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Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2006

OLD NIC'S NOTEBOOK

CHRISTMAS IN THE ARCTIC

Guns, geese and bears by the pair


We leaned back in our seats and gazed at the ruins of the goose. Our hut on Devon Island was festooned with decorations we'd made from toilet paper, and the five of us -- the Arctic Institute of North America's wintering party in Canada's far north, straddling the Arctic Circle above Baffin Island -- wore homemade paper hats and silly grins.

News photo
Young Nic with one of the attacking bears I shot on Boxing Day 1961. FRITZ KOERNER PHOTO

The day before (though the sun didn't come up at all), was Christmas Eve 1961, and the Royal Canadian Air Force had parachuted down two big wicker baskets of mail and presents, including several bottles of whisky and brandy. It was the first alcohol we had tasted since the summer before, and I alone got six cans of British beer from my Dad. We should have had three baskets, but one labeled as "Xmas turkey and wine" was mysteriously "mislaid" at the Montreal airport. The ones we got were labeled "Personal mail and scientific preservatives."

Alan let out a loud burp and squinted at me. "Go on then Nic lad, tell us how you defended yourself against this goose. Rest in Peace."

The expedition had a rule that no birds, hares or any other living creature was to be killed except in self-defense. However, one day in early October, when the far shores of the lake just outside our back door had been carpeted white with snow geese, it just so happened that I had been fretting that the ice-breaker supposedly bringing our supply of winter vegetables, fresh meat and vitamins might have "mislaid" those supplies in Quebec City. Then, when I also had a vision of all those plaid-jacketed, red-capped American hunters waiting with their shotguns down south, the temptation overwhelmed me.

"Go on Nic, you don't have to be modest," said Fritz.

"Well, there I was," said I, "taking a stroll around the lake . . . "

"With a loaded .303 Lee Enfield rifle," interjected Spencer, the expedition leader, still trying to be cross with me for what he considered to be a breach of rules. He ate as much goose as anybody, so I ignored him and carried on.

" . . . when suddenly, with no warning, this savage goose swept out of the sky, eyes blazing, fangs snapping, talons reaching . . . "

"Ooooh, must have been horrible," said Alan.

"Oh, it was," I assured him.

"So what happened then, did you crap your pants?" asked Fritz.

"No, I fell to my knees, pleading for mercy and praying for salvation, but this goose came on with vicious intent -- and for sure I knew my life would be forfeit."

"So you shot the poor thing," said Spencer.

"And very delicious it was," said Brian.

"Clear case of self-defense," said Alan, pushing his plate away and reaching for a whisky bottle.

"Anyway," said I, "if the Good Lord did not want us to eat geese, he wouldn't have made them of meat."

"I'll drink to that," said Brian, reaching for his second bottle of brandy.

The temperature outside was minus 4C, but there was no wind. We had not seen the sun for six weeks, and it would be February before we saw it again. Our winter tasks were mainly to take observations of the weather and relay them by radio, while also taking measurements of ice and of currents in the sea below the ice. As well, we had to leave caches of food and fuel all over the north coast of the island for the summer parties of scientists who would start coming in the following May. The nearest other humans were in the Inuit settlement of Grise Fjord, more than 100 km away on Ellesmere Island.

In the sky above, the aurora moved in broad curtains of shimmering green, tinged with pink and blue, stretching from horizon to horizon. The smoke from our chimney hugged the ground, flowing with the cold air that came down to us from the ice cap.

"Who's on duty tonight?" asked Spencer.

"Me," said Brian, his spectacles all steamed up, his face red.

"Wouldn't give much for your data tonight," said Alan, "that's your second bloody bottle of brandy."

"It's Christmas," said Brian -- "so bugger off!"

A few more drinks and we did just that, wobbling off to our cots and sleeping bags in the hut next door.

We were all soundly snoring when somebody staggered out of bed, clomping around as he pulled his heavy boots on. Then came a strangled squeak, the slam of a door, and the light went on. I sat up in my sleeping bag and saw Spencer fumbling with a rifle. "Bloody hell," I thought, "he's going to execute me for killing that goose!"

"Bears," said Spencer, hopelessly trying to put the rifle magazine in the wrong way around. I got out of bed, dressed rather sexily in thermal underwear, and slipped my feet into my sealskin mukluks. I took the rifle from Spencer, who hated guns anyway.

"Leave it be, they'll go away -- they always do," I said.

"No, no, they're trying to break into the dining hut, there's two of them, just outside, and anytime now Brian will come ambling back from the observation shack."

"OK, I'll be sheriff," I said, jacking a round into the breach and opening the door. The moon was not quite full, but with the clear sky, the stars and the aurora it was quite light -- and only 5 meters away, between the dining hut and the sleeping hut, was a large polar bear. Seven meters to my left stood another on his hind legs, rocking to and fro and swiping at the hut. Spencer, Alan and Fritz were standing behind me.

"Shall I shoot or not?" I asked our intrepid leader, he who had previously been so vociferously annoyed at my shooting the goose. Spencer nodded vigorously.

I shot the closest bear from the side at an angle that took the bullet through the joint of the shoulder and into the heart. It collapsed without a sound. I fired at the other bear as it dropped to all fours and charged at me with a roar. Working the bolt as quickly as possible, I got off two shots which slowed him down, and then a third shot at 2-meters range. The bear turned and ran off, and I hit him with another shot that made him stagger. Fritz, behind me, was making snide remarks about missing at such close range. Alan dashed into the dining hut to get another rifle, and we all donned parkas then tracked the male bear for 25 meters to where it lay very dead.

My stalwart comrades helped to haul the two bears into the storage hut, and then unanimously announced that since I shot the damn things, I should skin and butcher them.

When I cut the second bear open I found that three bullets had gone through his heart and the fourth had broken his shoulder and severed the aorta. I cut the heart out and went into the dining hut, where the other four were having coffee. I dumped the bloody thing on the table in front of Fritz.

"Call that a rotten shot? Look at those bullet holes! Three through the heart and one through the aorta."

"Well, it was close enough wasn't it? If you'd fixed a bayonet you could have skewered it," said Fritz, waving me away.

I took care to dump the livers where no other animal could get at them, for polar bear livers contain highly toxic levels of vitamin A. Brian cooked the hearts for lunch that Boxing Day, and we fed on the rest of the meat throughout the winter. Polar bear tastes a bit strong, rather like seal only more so, but rubbed in spices, salt and pepper and cooked slowly and thoroughly, it was such a relief from the canned meat we had in our U.S. Army surplus combat rations.

I made a pot roast of bear haunch the next time it was my day to cook, with a dessert of freshly baked apple pie (dried apples, soaked overnight in water, sugar and cinnamon) with ice cream made of powdered milk, sugar, vanilla essence and fresh snow. The other four all ate heartily, but when I generously offered to tell them in detail about how I'd defended the base camp against attacking bears, they told me (rather bluntly) to shut up and wash the dishes. Brian even said that I should not to be so conceited.

"Just because you've drunk all the brandy, you crabby old s**t," I retorted with lightning repartee, then took my revenge by singing right through "The Twelve Days of Christmas" -- five golden rings, partridge, pear tree and all.

* I found this record of events in an old box of notes I wrote that winter of 1961-62, and which my daughter recently found in storage in Canada. I edited out some of the more ribald comments of my expedition comrades Spencer Appolonio, Brian Beck, Fritz Koerner and Alan Gill . . . bless them all.



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