Researchers return with shredded tents, bear tales

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Earth Sciences professor Gordon Osinski has an unexpected souvenir of his 18th research expedition to Canada’s Far North: a tent shredded nearly to ribbons by the 15-centimetre-long claws of a polar bear.

Osinski, Director of the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration at Western, has just returned from two weeks of work on Devon Island, the world’s largest island without human inhabitants. With a geography and geology analogous to Mars, Devon Island has become a fertile research field for planetary scientists seeking to map its mysteries.

But this field trip held more excitement than Osinski was used to – an eyeball-to-eyeball encounter with a polar bear.

On the team’s first morning at their Dundas Harbour basecamp, Osinski awoke at about 6:30 a.m. and noticed the toilet tent, about 100 metres from where the team was sleeping, had been flattened. Thinking it had been the work of wolves or foxes, he drew nearer to the kitchen/food tent.

He heard something rustling.

Something big.

“At that point, I still didn’t know what it was, but I had the shotgun I was carrying at the ready. It was rather comical (in an adrenaline-fuelled way) as I looked around the tent and the polar bear did the same. We totally locked eyes for a brief second and then the bear ran off about 10-20 metres, then turned around,” Osinski said.

He fired a bear banger, a cartridge intended to sound like a shotgun, and shouted to the team there was a bear in camp.

Student Shannon Hibbard leaped out of her tent and fired off some more bear bangers – “she had them in her pocket, as trained,” he said ­– and the bear headed out to the ocean.

A scan of the area showed three other bears nearby, including one circling behind the camp. Osinski jumped on an ATV and drove towards it; the machine’s noise, plus another bear-banger, scared it away.

When they examined the damage, they discovered the bear had sliced open the red-and-white food tent with a few swipes of its massive paw. It had shredded the toilet tent.

While it may seem like a quaint and quintessentially Canadian experience, bear-human interactions can be both frightening and fatal. Only days later, a father near the community of Arviat (on the west coast of Hudson’s Bay, more than 1,500 kilometres south of Devon Island) died while protecting his children from an attacking bear.

Although Osinski had never before had such a close encounter, teams working in the Arctic take strict precautions to avoid the world’s largest land predators ­– which ordinarily eat seal or other aquatic animals but can smell edibles, or even toothpaste in a toiletry bag, from kilometres away.

Researchers erect electrified bear fence around their sleeping tents, which are always located a football-field’s distance from the food/lab tent and toilet tent. No fragrances, snacks or even deodorants are allowed in sleeping tents.

At camp, the food/lab tent was patched with a few tarps and put back into service.

“Our toilet tent was totally destroyed and, yes, I am bringing it home. Not sure MEC will replace it,” he said.

Devon Island, with a land area about the size of Nova Scotia, has no year-round human residents.

It is home to the huge Haughton Crater – and plenty of ice, snow and windswept rocks – and remains largely unexplored. Even getting there requires several hops via successively smaller aircraft.

The team was part of an exploration project called GEM (Geomapping Energy and Minerals) and the Polar Continental Shelf Project, funded by Natural Resources Canada with additional funding from the Naturals Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

Part of their work included mapping the origin of deep gullies and patterned ground that lie exposed beneath summer’s midnight sun.