik, and we agreed to talk later that evening. It turned out that she lived three blocks from my guesthouse and that Michael Ivu, the hunter I'd met while on patrol with Ikakhik, was her father. She said their hunting party had shot a bear and that they were almost finished butchering it, so I walked over.

It was still afternoon and the sky held residual light, but the sun had been down for a while. Two young guys in deep fur-trimmed hoods sped by on snowmobiles. Kids were playing hockey along the street in front of the Anglican church. A bundled woman was pulling a small sled to the Padlei Co-op. The co-op competes with Arviat's other grocery, the Northern Store, popular for its built-in Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Several snowmobiles were parked at hasty angles in front of Ivu's small house. On profoundly bloody snow, inside a ring of men: a heap of coily tumescent entrails, a tower of garnet-red cuts of bear meat, and the huge head, balanced on top of its own folded, pristine coat. I stood back, the men aloof, although Ivu and another man nodded at me as I approached. I shook Ivu's hand and congratulated him; he nodded again but remained expressionless. A younger guy looked at me and pointed to the polar bear and grinned, but there was no consensus welcome, so I walked home. To many of the men, I imagined, I was just another southerner reflexively antagonistic to polar bear kills.

When I went back to the house in the final dusk, in the truck this time, Rebecca was standing in the porch doorway, smoking a cigarette. I'd asked if she wanted me to pick her up, figuring she'd think the offer was silly, but she'd accepted, seeming relieved, and I had the obvious realization that she was scared to walk around alone.

Rebecca is 22, slender and cute and whisper-voiced – often barely audible: I had to quickly retrain my ear. She looks down when she smiles or, rarely, laughs. We sat in two easy chairs in the guesthouse foyer. On the wall above us were the skins of a polar bear and a grizzly bear, heads attached, incisors bared. It was about this time of year when the bear chased her, Rebecca said. She seemed on the verge of tears, but her voice was so faint I couldn't quite tell. "They were saying, 'There's a bear inside the town,' and we were going to go see my grandmother because she was alone and it was in her area, and the bear just . . . showed up," she said.

It appeared soundlessly in front of them almost as soon as they walked out the door. "It was actually a big bear," she said. "We had to run back to our neighbor's house. And as we were running, the bear was shot from behind." If the bear hadn't been shot, it would have caught her. She nodded when I asked if she'd had nightmares, and then said, "Because I had to protect my sister and run away from the bear at the same time. I was the older sister who had to protect her. Actually, I had to push her. She was too slow – she was wearing big boots." She smiled an injured smile for a second.

I asked how she felt walking around town now. "I'm barely out now, during the dark," she said. "I'm always scared to be out in the dark." She got nervous during the day, too: "I actually don't walk around much anymore."

In the truck on the way back to her house, I asked whether she'd be willing to live far from her family and friends and birthplace to get away from bears – someplace far from Nunavut. "Yes," she said.