|Eve Guilbault Photo|
|Claude Lafrance, Amundsen first officer, instructs the Star's Peter Calamai in the use of a polar bear deterrent.|
Against a charging polar bear, however, you need heavier artillery. Much heavier. Like the 12-gauge shotgun that I got to fire this afternoon.
The story starts four years ago when I was on the Amundsen icebreaker in the Beaufort Sea west of here. A misbehaving helicopter engine forced Andy Derocher, a top Canadian polar bear expert, to spend a night with us.
At the request of the researchers on board, Derocher gave an impromptu talk about polar bears. I’m sure there was all sorts of biological content but the part I remember vividly is how difficult it is to stop a 500-kilogram charging male polar bear with even the heaviest artillery.
According to Derocher you’d be lucky to get off more than one round at killing range and you shouldn’t even think of a warning shot. It was kill or be killed in the rare instance that a polar bear had you in his sights.
All I had in the sights of the 12 gauge was a plywood rectangle about 20 metres away over the ice at the stern of the Amundsen. Four targets of concentric circles had been hastily drawn by hand because the store-bought targets had been shredded in previous practice.
Every group that goes out on the ice any distance away from the ship is supposed to be accompanied by a “gun,” meaning a crew member or scientist who holds a Firearms Acquisition Certificate and has firearms experience. On past Amundsen expeditions, there’s often been a paucity of people qualified to be a “gun.”
It’s our good fortune on Leg 7A of this expedition to be favoured with at least two young women researchers from families where daughters learned how to use guns, One of these, Halagonian Lisa Delaney, was in a group headed out for target practice today and she tipped me off so I could take photographs.
Yet again on this trip, however, I morphed from detached journalistic observer to active participant when Claude Lafrance, the Amundsen’s first officer, offered a chance to fire the 12 gauge. At first I declined but then machismo triumphed. After all, if some mere slip of a young woman could manage, surely 240 pounds of well-aged manhood could.
I am relieved to report that I didn’t point a loaded weapon at anyone, remembered how and when to engage the safety and ensured the shotgun was handed over empty to the next user. Nor did I fall over backwards with the recoil, which wasn’t as powerful as suggested by the muzzle blast.
I probably also didn’t hit the targets with any of my three blasts. It’s difficult to know for sure since we were firing shot-filled shells instead of the slug-filled ones you’d use for really deterring polar bears. So every inch of the plywood was sprayed with tiny holes. Maybe a few were mine.
It should go without saying (but in today’s accusatory climate, who knows) that none of the researchers want the death of a polar bear on their conscience. Yet I think I could pull the trigger if the necessity arose to protect me or my companions.
But maybe the trigger of a .308-calibre rifle, the other firearm carried by the Amundsen’s “guns.” The shotgun is best for close-in defence and I’m not keen on being that close to anything whose claws can gouge furrows five centimeters deep into a skull.