Northern Lights

Hunting snow geese in the company of a polar bear audience generates a hair-raising experience

By Gary Koehler

Although the evidence is little more than circumstantial, there appears to be merit to debating the true identification of the hunter and the hunted along Hudson Bay's rocky coast. Man is the minority in the northern Manitoba outback, being far outnumbered by various four-legged residents. Some of which are quite large. Take polar bears. Please.

Guide Terry Neepin, a native Canadian Cree, raises his binoculars for the umpteenth time on a sunny, late August afternoon. He is multitasking: glassing for both snow geese and the huge, dishwater blonde male polar bear that has been camped for four hours about 400 yards over his left shoulder. The bruin, which is built like a Buick, has found a soft patch of lush green grass to its liking and is currently parked, enjoying a nap.

“I like to know where he is at all times,” Neepin says. “If we lose track of him, we could be surprised on our way back to camp.”

Surprises are not necessarily a good thing in the Canadian bush. We are 145 air miles from the closest town. There are no roads in or out of here. Emergency help is a plane ride away. And a few years ago, before the Nanuk Lodge staff erected an 8-foot-tall wire fence around the camp to keep the polar bears on the outside looking in, there was what some refer to in hushed tones as what we will call the Kitchen Incident—which ranks among the ultimate of horrors in terms of uninvited guests.

As the story goes, camp owner Stewart Webber was drinking coffee with two of his clients late one evening in the lodge. The chit-chat was interrupted when the kitchen door suddenly exploded off its hinges and crashed to the floor. Webber instinctively reached for a rifle, took quick aim, snapped off a single shot, and stopped a rogue polar bear dead in its tracks. Manitoba resources officials were notified and airlifted the bear out of the camp by helicopter the next day.

“When we first came up here and took over the camp,” Webber says, “there were bears living in the kitchen.”

Those former occupants have since moved on to another pantry, but the neighborhood remains a walk on the wild side. Polar bears routinely migrate along the coast—which is in Nanuk's backyard–-in summer and fall, wandering north to wait for the Bay to freeze. They will spend the winter out on the ice, hunting seals.

“The bears really don't bother us,” Webber says. “And our guides know how to handle them if a hunting party is confronted. Most people enjoy seeing the bears. They're part of the experience. But you do have to be careful.”

Care must also be taken when selecting shots during this ultra-early hunt. Snow geese are the only birds in season during our brief stay, but Ross's geese, Canada geese, and a variety of ducks are everywhere. Pintails are conspicuous. We are a week early if mixed bags are a consideration, but the snows, whose primary breeding grounds are located relatively nearby, are more than a little entertaining. New birds arrive daily, with the biggest push, of course, occurring the day before we break camp. For those with a passion for hunting white geese, the odds of success are multiplied several-fold in these parts. This is where snow geese come from. Bare spots on the tundra, where the snows have pulled the grasses up by the roots, are stark testimony. The Cape Tatnam region is situated within a prime staging area.

“The geese will eat anything that's green,” Neepin says. “Anything that's green. You can tell where they've been feeding. Sometimes they don't leave much.”

One such place favored by the snows is a gorgeous meadow ringed by a willow thicket. The sky is heavy, a stiff north wind is shaking the trees, and this location provides a modicum of shelter for the geese. Neepin has done his scouting homework. A scattering of white feathers tells us that the birds have indeed been here. Tracks in the damp sand reveal another visitor.

“Black bear,” Neepin says. “But not too big.”

Neepin, a licensed guide beginning his second season at Nanuk Lodge, turns away and continues to deploy windsock snow goose decoys. I immediately scan the willow fringes, looking for . . . something. Edgy? A little. Knowing that the black bear walked right by where we are setting up triggers an internal alarm. Not knowing where that black bear is at this instant keeps that alarm ticking. Two hours go by, and, without firing a single shot, or seeing a single bear, we exhale, depart, and begin looking for an alternative setup.

Twenty minutes later, marking our third move of the day, we settle into a tiny driftwood and willow blind at the end of a gravel bank that protrudes from the tidal flats. At high tide, our bunker is about 200 yards off the water's edge. A flock of at least a thousand snow geese is feeding less than a quarter mile to the east. Other birds trade back and forth between the grass smorgasbord and the bay. Sixty decoys are randomly scattered. But pass- shooting seems our most likely hope.

“They'll look at the decoys some, but you can't count on that, and we like to get under them,” Neepin says. “What we try to do is set up in places where the birds are flying back and forth from food to water or to their roost. That's where all the shooting is. The most shooting, anyway.”

Flight lanes vary daily, depending upon conditions. Some, however, are much more consistent than others. Problem is, the natural vegetation is sparse along the coast. Becoming sufficiently hidden is a demanding task. And the birds learn quickly to fly high over or around the gunners—camouflage pattern be darned. The season is little more than a week old, and the snows that have already run the gauntlet take a wide berth when they see anything out of the ordinary on the tundra—like gun barrels, hip boots, and sunglasses.

Less discriminating flock youngsters, being stubborn, hard-headed, adventurous, or simply ignorant of the danger, fall victim to curiosity and the combination of Neepin's “come-on-over-and-check-us-out” calling and the treacherous windsocks. Snows, blues, it does not matter. My 12-gauge semiautomatic roars once, twice, three times. Then I start over again. Unfortunately, now, six hours after cycling this season's first shell, the shotgun is transformed into a single-shot. Expletive deleted. A combination of fine sand and mud have taken their toll.

No problem. My cabin-mate, John Lillibridge, a Pennsylvania native who has made arrangements to spend the entire season at Nanuk, has had the same issues with his shotgun, a like model, in the past. The collaborative cleaning process takes all of 10 minutes. Lillibridge, a civil engineer who spent 25 years in the U.S. Army before retiring as a colonel, could complete this exercise in the dark.

Lillibridge has hunted at Nanuk the past six seasons, ever since Webber took over the camp's operation. This says much about the quality of the shooting, if only because Lillibridge has plenty of insight, having chased geese for more than 30 years, including numerous trips to Texas, North Dakota, and Argentina.

“This is the end of the world, and the logistics can be a nightmare, but the hunting's good,” Lillibridge says. “I think that the snow goose hunting here is the best there is in the fall. You see more birds here, and have more opportunities.

“The birds decoy better here than anywhere to the south. This is the first time a lot of them have seen a decoy or heard a gun. But they pick it up fast,” Lillibridge adds.

Nanuk Lodge has been a hard-core goose hunting camp off and on since 1977. Ownership has changed hands a couple of times. Before Webber brought in his crew, the camp had sat empty—except for the polar bear transients—for six years.

“Everything we bring in here, like groceries and gas, has to be flown in,” Webber says. “We were lucky, because some of the things we needed, like those wooden tables, were already here. We just had to clean things up. But when those bears were in the kitchen, they would just come and go as they pleased. It was a mess.”

The past summer was not kind to northern Manitoba. The weather was hot and dry, with any number of fires scorching vast stretches of forest. The temperature was in the upper 70s two days before our arrival, then tumbled quickly. The thermometer reads 42 degrees when Neepin and I throw together a willow-branch blind on a high spot adjacent to a creek bed. There is only a trickle of water in the stream.

The snows are flying early. I've got one hand on my gun and the other in my blind bag when a dozen or so descend on our decoys. They hover. Two birds fall from the startled flock, but a triple should not have been surprising. Honest. Yes, the birds were that close. Neepin is back in the willows, trimming more cover for our hide. Another small group approaches. Fast and furious.

“That all?” Neepin asks upon returning from his mission and looking at a pile of what now amounts to four snows. “I heard a lot of shooting.”

My bubble having been burst, I proceed to strike out during the next three opportunities. Back to reality, perhaps. Shortly thereafter, we pack up the decoys and move. That's part of the program here. Mobility is key.

“When it's warm like this, the geese will go to the flats, like that,” Neepin says, motioning to a line of quivering white geese along the coast. “Sometimes it's hard to hunt here because there are so many places to go. We watch what the geese are doing, and then move to where the geese want to be.”

We spent the final morning hop-scotching from one likely site to another. As the sun climbs higher, Neepin keeps a sharp eye on where the birds are trading. That would be behind us, along a tree line located at the distant edge of a huge sedge meadow. This would be our last stop.

We spend nearly two fruitless hours lounging in a willow tangle. And then all things goose broke loose. Three birds fall to one barrage. Two more are downed during another volley. The wind picks up, if only by a trace. And the sky begins to fill with wave after wave of snow and Ross's geese.

“Where'd those come from?” Neepin asks after four blues strafe our post and fly away unscathed.

“Your end, this time,” is the reply. Gotcha.

But that's OK. For whatever reason—the sedge and grass patches are likely the primary attraction—more and more birds are drawn to this meadow. Right to left. Left to right. Front to back. This was a spectacle. Ross's by the swarm. Guns remain silent as those birds literally hang over the pulsating windsocks. Snows arrive in family groups of six and eight and ten. They receive much attention—and steel.

Better yet, there are no polar bears in the gallery. But there is news when we return to camp. Seems that earlier this morning one lonely bruin had become somewhat smitten with Webber's yellow Labrador retriever, Hank. The bear had walked up and shook the fence a couple of times, presumably to see if the dog could come out to play.

“We've been here a month,” Stewart says. “And in that time, we have seen 65 to 70 bears walk by the camp. The one this morning was just a little bit more curious.”

Not one's typical day at the office. Unless you work at Nanuk. The camp kitchen may now be human domain. But local traffic jams might also involve wolves, moose, black bears, and similar residents. Wilderness begins just outside the front gate.

(If you want to learn more, Stewart Webber of Mistikokan Outfitters and Nanuk Lodge can be reached by phoning 306-296-4405. Hunting package fees include airfare from Winnipeg to Thompson, Manitoba. Besides the regular fall hunting season, Nanuk also offers a limited spring snow goose hunt. Additional information may be obtained by viewing the company's Web site at www.nanuk1.com.)