Mention guns and canoe trips in the same breath and some folks are apt to go ballistic. Still, if you're traveling among dangerous bears it may be wise to go armed.
This edited account from my North Knife River (Manitoba) log, relays the terror I felt when a polar bear chased my canoe across the river.
July 20, 1991 (This account from my flagship book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition).
Coming around a bend, my partner Joanie points and says: "Hey, Cliff, look at that "mountain goat" up there. Seconds later the goat materializes into a full grown male polar bear who slides down the bank and swims straight towards our canoe.
"Backferry!" I yell. It's like we're paddling through glue, and the bear is gaining ground. Soon as we slam ashore, I'm out, rifle in hand and the bear's still coming! I jack a shell into the chamber of my .444 Marlin and pray to God I won't have to shoot. I will if he comes much closer. When he's barely three canoe lengths away, I raise the rifle to my shoulder: Our eyes meet and he slowly turns and follows the powerful current around the bend. Will he come ashore and crash back through the bush towards us?
Seconds later, Dick and Finette arrive, sheet white. Suddenly, it turns into a comedy--everyone massed in a tiny group, scared as hell, me clutching the half-cocked Marlin while Dick drops shotgun slugs into the sand and Tom gropes in his pack for the plastic stinger shells. We're 75 miles from the Bay (Hudson Bay) and no one but me is ready to shoot. What a rush! Saw three more bears today--two swimming, one on land. Bear tracks everywhere. We've arranged tents like a fort. Perimeter teams have capsican (bear mace). I served everyone double shots of Pusser's rum tonight.
Aftermath: Twenty miles from Hudson Bay we came upon Doug Webber's hunting cabin. The windows were heavily barred and huge spikes protruded from the door--testimony to the destructive power of polar bears. We saw another cabin at Hudson Bay--a decrepit goose hunting shack which had been invaded by curious bears. Everything---cots, carpeting, you name it--had been torn to shreds. We climbed on to the roof to get a better view of the ocean and promptly saw two more bears. After that, no one went out hiking without a gun."
GUN OR PEPPER SPRAY?
A charging polar bear can cover 100 yards in about three seconds, which is faster than most people can fire an accurate shot. If you have to shoot, the distance will be short—20 yards or less, so you’ll get just one shot—maybe two if you’re really lucky. So best leave guns at home if you are not well practiced with them! Be aware that if you kill a grizzly or polar bear in Alaska or Canada you’ll be there for years (pun intended) filling out paperwork! If you don’t report the incident, Federal authorities WILL find you (bullet forensics and DNA)! That's why bear experts unanimously recommend Pepper Spray over firearms. I carry both when I travel among the big bears.
WHAT TYPE OF GUN?
Residents of Churchill, Manitoba, who have had lots of experience with polar bears, always carry a high-powered rifle or 12-gauge shotgun when they go out on the land. Canoeists who paddle Hudson Bay area rivers--especially, after mid-July when the bears are off the ice--are smart to do likewise! A 12-gauge pump-action shotgun with a short "slug barrel" is a good choice. With an average velocity of 1470 fps and 2888 ft. lbs of energy at the muzzle, the 602 grain Brenneke Black Magic slugs are the clear choice for close-range bear encounters. No other slug compares! CAUTION: Avoid standard slugs like those used for deer hunting—they may not stop a charging bear! Again, remember that you’ll probably get just one shot!
Fire-cracker shells are are fired from a 12-gauge shotgun. They explode on impact with a loud bang. They are available on the Internet. Caution: cracker shells can start a forest fire if they impact in a dry grassy area! Plastic "stinger" shells (available only to law enforcement agencies) are also useful. Your local police department may help you find them. Experiments in the Churchill area have shown that the hard plastic slugs deter bears (without injuring them) nearly 100 percent of the time.
BEAR-BANGERS may also deter bears. These are fired into the air from a single-shot, pen-sized launcher. Be sure to land the “banger” between you and the bear! If you over-shoot—and you may if you don’t practice--the loud fire-cracker sound may drive the bear towards you! Bear-bangers are widely available at sports shops in Canada, and on the web here in the U.S.
The slim, short-barreled lever action Marlin and Winchester "Guide Guns" which are chambered for the powerful .45-70 and .450 Marlin cartridges carry easily and stow well in a canoe. My current “bear rifle” is a .450 Marlin Guide Gun, which I hand-load with 350 grain Swift A-frame bullets to a velocity of 1900 fps. You don’t need high-velocity at 15 or 20 yards. What you do need is a big heavy bullet that won’t disintegrate. My rifle has a tuned trigger, peep sights and a one-piece extractor. I spent much of my younger days as a competitive shooter (small bore rifle in high school and college); U.S. Army Rifle team (national match course and long range—1000 yards), so I am confident with a heavy recoil rifle. But a 12-gauge with Brenneke’s has more close range stopping power than a .45-70/.450, so I would only recommend this option over a shotgun to those who are very good shots.
There are some very powerful handguns available today. Heading the list are revolvers chambered for the .50 caliber Smith and Wesson and .45-70 rifle cartridges. These, or the less but adequately powerful .44 magnum will stop a bear if you hit him right. However, the problem with handguns is that, under duress, you probably WON’T hit him right! And if you don’t you will probably die! I have a .357 S&W Performance Center revolver and a target .45 automatic (ACP). I shoot both rather well but I wouldn’t trust my ability to hit a charging bear in a vital spot with either one. Indeed, given a choice between a hot .44 magnum revolver and a lowly .30-30 carbine, I’ll take the carbine! This said, a handgun can be useful if a bear attacks you while you’re in a tent.
If you’re driving to Canada—or through it on your way to Alaska—you must pre-register your gun with U.S. customs before you cross the border. If you don’t, they may confiscate it on re-entry. Registration takes only a few minutes, and it’s free. Be sure you keep the rgistration form—you must show it to U.S. customs on your return trip.
Declare your gun immediately to Canadian customs. If your gun is legal—meets minimum barrel length requirements, and IS NOT a handgun—you’re good to go. You will need to fill out a short form and pay a fee (25 dollars/good for 60 days at this writing). Information and forms are on line.
Your gun must be sealed if you canoe through a wildlife preserve. The Canadian Wildlife Service or Alaska Department of Fish and Game, can provide details.
All handguns are illegal in Canada. Besides, even a hot .44 magnum may not stop a charging grizzly or polar bear. Better to spray pepper and pray!
If you are flying on a commercial airplane, guns must have a trigger lock and be enclosed in a "hard" gun case. TSA has specific requirements (on line) that must be followed to the letter. TSA rules don't apply to charter float planes.
SAFETY AND WATERPROOFING
Load the magazine but not the chamberand place the gun inside an unlined canvas (breathable) or silicone-treated fleece case. Insert the canvas or fleece case into a water-tight case (Kolpin makes a good one), and tie the case to a gunnel of your canoe so it will stay put in a capsize.
PORTAGING WITH YOUR GUN
Remove your gun from its waterproof case, but not from the fleece or canvas case. Set the cased gun across the top of your pack (between the shoulder straps and pack), and hit the trail. The waterproof case stays tied into the canoe. If you have observed bears in the area, sling the gun and carry it uncased.
Native people who live in the far north usually set their rifles in the canoe with no security or protection from the elements. Do that on a canoe trip and you'll have a pile of rusty parts before your trip ends! Or worse, lose it in a capsize!
MAINTENANCE AT SEA
1. Condensation will cause a gun to rust if you leave it stored inside a waterproof case for very long. So, as soon as you camp, remove the weapon from the waterproof case, but not from the breathable case. Immediately put the cased firearm in your tent, away from the weather, and people. If bears have been observed in the area, uncase the gun and set it on top of the case, next to your sleeping bag.
2. Occasionally wipe down the outside of the weapon with an oily rag. If the gun was left in the waterproof case for several days, run a lightly oiled patch through the barrel at the first opportunity. You'll need a jointed cleaning rod and gun cleaning materials. Note: a jointed rod is better than a “pull-through” cord. You’ll see why if you get a cartridge case or cleaning patch stuck in the breech!
A bit about bullets: Be aware that most of the bullets available at sports shops are designed for thin-skinned game--they will fragment at close range on a bear! Dangerous game bullets are an absolute must!
God forbid you should ever have to shoot a bear. But if you do you better not have a misfire--a possibility if your bullets are wet from pouring rain or a capsize. Military ammunition is sealed against the elements, but most factory ammo isn't. I paint a thin layer of lacquer (clear nail polish) around the cartridge case neck and primer of every loaded round. This guarantees ignition even in a torrential rain.
There's a complete treatise on firearms and bears in my flagship book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition.