David Arnatsiaq and four friends took their snowmobiles about 20 minutes outside the Nunavut hamlet of Igloolik on Wednesday to retrieve some igunaq, cured walrus meat considered a delicacy by the Inuit. Arnatsiaq had learned polar bears had found the cache and were enjoying the treat themselves.
"The bears have been eating it, so we decided to get it all; otherwise, we have nothing left," said Arnatsiaq, 58.
The five rode out in dim twilight, as the sun never really rises in Igloolik at this time of year. Knowing there were bears around, the first thing the group did when it got to the site was look around.
"As we were getting the meat out, I checked around," Arnatsiaq said.
"Everybody took turns. We were aware that something might happen."
A mother bear, followed by two nearly grown cubs, emerged from the shadows beside the snowmobiles. She began moving toward one of Arnatsiaq's companions, an Inuit wildlife officer.
The party had two rifles. One was in a sled, beside which stood the two bear cubs. The other gun was about five metres from the officer. The bullets, however, were in the officer's pockets.
Arnatsiaq knew he had to distract the bear from the officer.
"He was the only one with the bullets. Without him, we can do nothing. In order to save him, I had to get the polar bear mad at me."
The only thing he could grab was a hammer from his snowmobile's glove box.
"I took the hammer and put it in her mouth and pulled it to make her get mad at me instead of going after him. He was the only one with the bullets. Without him, we can do nothing. I had to do something."
The bear reacted by moving into the pit where the meat had been stashed, brushing by Arnatsiaq.
"It didn't bite, just pushed me just to see how much I would probably weigh."
But then Arnatsiaq moved and the bear came howling out of the pit right at him. The wildlife officer grabbed the rifle and pulled the trigger, only to hear the click of the hammer on an empty chamber.
"When the bear went after me, it caught up to me right away," Arnatsiaq said. "What I did was face-to-face. I knew it wouldn't bite. Bears don't bite you right away unless you're down.
"I went for her ear, so I could grab the ear and pin her down. But I missed the ear because, when I went for her head, she turned her back so I couldn't reach. I had my hand on her shoulder and she had her paw on my shoulder and we were fighting.
"She was trying to pin me down. I was trying to pin her down also. That's how the bears fight. They don't fight with their mouths. They fight with their paws.
"We were fighting for maybe 15, 20 seconds when I lost my footing and that's when I went down. That's when she went for my shoulder with her head to bite me.
"I know she cannot bite my head, so what I did was put my head where she was trying to bite.
"I had a hammer in my hand. After her nose touches my face, I put my right hand (with the hammer) into her mouth right away. That's when I got up, so she knows I am going to go after her. I started kicking and hitting her with a hammer again."
Finally, the wildlife officer got some bullets into the rifle.
The battle with all three bears ended shortly thereafter.
Was Arnatsiaq scared?
"No. That's not the first time I am face-to-face with a bear. It happened before and the first time was with a camera. I had to poke his nose with a camera to pin him down."
Arnatsiaq is back safe and sound in Igloolik, with cuts to his lip and cheek.
"They put five stitches on one of them and nothing more," he said. "I feel great."
He has learned an important lesson for the next time he visits his walrus cache.
"We'll make damned sure we load that gun next time."
— By Bob Weber in Edmonton