Meet the “Polar Bears” from the Yukon

Meet the “Polar Bears” from the Yukon

As winter approaches in the Canadian Yukon, a few unusually late salmon runs can be found swimming red up rivers filled with snow. For more than five years, photographer Peter Mather has been following a unique subculture of grizzlies while fishing for these salmon well into November, when most of their relatives have already settled down to sleep. Mather calls them the “polar bears”.

“I first heard about these bears from an elder named Robert Bruce in the Gwich’in community of Old Crow,” says Mather. “The ancients would say you could not kill these bears because your arrow could not penetrate the ice that covered their fur.”

Close up of a large grizzly coming out of the river with a red mouth.
“The Mayor of Klukshu” is face to face with a motion-activated camera.

Mather was fascinated, but the place Bruce told him about – where the bears gather – was extremely remote. Finally, in 2014, Mather persuaded himself to a massive discount on a helicopter ride to Ni”iinlii Njik (Fishing Branch) Territorial Park, a wilderness area jointly administered by the Yukon Provincial Government and Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. When he was first there, he found the legendary bears: out-of-season grizzlies fishing for salmon under the northern lights.

Close-up of the lower half of a bear with huge beige claws.  There is blood on the snow under the bear.
The mayor of Klukshu, the dominant grizzly in the area, inspects a remote camera in the forest of the Kluane region. Since the mayor is a large bear with a high metabolism that produces an enormous amount of body heat, his fur only forms icicles during extreme cold when the temperature drops below 0 ° F.

Mather began searching for other, more accessible places where he could photograph the late-fishing bears. The trick was to sharpen up on the salmon’s spawning grounds by following the food net. “I was looking for eagles,” Mather says. “When you see 10 sitting on a tree, you’re probably in a spawning ground.”

He found his own polar bear sites on the Kluane and Klukshu rivers, east of Whitehorse, and began photographing the animals each winter. First, he struggled to distinguish individual bears from each other. Chuck and Barb Hume – Champagne and Aishihik First Nations members he met in Klukshu Łu Ghą, a traditional seasonal fishing village – eventually taught him what to look for.

A grizzly with a lot of icicles on the fur walks away from the river with a multicolored salmon in its mouth.
A little grizzly with a spilled coho salmon. The fishing village of Klukshu is located on the opposite shore.

A bear, a behemoth the locals had nicknamed “the mayor of Klukshu”, had a close relationship with Chuck, who had “trained” him to stay away from the village and thus protect the animal from being killed. “Chuck goes out with his gun and pushes him over to the other side of the creek,” Mather says. “Just in a way to teach him to stay on the ‘bear side’ of the creek.” Since the mayor is a large, dominant male, he also keeps other bears away. “There would be little bears and old bears that could cause problems by walking through the village, but the mayor keeps that place. It works extremely well.” Barb taught Mather to identify the mayor by his unusually pale claws – scattered on snow-red with salmon blood, they look as big as bananas.

Another bear, Mather got to know, invented a way to use sub-zero temperatures to his advantage. When the bear caught a salmon, he threw it up on the bank and let the penetrating cold freeze it to death. Later, he devoured frozen salmon sashimi.

A grizzly walks across a river on a fallen, snow-covered tree.
A grizzly uses a felled tree to cross the Klukshu River in the early winter. Klukshu’s main body is a critical spawning area for three salmon species: Chinook, sockeye and coho.

“Bears are very similar to humans,” Mather says. In fact, a study of black bears conducted by Julie Young and Patrick Myers at Utah State University showed that some are shy and others daring, some bouncy and some more casual, and the same almost certainly applies to their larger brown relatives.

The tradition of these bears to postpone hibernation represents a kind of urine culture – a pattern of behavior unique to this population, which has probably been passed down from generation to generation. In addition to their common traditions, these are smart animals with sharp wit and unique personalities. One bear’s innovative salmon freezing technique and the relationship between the mayor of Klukshu and Chuck Hume talk about the cognitive flexibility of individual grizzlies.

A bear goes down to the river.  Behind him are snow-covered hills and an orange sky.
A light grizzly is approaching its fishing hole in the Kluane River below the Kluane Ranges. Before being killed by a hunter, this bear would catch salmon and cast them on the shore, only to later return to the riverbank to eat the frozen fish.

As polar bears pick blue-red salmon from the water, they bring nutrients from the ocean to land in a pattern that has lasted for millennia. Their bodies – from their impressive claws to their fur lacquered with ice – are built with these nutrients. When the salmon dies in place, the nutrients remain in the local food web – in the stomachs of the locals, in the bodies of eagles and coyotes, in the microscopic life of the soil. This flow of energy is the heart of any ecosystem.

In these images, Mather captures the beauty of that stream – the warmth of life against the cold of the earth, the movement of energy from salmon to bear. It is a timeless ritual. What makes Mather’s pictures special is the way he captures the personalities of the bears who perform the ritual in a given winter. Ecosystems can run on energy flow, but that flow runs through individuals with their own specific self-relationship. In these images, we are invited to meet them, not just as nodes in a food web, but as bear humans.

This article appeared in the winter quarterly edition titled “Out of Season.

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