Tuk, A polar bear

Tuk, A polar bear

By Kathleen Hall, adapted from the true experience of Merton Vaslet, who spent several years on the Dewline in Alaska in the late 1930’s and early 40″s.

We didn’t want to kill her. But after the ninth night of prowling, turning over garbage cans, and the dogs making a ruckus half the night, we had to try to  scare her off, at least.  So we set up watch, and on the second night the dogs started barking loud enough to wake the dead. Then we saw her, a pale, shifting ghost against the moonlit snow, easing toward the shelter, disappearing into the shadows, re-emerging, and then gone again. So when Jack pulled the trigger he wasn’t sure whether he’d hit her, but after a few minutes it looked like she had run off.

At dawn we went out where we thought she’d been. It hadn’t snowed, so we saw her prints, where dark blood spotted the snow and led up the hill. Two of us followed the trail and after about 3 miles we saw a still heap. We approached carefully, just in case, not wanting to surprise a wounded 600 lb polar bear. Then something moved. Two somethings. Two small white heads peeked from behind the still form, where they had probably nestled seeking the fading warmth of her body.

Jack ran back to camp for some rope and some fragrant bacon to tempt them closer to us. I stayed there to see where they went in case they decided to run away, and to let them get used to my scent. No need, though.

When Jack came back it was easy to catch them. They were so hungry they came right up to us for the meat, even though they were nursing cubs with only milk teeth. We just slipped the ropes around them, and half-led them, half-carried them back to camp. We didn’t have much in the way of extra supplies there, so we radioed ahead to the main weather station.

“What have you idiots been drinking out there!” Captain Sims shouted so loud I could hear him clearly, even though it wasn’t me on the radio. “We can’t  nurse two polar bear cubs. There’s enough to do around here without that. Who’s going to feed them?  What if they are sick?   We’re  a weather station, not an animal shelter. Leave them to the wolves, or, well,    I don’t care what you do with them, but don’t bring them here.”

Jack and I looked at those cubs sniffing around the hut, padding over to us on clumsy feet, rubbing against our legs, and we looked at each other. We had only two cans of evaporated milk and some sugar syrup, and not much else to offer hungry bears, even small ones. No telling when they last had a square meal, and the main camp was at least two days away.

We didn’t discuss it, just packed up 4 days provisions and took off. On the second night out the smaller of the bears went to sleep and didn’t wake up. I don’t think he had the courage to hold out. The ground was too hard to bury him, so we left the small corpse for the wolves. At least his death would not be entirely in vain.

Sims was standing outside when we drew up. He must have seen us coming over the flat ground, and he was ready for us. His mouth was twisted in a sour smile, and from half-closed eyes he gave us a hard look. No one said anything. Jack was holding the cub wrapped in an old scrap of gray wool blanket. It was weak, and we didn’t have much hope for it now, grieving as it was its mother and brother, and starving, too. Then it twisted in Jack’s arms and its black eyes looked up at Sims. It struggled to get down, like a restless toddler. Jack let it go. It went straight to Sims and put its paws on his knees, as if it knew its fate lay in Sims’ hands. It sniffed and quivered, the way dogs do when they smell something fascinating on the air. Sims looked down at the bear and sighed. “Ok, come in and warm up, but in the morning, get back to your camp with this animal.”


But it wasn’t to be.  It must have been love at first sight. That cub took to Sims right away, and vice-versa. The captain let him climb onto his lap, rubbed his head, let him lick his cheek. And he said, “Jim, mix up some powdered milk and syrup. We can’t let this cub starve. But as soon as he’s fattened up, off he goes.”

It was touch and go for a few weeks. The bear was weakened by its ordeal, and suffered from some infection as a result, so Sims had to fly in antibiotics. He fed her himself from a bottle, and as she grew, hid treats around the station for her to find. They wrestled together, and he even tried to teach her to fetch. She fetched, all right, but never brought a thing back, not even balls, just sat there holding them between her paws, watching Sims shouting and gesturing, sort of smiling.

The short arctic summer was nearly over, and the bear was thriving. Sims sadly realized that she would soon grow too large to stay in camp, and was possibly too accustomed to humans to be safe in the wild. We heard on the radio that the Seattle zoo was looking for animals, so we told Sims, and that’s how Tuk got there.   Sims went down with her himself, and questioned the zoo-keepers very closely to make sure they knew how to treat her. He looked over the environment to make sure it would be suitable for his bear, suggesting ways to improve it for polar bears.  Those zoo-keepers were glad to see the back of him.

We all went to see her over the years, and she always seemed to recognize us and sniff at us the way she did in the old days at the camp. She was huge, though, and even Sims didn’t try to get too close.

Recently Sims got a telegram from the zoo, and called me to say that Tuk, at 35 years of age, had died. She’d lived much longer than she would have in the wild, though, and left the zoo four new bears. And she left us all changed men. Especially Sims.