Duncan Ferguson

                          Video ContentPhotographyBlog / AboutContact

VICE: I Guarded an Arctic Base Against Polar Bears at the Frontline of the Apocalypse

The DEW Line was built in the fifties to warn of a nuclear threat. I guarded six workers there from polar bears.

Original article published on Vice, read here: https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/a3kep4/i-guarded-an-arctic-base-against-polar-bears-at-the-frontline-of-the-apocalypse

In mid-August I flew over the barren arctic mountains of Baffin Island, in the Inuit territory of Nunavut, in a Cold War era helicopter. I was the new bear monitor en route with six maintenance technicians to a North Warning System radar station, part of an array that spans North America's Arctic circle. Originally named the DEW Line (Distant Early Warning), it was the first line of defence against a Soviet attack: an early warning system for apocalypse.

The DEW Line was built jointly by Canada and the US in 1957, and is still a key component of the North American Aerospace Defense Command. While the DEW Line was designed to watch North America's back for the Russian Bear, my job was to watch the workers' backs for polar bears.

View from Baff2 Radar Station, Baffin Island
Northern Lights at the Baff2

I was hired through a layer cake of subcontractors hired by Raytheon (a major US defence contractor). My role conjured up some mix of Dr. Strangelove and the Australian game warden from Jurassic Park.

My qualifications were years spent planting trees in the Canadian northwest, where bear encounters can happen daily. Now I found myself on a Sikorsky chopper with a 30-year-old Winchester pump action shotgun, which I'd modified to hold more shells. I had just purchased the gun, in what northerners refer to as the south, shortly before the work contract began.

You can imagine the reaction in the gun shop days before I left for the Arctic, when I told them what it was for.

Torn flag used as a wind sockRadar Domes at dusk

Breath visibly huffing out of its slack open mouth, I watched the silhouette of a humongous white mass crest the ridge where I had been target practicing days before. This thing lumbered confidently over the boulders and, clearly operating on his own schedule, approached us without the slightest concern.

Watching its powerful mass settle on every step, I was able grasp the scale and power of the thing I was hired to contend with. I snapped a photo that would never do this animal justice, put down my camera, and picked up my gun.Polar bears' tragic flaw is their curiosity. A by-product of their intelligence, they often put themselves in mortal danger just by being curious. This is the most important thing to recognize as a bear monitor, and to always opt for deterrence. After I got a good look at its girthy yellow canines, the enormous black claws protruding from its paws, and ultimately the whites of its eyes, it was obvious that there was only a short flight of stairs separating us.

Shotgun pointed at the sky, I squeezed off a round, sending him only a dozen yards away before he immediately resumed tramping around, as if he was in charge.

The chopper landed an hour later, and we went home.