Two Spears Against Polar Bears: Survival on Svalbard, 1743-1749

Polar Bear Attack Stopped with Revolvers in Norway iStock-1364796505
Two Spears Against Polar Bears: Survival on Svalbard, 1743-1749 iStock-1364796505

Polar bears are very large, dangerous adversaries. Surviving for six years after a shipwreck in the Arctic, four Russian hunters killed ten of them with two homemade spears. The story is told in the modern book Four Against the Arctic by David Roberts, published in 2003.

Roberts spent two weeks at the location most likely to have been where the Russian sailors/hunters had survived, on Halfmoon Island, across a narrow channel from Edgeøya. In those two weeks, his party of four saw nine polar bears, three of which had to be chased away with flare guns, and two of the bears chased away from the hut Robert’s party was occupying. Roberts spends many more pages in detailing his travails in researching documents and information about the story than in the story itself.

In May 1743, a ship of Russian walrus hunters was blown off course in the vicinity of Edgeøya, part of the Svalbard archipelago.

Their ship was captured in the pack ice, about two miles from the shore of an island. The pilot, Aleksei Inkov, recognized the place from stories and remembered a tale of an early version of a prefabricated hut being built on the island many years earlier.  He, his godson, and two other hunters volunteered to see if this was the place and if the hut was there. They had to traverse two miles of treacherous ice-pack. They took very little in equipment or supplies, as listed:

  • One musket, twelve charges of powder, and twelve musket balls.
  • One knife, one axe.
  • One small kettle and twenty pounds of flour.
  • A tinder box and tinder, a pouch of tobacco, and a small wooden pipe for each man.

The pack ice constantly threatened to crush their ship. If they could find the hut, there was hope of survival. Supplies from the ship could be brought ashore. The crew might survive until another ship came or their ship was freed.

They found the hut in an amazing feat of memory, navigation, and lore passed by word of mouth. The four men sheltered in the hut overnight as gale-force winds buffeted the island. The next morning, on attempting to return to the ship, it had vanished without a trace, along with the pack ice. The ship and its ten crewmates were never heard of again.  The shipwrecked men spent the next six years and three months surviving on reindeer while always on the lookout for polar bears.

The twelve musket charges translated to twelve reindeer by late summer of 1743.  Only driftwood was available for fuel. In the driftwood, they found a few planks with some large iron spikes and a large bolt. They were able to make a hammer of the bolt, and by heating and hammering spikes on a rock, they crafted two iron spearheads, which they attached to driftwood poles. They used rawhide from the reindeer skins to lash the spearheads.  Wet rawhide shrinks when dried, fastening the iron spearheads securely to the poles. They killed ten polar bears over the next six years with the two homemade spears. The men had an iron-clad rule – no man left the hut alone.

Two men with spears. Ten polar bears. The first polar bear was deliberately targeted by the Russian sailors/hunters. A polar bear can easily outrun and outswim a man. The bear must have deliberately engaged in the fight. Two men can kill a polar bear with spears, because when the bear targets one man, the other can attack. It only takes one good spear thrust to the heart/lungs to kill a polar bear, but the bear can take many seconds to die.  The bear meat was a welcome addition to their diet. The next nine polar bears were all killed in self-defense. This is plausible given the work of Russian scientist Nikita Ovsyanikov. In his book about polar bears, he describes them coming very close to him but not charging as they evaluated him. He even hit polar bears with a stout stick to get them to leave him. The cautious approach of bears to new, unknown prey would give the Russian castaways a chance to deliver killing blows to bears who would not run from them.

There is no mention of how long the spears were. Roberts refers to them as “lances,” which implies a longer weapon. Sasha Siemel killed numerous jaguars in Brazil with a spear. The spear used by Siemel was about 7 feet long.

The shipwrecked sailors/hunters used polar bear tendons to make a bowstring, with a fortuitous bit of driftwood for the bow. Arrows consisted of driftwood shafts, smaller salvaged and hammered nails for arrowheads, and sea-fowl feathers for fletching.  They killed 250 reindeer over the next six years and numerous fox.

One of the men quickly developed an illness. Fedor Verigin took over five years to die, cared for by his three companions. He was constantly weak and, in the end, bedridden.

The reindeer, fox, and bear hides paid for their passage back to Russia, and more when they were rescued by another Russian ship on August 15, 1749.  Their tale of survival was a sensation.

About Dean Weingarten:

Dean Weingarten has been a peace officer, a military officer, was on the University of Wisconsin Pistol Team for four years, and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1973. He taught the Arizona concealed carry course for fifteen years until the goal of Constitutional Carry was attained. He has degrees in meteorology and mining engineering, and retired from the Department of Defense after a 30 year career in Army Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation.

Dean Weingarten