The polar is quite unlike the other three American bears. First of all, he is not really a land animal but exists mainly on the ice pack that stretches over the Arctic Sea. It is true that in alternate years the sows usually leave the ice and come ashore to hibernate and have their cubs. However, the males rarely see land again after they leave it for the ocean ice in the first spring of their lives.
Furthermore, the males, unlike all their American cousins, normally do not hibernate. They spend the year out in the open, prowling for food. Alone among American bears, the polar is almost entirely carnivorous. He lives mainly on seals, with a rare feast of carrion when "he finds a dead whale or walrus. In summer he catches several kinds of sea birds by swimming up beneath them when a flock is resting on the water.
Because the bear usually has to kill something to get a meal, I believe that when you encounter a polar bear in winter a couple of hundred miles from land he is more likely to attack than any other animal. He attacks not because he is mad at you. He simply wants to eat you.
On the Pacific side of the arctic this fearlessness usually brings little damage to the bears. They live too far north to be harried by the commercial salmon fishermen who kill so many coastal brown bears, grizzlies and blacks. It is only on the Atlantic side that they take a bad beating, for there the crews of sealing vessels shoot every polar bear they can find.
The polar has another unique quality which, as a trophy hunter, I find most fascinating of all. The biggest, found off Alaska, are longer and heavier than bears of any other kind in the world. I stirred up a mild tempest three years ago when I first published my convictions on their superior size. The Alaska brownies had always been considered the biggest in every way. But that claim seemed doubtful to me after my first trip to the Alaskan arctic in 1949, and those doubts were confirmed when I returned in 1956 to collect my own polar bear trophy. While mine turned out to be good but not gaudy—it is now tied for 32nd place in the official records—the fact that this bear was only 2½ inches shorter from nose to tail than my very exceptional Kodiak brown was significant. For I knew that much bigger polars had been taken.
In the last couple of seasons a few hunters have taken nose-to-tail measurements of unskinned polars that were reported to be as long as 10 feet 6 inches. While there is nothing official about these field measurements, the figures are interesting when compared with the nine-foot maximum for browns. Those big bears were not weighed, but a Carnegie Museum specimen, which now ranks no higher than 18th place on the basis of skull measurement, was once weighed in pieces. The reported total was 1,728 pounds. We have no reason to think that any brown bear comes close to this.
Most of the Alaskan polar bear hunting centers around Kotzebue, which is just north of the Arctic Circle. The best time to go is in March or very early April, when there is little open water. A few sportsmen have gone out with Eskimos and dog teams for a fascinating adventure that is, nevertheless, highly uncertain in terms of producing a trophy. You will not see polars unless you reach the kind of rough ice formations where the bears can find cover from which to stalk their seals. And since these men on sleds cannot get very far from their bases, they have little chance unless the right kind of ice can be found nearby.
Hunting with a light airplane is much more dependable, and hence more popular. Those who have not tried this method may condemn it as unsportsmanlike. Admittedly, a plane enables you to cover hundreds of miles of ice in a single day, turning an often impossible task into a very simple one. But success is by no means certain, and this type of flying can be hazardous.
A summer hunt with a ship is the exact opposite. This kind of hunting, now practically unknown in Alaska, is the usual thing on the Atlantic side, where a few boats go up into the arctic waters from ports in Norway. The hunters do nearly all of their shooting from the ship. The bear couldn't climb aboard if he tried. He is either shot when he is swimming or while he stands on some floe. If there is a less sporting form of big-game shooting I have never heard of it, and the yellow stained summer skins of polar bears are not to be compared with their rich winter pelts.