They were miles out to sea, the water over 700 feet deep when Charlie called a halt.
In his broken English, he told Maria Yerema and husband Brad that this would be it. It was time to stop for the night and set up the tent.
As they pounded the pegs into the ice, Charlie joined in, propping his rifle against some of the others as the little hunting camp took shape.
There was no rush really, because there was no danger of it getting dark. That doesn’t happen when you’re out on the sea ice, 700 kilometres above the Arctic Circle.
The placement of loaded rifles may have seemed casual to the Coombs couple, but it wasn’t —and the reason was soon made abundantly clear.
“Charlie said, ‘just so you know, someone will be awake all night, so you don’t have to worry about the bears,” Maria remembered. “I hadn’t worried about it until then.”
However, Polar bears were not only the greatest danger of the expedition onto the ice near Pond Inlet in Nunavut, they were also the reason they were there.
“I was just checking a couple of things off my bucket list,” Maria said. “I always wanted to see 24-hour sun and Polar bears in the wild.”
The sun was the easy part. Even as they arrived at on Baffin Island on the way to Pond Inlet, the Yeremas were able to tick that one off right away.
“We got our midnight sun alright,” she said. “It was amazing. It just looped around in a circle in the sky. It never even went near the horizon. I asked our guide, Charlie what time it was and he said it was 7:00 and I had to ask whether that was in the morning or the evening. You just couldn’t tell.”
It hadn’t been an easy trip to see it, but the adventure ahead of them to see the bears was far harder still.
“Eight airplanes round trip, a long and totally w8ild snowmobile trip out onto the ocean, some rather sketchy accommodations, weird meals and everything unbelievably expensive,” Brad wrote in his journal.
The food, he added, included bad Chinese food, bad pub food, bad airplane food, whale — both cooked and raw — snow goose, and also some very good elk, lamb, Arctic char and beef.
Their first priority however — after they got the full implication of Charlie’s offhand comment about the bears — was to make sure that they didn’t become the main course for a Polar bear’s dinner themselves.
“The first night out on the ice was a little bit foggy and Charlie said it was perfect Polar bear weather. “He’s 64 but his eyesight is unbelievable. He saw a male bear two miles away that we could barely see with a spotting scope. I was glad it was that far away though. It was scary.”
Scary indeed. As the Yeremas well know Polar bears are more than happy to stalk, kill and eat an unwary traveller.
“They don’t go anywhere without guns,” Maria said. “If a gun is in a tent and a Polar bear comes, it’s too late, so that’s why they always leave the rifles outside.”
Despite only being protected by a thin nylon tent, the couple managed to get some sleep that first night, secure in the knowledge that at least one armed and experienced hunter was standing guard over the camp.
The next day the expedition moved to the edge of the ice, far out to sea, hunting for narwals.
“Charlie drove the snowmobile and towed us on a sled quite a way out to the floe edge, where the water starts,” Maria said. “That’s where the life is, with lots of birds, narwals and Polar bears as well. We found a mom and a cub, probably a second year cub. As soon as they spotted us they started running away. Then we found an adolescent and Charlie started chasing him with the snowmobile. We were so excited, but as we got closer and closer I had the visualization of us pulling up beside him and him saying, ‘hey, food!’”
Along with the rest of the hunting band, Charlie went to hunt narwals at the water’s edge and Maria watched from a distance.
“They were standing near where the ice was breaking up, but they didn’t get any,” she said. “It was fascinating to watch.”
Brad however, wasn’t watching the hunters so much. He was watching for hunters of a very different sort.
“They had all the guns,” Maria said. “I didn’t think of that, but Brad spent the whole time watching our back, in case a bear snuck up on us. He said he would never go again without a gun.”
Maria would go again though, gun or no gun.
“I would go back in a heartbeat,” she said. “The people were so beautiful and nice. It’s almost like going to another planet.”
First though, she has a few more ticks she wants to mark off her bucket list.
“When I turn 50 I want to cycle coast to coast in Ireland,” she said.