The annals of the north are filled with accounts of the most perilous and fatal conflicts of the polar bear. 'The first, and one of the most tragical, was sustained by Barantz and Heemskerke, in 1596, during their voyage for the discovery of the north-east passage. Having anchored at an island near the strait of Waygatz, two of the sailors landed, and were walking on shore, when one of them felt himself closely hugged from behind. Thinking this a frolic of one of his companions, he called out in a corresponding tone, ‘Who’s there? Pray stand off.’ His comrade looked, and screamed out, ‘A bear! A bear!’ then running to the ship, alarmed the crew with loud cries. The sailors ran to the spot armed with pikes and muskets. On their approach the bear very coolly quitted and mangled corpse, sprang upon another sailor, carried him off, and, plunging his teeth into his body, began drinking his blood in long draughts. Hereupon the whole of that stout crew, struck with terror, turned their backs and fled precipitately to the ship. On arriving there they began to look at each other, unable to feel much satisfaction with their own prowess. Three then stood forth, undertaking to avenge the fate of their countrymen, and to secure for them the rites of burial. They advanced, and fired at first from so respectful a distance that they all missed. The purser then courageously proceeded in front of his companions, and taking a close aim, pierced the monster's skull immediately below the eye. The bear, however, merely lifted his head and advanced upon them, holding still in his mouth the victim whom he was devouring; but seeing him soon stagger, the three rushed on with sabre and bayonet, and soon despatched him. They collected and bestowed decent sepulture on the mangled limbs of their comrades, while the skin of the animal, thirteen feet long, became the prize of the sailor who had fired the successful shot.
The history of the whale-fishers records a number of remarkable escapes from the bear. A Dutch captain, Jonge Kees, in 1668, undertook, with two canoes, to attack one, and with a lance gave him so dreadful a wound in the belly that his immediate death seemed inevitable. Anxious, therefore, not to injure the skin, Kees merely followed the animal close, till he should drop down dead. The bear, however, having climbed a little rock, made a spring from the distance of twenty-four feet upon the captain, who, taken completely by surprise, lost hold of the lance and fell beneath the assailant who, placing both paws on his breast, opened two rows of tremendous teethe and paused for a moment, as if to show him all the horrors of his situation. At this critical instant a sailor, rushing forward with only a scoop, succeeded in alarming the monster, who made off, leaving the captain without the slightest injury.
In 1788, Captain Cook, of the Archangel, when near the coast of Spitzbergen, found himself suddenly between the paws of a bear. He instantly called on the surgeon, who accompanied him, to fire, which the latter did with such admirable promptitude and precision, that he shot the beast through the head, and delivered the captain. Mr. Hawkins, of the Everthorpe, in July, 1818, having pursued and twice struck a large boar, had raised his lance for a third blow, when the animal sprang forward, seized him by the thigh, and threw him over its head into the water. Fortunately it used this advantage only to effect its own escape. Captain Scoresby mentions a boat's crew which attacked a bear in the Spitzbergen sea; but the animal having succeeded in climbing the sides of the boat, all the sailors threw themselves for safety into the water, where they hung by the gunwale. The victor entered triumphantly and took possession of the barge, where it sat quietly till it was shot by another party. The same writer mentions the ingenious contrivance of a sailor, who being pursued by one of these creatures, threw down successively his hat, jacket, handkerchief, and every other article in his possession. when the brute pausing at each, gave the sailor always a certain advantage, and enabled him finally to regain the vessel.
Though the voracity of the bear is such that he has been known to feed on his own species, yet maternal tenderness is as conspicuous in the female as in other inhabitants of the frozen regions. There is no exertion she will riot make for she bear with her two cubs, cross a field of ice, and finding that neither by example not by a peculiar voice and action she could urge them to the requisite speed, applied her paws and pitched them alternately forward. The little creatures threw themselves before her to receive the impulse, and thus both she and they effected their escape.
Bears are by no means devoid of intelligence. Their schemes for entrapping seals, and other animals on which they feed, often display considerable ingenuity. The manner in which the polar bear surprises his victim is thus described by Captain Lyon: - On seeing his intended prey he gets quietly into the water and swims to a leeward position, from whence, by frequent short dives, he silently makes his approaches , and so arranges his distance that, at the last dive, he comes to the spot where the seal is lying,. If the poor animal attempts to escape by rolling into the water, he falls into the paws of the bear; if, on the contrary, he lies still, his destroyer makes a powerful spring, kills him on the ice, and devours him at leisure. Some sailors, endeavoring to catch a bear, placed the noose of a rope under the snow, baited with a piece of whale's flesh. The bear, however, contrived three successive times to push the noose aside, and to carry off the bait unhurt. Captain Scoresby had half-tamed two cubs which used even to walk the deck but they showed themselves always restless under this confinement, and finally effected their escape.
According to Pennant and other writers, the bear forms chambers in the great ice-mountains, where he sleeps the long winter night, undisturbed by the roar of the northern tempest, but this regular hibernation is doubted by many recent observers. The fact seems to be, that the males roam about all winter in search of prey, not being, under the same necessity of submitting to the torpid state as the black bear of America, which feeds chiefly on vegetable food; but the females, who are usually pregnant during the more rigorous season of the year, seclude themselves for nearly the entire winter in their dens.