AD Main Menu

Punching a polar bear in the nose saves man

CBC NewsEye on the Arctic

Wes Werbowy, a longtime wilderness consultant, said the close bear encounter came while he was camping on July 16 near Whale Cove, Nunavut, where he was training three Inuit hunters to be eco-tour guides.

The campers were about 48 kilometres inland from Whale Cove. Werbowy said they had set up separate sleeping and cooking tents in order to minimize the risk of a bear coming close.

But that did not deter a large male polar bear from approaching Werbowy's tent just after 3 a.m., while he was tucked into his sleeping bag.

"I heard the scenting sound of a bear, and it's sort of ... inhaling, trying to get the scent of his supper," said Werbowy, making a deep snorting sound to imitate the bear's sound.

Bear stood on firearm

In a CBC News interview that aired Friday morning, Werbowy said he began to unzip his sleeping bag, but the sound must have reminded the bear of food being unwrapped.

"The bear was like an apparition," he said. "There was no beginning of the movement; there was no subtlety. It was 'Vroomp!' [and] he was there.

"The front of my tent is collapsed inward, and his nose is about two feet from my face."

If Werbowy's situation was not already dire enough, he said the polar bear was standing on his firearm, which he had left at the front of his now-collapsed tent.

So Werbowy said he did what an Inuit elder once told him to do: punch the polar bear in the nose.

"I quite believed it's going to be the last thing I ever did, so I might as well do a good job," he said. "The bear vanished as rapidly as he appeared."

Punching the bear's nose felt like punching a slab of hamburger meat, Werbowy recalled.

Karate punch

Werbowy said the advice came from an elder who had encountered a bear while building an igloo some time ago.

"He spun and gave him a back fist with ... the snow knife handle and hit him right on the nose, and the bear ran off," Werbowy said. "And he had described that experience to me, and that stuck in my mind.

"I could almost hear the man's words, and I'm looking at that nose. and I yelled the words 'Get out!' at the top of my lungs, but the 'out' was sort of like a 'kee-yai!' in a karate punch as I hit him square on the nose."

Roused and elated, Werbowy got out of his tent and greeted his camp mates.

One of them, James Enuapik, said he wanted to "shake hands with the hand that punched a bear."

The group later tracked the bear, which they estimated was a healthy male that weighed about 450 kilograms (1,000 pounds).

Later, Werbowy said he was applauded by Inuit elders, who believe the polar bear will never bother another human again.

Enuapik said the advice that saved Werbowy's life is well known to Inuit hunters in Nunavut, which is home to much of Canada's polar bear population.

"My uncle fought a bear three times," Enuapik told The Canadian Press. "The three encounters he had with a bear, he always would punch its nose. It's the most sensitive part of the polar bear."

As for Werbowy, he said every day since that fateful punch has felt like a blessing.

"I do not have a scratch, and the bear is alive. We didn't have to kill him," he said. "It was a win-win-win all the way around."

How to deal with polar bears

Punching a polar bear in the face would likely not be the first advice campers would get from officials at parks like Auyuittuq National Park in eastern Nunavut.

Parks Canada, which operates the Baffin Island park, advises campers to avoid getting close to a polar bear as much as possible.

Staff with the federal agency say campers should travel in groups, watch their surroundings, keep their food and garbage in bear-proof containers, and never approch a polar bear or its food, mainly seals.

Campers should also avoid getting close to a female bear with cubs, as she would likely attack to defend her cubs, according to the agency.

Generally, if people come within visible proximity of a polar bear, they are advised to back away quietly and calmly, not run away.

Only when a polar bear charges, or it looks like it intends to stalk or hunt a human, should campers fight back with whatever weapon or bear deterrent they have handy, according to Parks Canada.