Siege of the Polar Bears

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A few hours before my turboprop landed in the small Inuit town of Arviat last November, airport workers chased a polar bear off the runway. Three bears had passed by the terminal earlier that morning. Around noon, a fifth bear entered town, loped down the main street, turned a corner, and took off after two young men. Paul Aliktiluk, one of Arviat’s two cops, arrived just in time to head it off. That evening, over by the cemetery road, a sixth bear charged a woman named Judy Ubluriak, who dashed into a nearby house. Later that night, explosions woke residents in their beds as the town’s newly appointed bear monitor, Leo Ikakhik, used firecracker shells to scare off a seventh bear. Ikakhik did not attempt to dislodge the eight or so bears at the town dump eating Arviat’s leftovers – residents had already ceded the dump to the bears.

In winter, Arviat is a fleck in a homogeneous whiteness of frozen, snow-buried sponge lake and marsh and sea – a peninsular town of 2,700 people on the western shore of Hudson Bay, in the northern Canadian territory of Nunavut. No roads lead to Arviat; no other town lies within 160 miles of it. Everyone’s first language is Inuktitut, and nearly everyone hunts the same animals they’ve hunted forever: beluga whale, ringed seal, caribou, white fox, polar bear, arctic char. Arviat’s few hundred frame houses sit above the tundra on pilings, along an irregular grid of nameless streets.

Approximately half the world’s 25,000 polar bears live in the Canadian Arctic. About 1,200 of them pass Arviat every fall as they migrate up Hudson Bay’s west coast on their way to the high Arctic. Evolution has synchronized their migration to the freezing of the bay. As they move northward, they range east onto the widening ice. Polar bears live mainly on seal, and ringed seals have an affinity for shelf ice. By the time the bears reach Arviat’s latitude, most should already be out on the bay, hunting seals. But the climate has warmed in recent years, and the ice freezes later, so the bears hug the coast longer. Their new route runs straight through Arviat.

Probably no other town on the planet has more per capita polar bear incursions than Arviat does in the late fall. At least 50 bears come right into town every season, according to local wildlife officer Joe Savikataaq. Last year, Leo Ikakhik spotted seven or eight bears every day between mid-October and early December – more than 300 sightings in six weeks.

“We’re the number one target,” a tribal elder named Peter Alareak told me, noting that Arviat was far worse than Churchill, which lies 150 miles to the south and bills itself as the Polar Bear Capital of the World. A decade or so ago, there were only a few months a year when you saw bears. Now there are only a few months a year when you don’t see them. “You never know where they’re going to pop up,” Alareak said. “You might be inside and want to go out for a smoke, and next thing you know, the bear is right there.”

It’s been like this for a half-dozen years, yet the residents of Arviat had shot only 24 intruding bears in self-defense – a display of extreme temperance considering that the Inuit have always been polar bear hunters and almost every home contains a high-powered rifle. The Canadian government sets an annual quota of polar bear hunting tags for Arviat and other Inuit communities, and although it permits kills “in defense of life or property,” those kills count against the quota. That means that every self-defense kill takes a polar bear away from a traditional hunter. Because government biologists consider Hudson Bay’s polar bear population vulnerable, Arviat receives only eight tags a year – far below the number traditionally hunted.

No one in Arviat has yet been mauled or killed, but for many residents the town has become a scary place. I kept hearing that people were a serious injury or death away from shooting bears preemptively, which at this point could mean carnage.

After I arrived in Arviat, I picked up my rented Ford Ranger and drove out to the dump. There weren’t many streetlights, but it was a clear night and the road distinguished itself by a uniform glaze and filigree incisions of snowmobile blades. As I pulled in, I saw a pale shape amid the trash mounds about 150 yards away, but it wasn’t moving and seemed too big to be a bear. I drove forward slowly and got to within 100 feet of it. It was a bear. The scale seemed wrong: On all fours, it was too wide and too long. Standing, it might have been nine feet tall. The breadth of the shoulders and area of the shoulder blades and circumference of the midsection were well beyond common bear dimensions and nonsensically far beyond human dimensions. A resident of Arviat had once seen a 13-foot-tall bear. Looking up at that bear would have been like looking up at someone leaning out of a second-story window. A large male polar bear is arguably closer to dinosaur scale than human scale.

The bear had buried its face in trash. Then two ears flicked up, and it raised its head and took a few steps back. It moved with languor – I would have expected it to lumber and thud, but its steps were eminently controlled. I could see the machinery of its muscles and bones working beneath its fitted coat. It swung its head to one side and back before resuming its meal.

Polar bears are aquatic animals: Their paws are webbed for swimming and their necks highly extendable for breathing in rough seas; a whalelike layer of blubber makes them buoyant and impervious to cold – they’re so well-insulated, they’re nearly invisible in infrared photographs. They can swim more than 200 miles, run 25 miles per hour, walk on thinner ice than seems possible because their paws splay wildly to distribute their weight. They can smell a 150-pound seal under three feet of ice from a mile away, approach its breathing hole soundlessly, and casually pull it from the sea. They will reach into ice floe threads to grab 3,000-pound beluga whales. As the whales spin to get away, the bears’ claws dig spiral gashes into their bodies, a design that may impress whale hunters years later.

Encounters between humans and polar bears are infrequent, and fatal attacks remain exceedingly rare. But polar bears are superb and opportunistic hunters, and if they’re hungry enough, they will kill and eat humans. Unlike brown bears, which usually attack only when they’re startled, and will often maul a victim and leave, polar bears are predatory. They are stealth hunters: You won’t see or hear them until they charge.

I made out two more bears, absorbed in eating, before the whine-roar of an approaching snowmobile caused them to scurry away like deer and disappear behind the piles.

In 2011, a bear broke Darryl Baker’s sled-dog pen, killing one of his dogs. Carefully bred and highly trained, sled dogs are worth several thousand dollars each. When the bear ignored a warning shot, Baker killed it.

Darryl and his wife, Kukik, live near Hudson Bay, just off the cemetery road. I drove over one day to talk about the bear problem. It was 2 p.m. and the sun was setting. Like the 8 a.m. sunrise, the sunset would last for two hours – in late November, half the day’s illumination is twilight, which tempers the overwhelming whiteness of the land.

Driving to the Bakers’, I passed insubstantial wood-frame houses with vinyl or wood siding, incongruously painted pale yellow, rust, sea green, powder blue. Smoke or steam came up from elbowed aluminum chimneys. Every house had an enclosed entry porch for removing snow gear and storing butchered meat. (Several times in Arviat, on the way to someone’s living room, I passed a caribou’s upper half.) Trucks were rare; most houses had ATVs or snowmobiles or no vehicles at all. In front of several homes stood small scrap-wood sleds, some with mini cabins, for pulling groceries and children. Huskies lay tethered in yards. I noticed the whiskers of a frozen dead seal poking out of a porch-step snowbank; a wolf pelt hung from a railing.

The Bakers’ house was blue and sizable. Their comfortable living area smelled faintly, but not unpleasantly, of frozen sea mammal. A bearskin and photos of seal and whale and caribou hunts hung on the walls. Darryl, having thrown out his back ax-cleaving frozen seal and whale carcasses to feed the dogs, was lying on a big sectional, talking on a cell phone in front of a large flatscreen TV. Kukik, who is 31 and even-tempered, offered me tea and a seat at the kitchen table, then clicked two cartridges of chai into an automatic teamaker.

Darryl got off the phone, stiffly ambled over, and sat down.

“Are you walking?” he asked. “Because there was a polar bear right out here on this road about an hour ago.”

Darryl and Kukik said that many people in Arviat don’t walk around after dark anymore. Some don’t walk around in the daytime. Children rarely play outside, and when they do, their parents order them to stay within “running distance” of the house. Kukik said that as a girl she roamed carefree through town and along the water, but she would never let her daughter do that now.

The current situation, Darryl pointed out, would not have been a problem for his grandfathers. As recently as the late fifties, the Inuit people lived in small, seminomadic bands. Arviat had been a summer hunting camp. The mobility the Inuit surrendered when they moved to Arviat made them vulnerable to changes in the migration route, a vulnerability magnified by population concentration. A dump became necessary, and for the first time, many hundreds of caches of whale and seal meat lay side by side on the tundra. Arviat was now a bear lure.

The Canadian government introduced the quota system for polar bear hunting in the 1960s, a response to overharvesting by commercial and sport hunters. When westerners (or “southerners,” as they are often called in Nunavut) screwed up the climate and drove polar bears right into Arviat’s backyards, a sensible solution would have been to exempt Arviat residents from the quota and implement a bear deterrence system. A model for such a system exists: Churchill employs a full-time bear response team, maintains a bear holding facility, and has a transport helicopter on call. Bears are darted, marked, and confined as soon as they enter town, and then flown 30 miles north. Churchill also ships its garbage south.

But even as the bear problem became life-threateningly acute in Arviat, no politician moved to shield the town. Leo Ikakhik’s position as Arviat’s bear monitor had been created with funds not from the government but from the World Wildlife Fund, in 2011. The WWF provided Ikakhik, 52, with a snowmobile and firecracker shells and rubber bullets, but he had to use his own shotgun and rifle. His job exists only because the Coca-Cola Company, having made the polar bear its mascot, recently contributed to the WWF, which in turn gave Arviat the money to hire Ikakhik. To people like the Bakers, the WWF does more harm than good: It exploits a caricature of the polar bear – vulnerable, noble, adorable – to lobby for the hunting prohibitions that leave people in Arviat defenseless.

The Inuit, of course, have always hunted polar bears sustainably. To people in Arviat, the southerners’ assumption seems to be that unregulated Inuit would treat polar bears like white people had.

Darryl and Kukik said that no one in Arviat “played around” with wildlife. The culture didn’t allow it. “Musk ox, caribou, beluga – this is our big farm up here,” Darryl said.

“We use every part, right down to the bones,” Kukik said.

No protection, imposed defenselessness – the message, inadvertent or not, seemed clear: An Inuit life was not worth a polar bear’s. Darryl and Kukik Baker said that when large predators threaten southerners, those predators tend to disappear. That’s true: If mountain lions from the San Gabriel Wilderness began overrunning parts of northern Los Angeles County, disemboweling pets and stalking children, and the county was too poor to defend itself, it’s unlikely that government officials would do nothing except fund studies of the mountain lion population, prohibit residents from shooting lions in self-defense, and chirpily emphasize that the WWF had hired a lion monitor – one guy on a dirt bike with a beanbag shotgun and no radio – to safeguard 30 miles of suburb-wilderness interface. This is what the Canadian government has offered Arviat.

Kukik got up and brought out a polar bear pelt from a back room. She’d cut circles out of one end for mittens. Polar bear mittens are unique because they never get wet, she said. She hadn’t decided what she was going to use the rest for. Maybe boots, maybe blankets.

I asked what polar bear tasted like.

“Like walrus,” Darryl said. Along with walrus, people in Arviat eat seal and whale blubber, but the meat is generally disdained. “To me, at least – I don’t know how it is for other people.”

“It’s really tender,” Kukik said. “And the blubber – it’s not like a cow; it’s on the outside. It’s really good.”

Polar bear shootings are rare enough in Arviat that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation covered Darryl’s kill. Afterward, Kukik said, “there were all these comments from southerners, and they were really nasty. Even if you try to explain to them how we live, they have such tunnel vision that they can’t understand.”

“These are not cuddly, fluffy animals,” Darryl said. “They’re very big and scary, especially for the kids. Some little kid is going to get hurt, and that’ll be the end of the bear problem.”

As I was putting on my gear on the porch, the phone rang. After a brief conversation in Inuktitut, Kukik said, “Keep your eyes open – there’s a bear in town.”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.

One day I spent a few hours with Paul Aningat, a weather observer at Arviat’s airport, asking about bear sightings and climate change. The observation room is on the second floor of the tiny airport terminal, overlooking the compressed-snow runway. A binocular telescope on a tripod points at the horizon; two computer monitors display data from exterior instruments. Beyond the runway, in all directions: a flat white plain.

Aningat, who is 49, told me that he had to be at his post by sunup, and that bears tend to be most active at night. “When I walk to work, I always say, ‘Here goes nothing!'” he said. “But we see them even in daytime now. Few days ago, Thursday, a bear walked right into town from the north. Right in the afternoon!”

Aningat has been watching global warming work its changes for some time: “I just saw a red fox – first time I ever saw a red fox in my life around here. Most of the time you see white foxes; that’s it. Never saw a martin around here in my life, till last year. Maybe since 2002, I started seeing American bald eagles. Nothing before that. One of the hunters, a few years ago, shot a moose. Up here. First time I heard of anyone shooting a moose up here.”

For most of Aningat’s life, the bay froze by late September and didn’t melt until late May or June. It was now late November, and although the shelf ice had taken hold, the bay still hadn’t frozen completely.

I asked Aningat about the bear on the runway the day I flew in. It was a seven-footer, he said. Earlier that day, a younger bear had come within 30 feet of the terminal. “Wait!” he said, and turned up the volume on the radio, which was tuned to the community station. Paul Aliktiluk was speaking animatedly in Inuktitut. “This guy’s talking about a bear,” Aningat said – one had just entered town. He grabbed a pair of binoculars, jumped up on an empty desk against the town-facing wall, and began scanning the streets through a high rectangular window. “I saw the third one around 8 am right over there,” he said, “and this time last year I saw 14 in one day alone.”

He turned around on the desk, looked out over the runway with the binoculars, and quickly jumped down again. “There’s a bear maybe three miles from here right now,” he said. He adjusted the binocular telescope. “Here, look,” he said. After a while I made out a bearish shape halfway to the horizon.

“It’s heading down the bay,” he said. “And last Friday night, last week, there were six right behind the community center.”

Aningat proceeded to list all the bears he’d personally seen since September. There were dozens.

I’d barely gotten into my truck to leave when Aningat ran out the terminal doors. “Do you want to see a bear?” he yelled. We hurried back upstairs and jumped on his desk. At the edge of town, a bear was smoothly cantering toward a sled-dog enclosure on the bay. It investigated briefly and then headed for open water.The trauma of being chased by a bear is durable and perspective-altering. It’s like entering a new land. After the event, you walk in a different Arviat than everyone else, one that is not just dangerous but manifestly lethal. You will be far more likely to see the crisis in binary terms: Arviat will not be fit to live in until the bears are gone.

“There’s nothing in your mind, just ‘Run!’ ” Luke Atatsiak told me, a little sweat standing out on his forehead. Luke is one of the young men who got chased the day I arrived in Arviat. We were sitting at the dining table in his house, a slight-looking A-frame with a single first-floor room. Luke is rangy, with a melancholy face that changes entirely when he smiles – a crooked-tooth smile so wide it nearly forces his eyes closed.

“While I was running, I was in my boots, steel-toe, and somehow I didn’t slip,” he said. He kept thinking about this detail, how strange it was that the boots didn’t slow him down. “After what happened, I kept laughing at myself – I didn’t know I could run that fast,” he said.

I asked him whether he would have gotten away if Paul Aliktiluk hadn’t arrived. “No,” he said. “It was too close.”

I asked what he said after Aliktiluk herded the bear back to the bay. “Nothing. Just: ‘I can’t believe it happened,'” Luke said. He kept repeating that. “Now I know how scary they are,” he said.

I asked him how much he thought about it. “Most of the time,” he said.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.“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.

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