Siege of the Polar Bears
Credit: RGB Ventures LLC / Alamy
"Did you get a chance to talk to Luke and Gordon?" Paul Aliktiluk asked me when I climbed into his truck. He'd offered to take me out on patrol. I said I'd talked to Luke, and it sounded like he'd saved their lives.

"Yep, I did! It was funny!" he said. "Funny to see those guys run. They were running for their dear lives. I mean, it's not funny, really, but just how they looked. They were really running. You don't know how strong or fast you are until something like that happens."

After Luke and Gordon made it to safety, Aliktiluk said, he chased the bear out to the scrap yard by the tank farm and shot a cracker cartridge at it, which spurred it to run onto the roof of an old pickup, leap onto a road grader, and then spring onto the roof of another pickup before sprinting out onto the ice.

"They're tricky, like monkeys," he said. "I didn't even know they could do that!"

In his early fifties, with a shaved head and wire-rimmed glasses, Aliktiluk reminded me impressionistically of the Dalai Lama. I could tell when he'd pulled up in front of the guesthouse because pulsations of dance music struck the porch walls. "Welcome aboard!" he said, and waited for a moment before lowering the volume.

We drove along the bay toward the cemetery. Aliktiluk made a point of inspecting the cemetery road frequently because it ran along a point in the bay that bears often crossed on their way to town. We could see the lights of snowmobiles out on the frozen water. "I like when people are out here – kind of keeps the bears away," Aliktiluk said.

After a pause, he mentioned that he paid for satellite radio, which was well worth it because he patrolled solo. I asked what song was playing. He seemed surprised and a little disappointed. "Snoop Dogg – 'Sweat,'" he said. "You don't know it?" Defensively, I said that I didn't know the song, but of course I knew Snoop Dogg – I just hadn't recognized his voice because he was rapping through an effects filter. Aliktiluk gave me a skeptical look and then said that the energy of dance music helped get him through his midnight shifts.

Aliktiluk's cell phone rang: The ringtone was "Gangnam Style," by Psy, at that moment the globe's biggest hit. It was his daughter, wanting to know when he'd be coming home. She was making caribou stew with macaroni. I said the traditionalists in town probably wouldn't use macaroni. "Probably not, but we like it," he said. The problem with the meat I ate, he said, was that it had no blood. Blood is full of nutrients; it's where the taste resides. "If we go down south and can't eat country meat, we go a little crazy," he said. "We get a tense feeling."

We saw fresh bear tracks by the cemetery, but they led from town back onto the ice, so we didn't investigate. Like Leo Ikakhik, Aliktiluk is a realist – there was no point in trying to intercept all the bears going into and out of town. The road narrowed and dead-ended in a bank of snow, and Aliktiluk was careful to turn around without encroaching on the cemetery grounds. "I try not to disturb the dead," he said. "I respect them. Even though they're dead."

At the dump, six polar bears were eating nearly shoulder to shoulder. Aliktiluk said there must be fresh batches of spoiled Northern Store inventory and Kentucky Fried Chicken leavings. KFC and Coca-Cola were working at cross-purposes in Arviat: KFC attracted the bears; Coke paid Leo Ikakhik to repel them. Aliktiluk observed that the bears had so much to eat, they might not even bother scavenging in town that night.

We made another circuit, during which Aliktiluk asked me whether Michael Jackson's casket was really gold – he'd seen the funeral on YouTube and couldn't believe anyone would waste that much money – and whether Saddam Hussein had really lived on Mars bars in his spider hole. "I like to think weird stuff every now and then," he said. "I like to think back to math problems in high school because I always liked math. And science."

When we returned to the dump, there were two more bears. "That guy has a caribou hide, and that guy has a big plastic bag in his mouth," Aliktiluk said. One reason the town doesn't plow the trash over right away, he told me, is that mushers who keep sled dogs are sometimes so short of cash that they scrounge for dog food at the dump. "So it doesn't just benefit the bears," he said.

We watched them for a while, and then Aliktiluk asked, rhetorically, "Why would Coca-Cola use them as mascots? What's Coca-Cola have to do with them?" Like everyone, he was irked by the cartoonish recasting of the animal. "Polar bears are not cute," he said, and suggested sarcastically that Pepsi retain grizzlies.

It was approaching 2 am, and we were alone with the bears. Aliktiluk asked if I wanted to see how they reacted to the sound of a shotgun being pumped, and I said sure. He opened the window and racked the slide a few times. The bears' heads came up right away. As usual, I was impressed by the briskness of the movement – not at all ponderous: a start, a whisk of the neck. Aliktiluk decided to shoot a firecracker shell. It arced out of the gun, sparking, landed amid the bears, and then popped and flared. The bears had been shifting uneasily, and at the explosion they rushed off agilely. "Whoever invented that – I thank him," Aliktiluk said, and then, after a pause: "They'll be back in about five minutes."

Jeff Tietz wrote about drug trafficking on the U.S.-Mexico border for the April 2012 issue.