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The Quest for the Holy Grolar

The Quest for the Holy Grolar

It may be the Arctic's rarest, most fearsome animal, and it's never been photographed on the ground. Only a select group of elite hunters have gotten close enough to take a shot. Then Kelsey Eliasson came along.
By Kelsey Eliasson
Oct 26
2013
From the October/November 2013 Issue

“Ulukhaktokmut Ivvitalikmit! Ulukhaktokmut Ivvitalikmit!” 

It’s 7 a.m. on a spring morning and the Wolfman is calling back to town on the HF radio. We’re hunkered down at Ivvitalik cabin, perched on the edge of Prince Albert Sound. The cabin is about 70 kilometres outside of Ulukhaktok, NWT, an Inuvialuit community that’s about 700 kilometres outside of anywhere.

The wind rattles and the radio crackles. The Wolfman’s voice rises and trails off in a constant patter of Inuinnaqtun, static and slow mmm’s. His eyebrows rise up and down, apparently transmitting over the airwaves to everyone who’s listening back in Ulukhaktok. The cabin fills with coffee steam and the tinge of burning naptha.

The Wolfman’s real name is Roland Notaina. His lean face is a mess. He’s been frostbitten over and over – “three times in one trip!” he says. His high cheekbones are dark with scars and dry skin, badges of honour in the North. With a lithe and wiry smile, he kind of resembles a wolf; his yellow-tinted glasses and black toque somehow add to the whole feral effect.

Soft spoken, Roland’s eyebrows rise high when he tells me that Pat Epakohak, one of the town’s best hunters, calls him Wolfman. This year was a good wolf year; Roland got “almost as many as Ross!” By now I’ve learned that’s another badge of honour in Ulukhaktok. 

Today, we’re not looking for wolves, not hunting at all (much to Roland’s amazement). We’re trying to photograph a hybrid polar bear-grizzly. I’ve dragged him along on what now is starting to sound a bit like a typical “kabloona” quest. Then again, I am a kabloona – a white man – so what can you do?

Anyway, the water is boiling; it’s time for breakfast. Roland stirs the eggs, which are slow-cooking in Ziploc bags. He signs off with a drawn out “Rawh-ger, roger! Ok, hey you guys have a good day. Ivvitalik naluktok. Over, over.” The radio now quiet, he turns to me, steely-eyed. “Larry says hi.” 

Our search for what's possibly the Arctic’s rarest and most dangerous animal has begun.

The Akhak-Nanuk

The first modern sighting of a mixed grizzly-polar bear was at Nelson Head, a sport-hunting camp on the southern end of Banks Island. It was 2004, and Ulukhaktok’s David Kuptana and Wallace Joss were guiding sport hunters. A strange-looking polar bear appeared in the rough ice. Roland explains, “They would have shot it, but their hunter had a bow, not a rifle. It was a bit too far.”

Two years later, though, it was a different story. Outfitter Roger Kuptana was with an American client when they killed a polar bear-grizzly hybrid. News of the creature made world headlines. At that time, it was classified as a polar bear so the hunter wouldn’t get charged with shooting a grizzly out of season. Now, it’s once again a grizzly so it doesn’t count against the polar-bear quota. The North is flexible that way.

David Kuptana shot the second official grolar. It was a juvenile, a second-generation hybrid – one-quarter polar bear, three-quarters grizzly – walking along the coast and breaking into cabins. I was in Ulukhaktok at that time and word on the street was that Cabela’s, the hunting-catalogue folks, would buy the skin for big money. There was a definite buzz. In the end, the Government of the Northwest Territories bought it and it is mounted in the community hall.

While the southern world still debates what to call the hybrids, the Inuit seem to have settled on akhak-nanuk, or grizzly-polar bear. It makes sense. In all the cases so far, the father has been a grizzly bear and, as a result, the cubs are raised as polar bears out on the sea ice. 

Scientifically speaking, it would be “grolar bear,” as the father’s name comes first in the world of biological nomenclature. And, really, pizzly is just a terrible, terrible name anyway.

The Trip

It’s day one in Ulukhaktok. Roland and David Kuptana – the David Kuptana – are waiting on the sea ice when I get down there. Two snowmobiles are lined up with alliaks, Inuit-style sleds with long skis and a rope hitch. A plywood box is tied to one of the alliaks; a green foam mattress is squashed into the cargo. This is how passengers travel in the North – knees and backs might as well be left in town.

David is hauling gas for us. He’s a big barrel of a man with dark eyes. He’s actually kind of short but seems really big when you talk to him. In the right light, you can see the trail of polar-bear ghosts that follow him around. He’s friendly but I’m not sure “photographers” are his thing.

A couple other hunters have shown up to look at the “photographer,” a label that pretty much means “too weak to hunt.” A small contingent sees us off when we finally get moving. 

We thread the Safety Islands south to Prince Albert Sound, the complete opposite direction of where I planned to go. This seems to happen a lot in the Arctic, especially with kabloona quests. My original plan was to head north to Wynniatt Bay. From what I can tell, most of the akhak-nanuks are coming from that area. But it’s a long trip and apparently they’re in a blizzard. Up here, there are a lot of detours to take you where you want to go. 

Then again, sometimes you really are just going the wrong way. I don’t know if you can ever really tell.

The Viscount-Melville bears

A lot of people think that grizzly-polar hybrids occur at the southern fringes of polar bear range. In reality, you’re most likely to find them along the coast of Victoria Island, the heart of the western Arctic.

While about 15,000 polar bears patrol the Canadian Arctic, there are regional subpopulations that den and travel in fairly specific areas. At the Northern edge of Victoria Island, you’ll find the Viscount-Melville population. Denning near Wynniatt and Hadley bays, they’re remote and fairly inaccessible. Research data has been scant but numbers are estimated at only 300 or so bears.

By the late ’90s, it was suggested that the Viscount-Melville polar bears had been overharvested. In any hunted population, there’s a natural bias towards male bears, sometimes harvested at a 2:1 ratio or more. The largest adult males, called angutigaluk in Inuinnaqtun, likely took a major hit.

Around that time, grizzlies were becoming more common on Victoria Island. Some locals believe they crossed over during a late spring, following the caribou across the Northwest Passage. East of Ulukhaktok, near the community of Paulatuk, the strait thins out; at one point only 40 kilometres separate the mainland from Victoria Island, which isn’t very far in terms of wildlife.

If enough breeding males were removed from the polar bear population, a lucky grizzly or two could readily “fill the niche.” So, are the Viscount-Melville akhak-nanuks a temporary anomaly or have they become entrenched as a species? Nobody knows. But given that grizzlies have now been recorded feeding on seals, it seems doubtful they’ll be leaving any time soon.

Ivvitalik Blues

The trailing arm on the snowmobile is broken. That’s pretty much the thing that holds the snowmobile up, as in the frame. Not really great news. 

We’re back at the Ivvitalik cabin. Roland sits on a can of propylene glycol and we eat our steak and half-cold creamed corn. Names and slogans are scribbled on the walls – “Hunting is life,” so-and-so was here, etc. Our caribou skins and foam mattresses are spread out; the wind comes and goes.

So far, we’ve found an Arctic fox raiding seal-pupping dens and a lot of bearded seals with pups – we even went inland a bit to stalk some muskox – but no ringed seals. Without them, there’s not much chance for grolar bears.

The ice is heavy this year. Over in Tuktoyaktuk, they’re also having a tough time finding ringed seals. But while the ice is thick around Victoria Island, a huge sheet of multi-year ice has disappeared west of Banks Island; a very nice floe edge follows the west coast, drawing the bears over there.

Despite what you’ve heard in the media, sea ice isn’t exactly easy to figure out. Polar bears actually prefer thinner ice. They need the open water and broken ridges. “Disappearing” sea ice is strangely a good thing for them – at least in the short term.

Eventually, Roland figures out a plan. I hold three wrenches against the trailing arm and he wraps it tightly with blue cord. Sometimes, I think half the Arctic is held together with the North West Company’s thin blue cord.

We’ll head to the mouth of Prince Albert Sound today, looking for pressure ridges and bear tracks. There’s an island in the middle; bears can be found there. A bit more sun and a bit less wind would help, but that’s always the story up here.

The Angutigaluk

Pat Epakohak is like an angutigaluk. He has a wide face and smile and even wider hands, the result of years on the land. He moves slowly and deliberately. Between sips of tea, he says he might only have a couple years left going out, but in the next breath he starts planning another trip. 

He’s lived his life on the land, leaving school and a regular job, even trading in his cab company, for a life of hunting. He wanted to be out where he can see animals, not where someone controls him. 

We sit in his kitchen. A frozen polar bear skin thaws on the floor – his daughter’s first bear. Each year, Pat is one of the very few who still travel up towards Melville Island. Over the years, he figures he’s tracked and killed more than 150 bears. Last year, he shot a family of grolar bears.

He sips his tea. “They’re more aggressive than polar bears, more dangerous for people on the land, especially young people, who might not understand their behaviour.” He explains, “The hybrids, they aren’t like polar bears. They’re faster, have longer legs. They stand up and look straight at you when they see you; the polar bears, they keep their head down. The polar bear will try to get away. There is more danger with a hybrid.” 

There remains a debate in Ulukhaktok regarding what exactly to do with the akhak-nanuk. Some hunters, led by Epakohak, feel the grizzly and the grolar aren’t natural residents of Victoria Island – trespassers, brought in by a warming climate. He doesn’t want grizzlies or hybrids here. He would hunt them off the island if given the choice. While I can’t say I’m really in favour of this, I’m not about to tell Pat how to live his life.

Other hunters, like Robert Kuptana, feel grolars could be an attraction, that maybe people would travel up to the island for the chance to see them. He’s been a polar bear hunter for a long time but also has had good luck selling some pictures.

It can be argued that grizzlies aren’t new to the Arctic. Ulukhaktok resident Bob Klengenberg once watched a grizzly and polar bear fight to the death on Victoria Island. That was back in the 1940s or ’50s. There’s even a story about an Inuit hunter killing a grizzly with a bow and arrow, back before guns came around. More recently, hunters saw a grizzly kill a polar bear up in Wynniatt Bay; that was about 15 or 20 years ago.

In Pat’s kitchen, the conversation drifts back to the polar bear lying on the floor. It’s eight or nine feet long; Roland and Pat examine the hide, check the paws. It’s a nukak, a “little brother,” not quite angutigaluk. Thinking about all the angutigaluks Pat has taken over his hunting career, it strikes me that maybe he opened the window for grizzlies to move into the Viscount-Melville polar bear population. You could almost look at him as the grandfather of the grolar bear. 

After all is said and done, it still amounts to tea-time conversation. Hybrids are just another animal, interesting but that’s about it. You get a good price for the skin and, unlike polar bears, you can still sell it to the States. 

The Hunters

Each year, the Ulukhaktok Hunters and Trappers Committee holds about a dozen or so tags for sport hunters. Lately, these tags have been filled by locals in the spring; no sense wasting them if no one books. The Inuit set their quotas and fill them – be it tourist or local.

But before the U.S. banned the import of polar bear sport hunting trophies, Roland says, “we were getting 10 hunters in a year. Plus, they had to book in advance because there was a list every year. One hunter booked six years in advance! That was before the ban. Last year we had just one, the year before we had two, this year we had nothing.”

Not like the old days. “Way before my time,” Roland says with pride, “they used to go to Melville Island by dogs, or if the hunter was rich enough, they would pay for the flight to get all the dogs and equipment up there and back once they are done.” In the North, everyone wants to be a polar bear hunter.

Robert Kuptana’s blue snowmobile was a tip from one. It’s now entrenched as part of the Ulukhaktok community tour. Across the street, you can see the house of the guy who shot a really, really big bear a few years ago. Over there is the beach where a polar bear was swimming last October – David was the first one on down there. At the coffee shop, one hunter gently explains, “Polar bears are for shooting, not pictures!”

Polar bears and polar bear hunting are a big part of this country. Roland sighs, “Now that they (the U.S.) are trying to start this ban, I think they just get jealous. They pay so much money to come up here, pay Canadians to do the hunt. That’s what I think.” He pumps the naptha tank and the Coleman flares up.

The Last Day

With time running out, we are now covering 200 kilometres a day, following leads and pressure ridges west of Victoria Island. We’ve found wolf tracks, fox tracks and foxes, lots of bearded seals, a few ringed seals, even ptarmigan, but no bears. 

Local hunters have been striking out too. Today, David’s daughter has a tag. The tag-holder has one trip to find a polar bear or the tag goes to the next person on the list. They stopped by this morning to say hello, David bursting in in a haze of frost and bear-ghosts. 

By now, it is getting pretty hard to tell if he’s helping our trip or kind of sabotaging it. There’s always a funny feeling in the air after a visit with him, like he left a cloud over your eyes or something. There are guys like that up North – tricksters. It’s hard to explain.

Either way, it’s another slow and cold day, so we stop at an ice ridge for tea and biscuits. A raven cruises low along the ice and Roland asks him what to do. Ravens can help you out sometimes; intentionally or not, they usually lead you to wildlife. It squawks a couple of times and only a short while later we find fresh tracks. Like, “minutes ago” fresh tracks.

Two sets of prints weave along a lead. One is a young male and the other is from a family group – a mother with two cubs. There’s a change in the Wolfman. His inner predator appears. Intense might be an understatement.

The family is closer but we choose the male and start following him. You can see where the bears heard the noise of our snowmachine, pivoting and picking out an escape route. The pace is furious. 

Machine, man and camera gear lunge over wind-hardened drifts, but soon the tracks just disappear. We circle and scan, we even set out on foot to find the trail, but the bear is somehow gone. The tracks just end, almost like he flew up into the sky. Roland asks if I want to keep following, but we both know it’s bad luck to look for a bear that doesn’t want to be found.

Life Goes On

Running low on gas, we stop to eat jellybeans and do some target practice with Roland’s .303 rifle. In a tough year, we managed to find polar bears out on the strait. Back in town, there are some grumblings that a dead bowhead whale over in Kaktovik, Alaska, is stealing the bears. Others say they’re all west of Banks Island, and still others say the helicopter researchers have scared them away. It’s hard to say.

Pat had a rough go too, lots of blizzards this year and only a few polar bears. Then again, during his “rough go,” he did see three hybrids and the tracks of two others, one of which he figures was 10 feet long or more. That was up around Prince of Wales Strait – the bears seem to be around the corner of the island this year. He’s offered to take me out next year – “even if you don’t want to kill anything,” he says with a smile. 

David and his sons are packing up his alliak for another trip. He smiles and waves at the “photographer” leaving town. He has no more bear tags but he’s heading up north, maybe as far as Prince of Wales Strait.  

Roland is getting ready to head out again too; he’ll be hunting wolves as soon as I’m on the plane. It was a fun trip for him, but it’s time to get back to the necessities of life. There’s probably time for one or two more layers of frostbite before summer is here.

For the past two weeks, we’ve discussed how the grolar bear could be a big attraction for Ulukhaktok; that if there was just one area near the community that wasn’t hunted, how tourism could really grow. We plan another grolar quest next year. Then I ask Roland what he would do if he ever finds an akhak-nanuk. He gives me a look; his eyebrows rise high. “Blast it! That’s good money!”

 

Kelsey Eliasson would like to thank Churchill Wild Lodges for making his adventure possible, and Larry Olifie for organizing the trip in Ulukhaktok.