Hunting Polar Bears With a Bow

Michele Leqve calls herself the “Xtreme Huntress.” What could be more extreme than trying to kill a polar bear with stick and string?

Hunting Polar Bears With a Bow

The polar bear is the largest land carnivore on the planet. Several species of bears have a reputation for causing harm, and certainly any of them could kill you and eat you, though cases of that are rare.

That’s not true with the polar bear, however. More people have been killed and eaten by polar bears than any other bear. These monstrous bears, commonly weighing more than half a ton, spend their nomadic lives roaming the vast wastelands of the northernmost regions of the planet and the frozen sea ice in a continual, aggressive search for food. To a polar bear, if it moves it’s potentially food. That includes any people who happen to enter this barren land where you can see for miles. Many big game animals have a reputation for being dangerous. The polar bear has the goods. 

So what would cause a woman to want to go onto the frozen sea ice near the North Pole and try to shoot one with a bow and arrow?

“It’s all about the adventure,” says Michele Leqve. “The whole thing is so dramatic. It’s so difficult, and so surrounded by amazing sights and amazing people.”

Besides the incredible hunting experience, Leqve fell in love with the Inuit people of the region and gained a lot of respect for their everyday lives. Leqve is an accomplished archer who has taken more than a dozen species of big game animals with her Mathews bow. She has killed several remarkable specimens that qualify for the Pope & Young record book. She’s a flight attendant who became hooked on archery when her husband introduced her to it. To say she fell and fell hard would be an understatement; she’s got it bad. 

She loves bear hunting  and has killed several with a bow. It was not a big leap to start thinking about the largest and most dangerous bear of all. When she discovered there was no record of a woman ever killing a polar bear with a bow, the seed was planted. Over the next few years, that seed would take root and grow until it would not be denied.

Saving and Planning

Michele and Jim Leqve are not wealthy. They work hard, prioritize their hunting and are comfortable, but a polar bear hunt can cost between $30,000 and $50,000. They had to figure out a way to pull it off, and they did by saving and borrowing. They booked the hunt through Bowhunting Safari Consultants. Jim would go along to film and shoot photos as Michele would attempt this great adventure in hopes of doing something no woman has ever done before. 

Due to a last-minute setback, the trip almost didn’t happen. Michele was a flight attendant at the time for Northwest Airlines. Just before the trip, Northwest filed for bankruptcy. Michele’s future became uncertain. Michele and Jim considered bagging the trip, but in the end decided life was too short to live in fear of the future. They stayed the course.

A hunt like this is not a one-on-one deal. About a dozen people from the small native community of Pond Inlet contributed to the hunt. Most of them were along for the entire trip. That included a family of Inuit who guided them, along with other camp help. 

Pond Inlet is in Nunavut Territory in north-central Canada. Its name is not a fitting description of the area. It is a small town covered in ice almost the entire year, a jumping off point for the northern people who spend much of their time on the sea ice trying to scratch out a living from a harsh land. From the community, Michele and Jim ventured farther north into the barren white. It was mid-April, yet temperatures were still averaging -30 to -40 degrees during the day.

The hardships encountered on such an adventure have to be experienced in order to fully realize how difficult the task. Imagine, as a female, having to go to the bathroom when you are in a flat, barren land, it’s minus-40 degrees and you’re wearing seven layers of clothing. That is just the beginning. Just staying alive and avoiding frostbite is tough enough under these conditions. Plus, you eat what polar bears eat, which includes things such as raw fish and blubber. Interestingly, Leqve claims the food isn’t that bad if you’re hungry enough.

On to the Hunt

According to the law, you cannot pursue a polar bear with a motorized vehicle, so Michele rode in a large, partially-enclosed dogsled called a Kamotik. The dogs pulled it at a pretty good pace. Support crews rode snowmobiles so they often had to wait for the sled to catch up. 

The team ventured north for a full day to a small plywood cabin where they would spend the night before going out on the sea ice. 

That’s when the first storm hit. 

Everyone was jammed into that cabin for the entire day and most of the following day. This was a 14-day hunt and nerves were on edge as time was wasting. Michele and Jim enjoyed talking to the people about their lives, playing games and watching one of the boys do his school work. One of the guide’s helpers, Titus, admired Michele’s Mathews bow. He said he had been looking at one similar to it on eBay. That took her by surprise. At the end of the hunt she gave the bow to him before she left, and he was thrilled. 

When the weather broke they were once again on the move, now across the barren ice, which was broken only by pressure heaves and snowdrifts. After some long hours banging along in the Kamotik, they stopped to make camp about 5 p.m. They were about halfway through the laborious task of setting up a camp when a friend of the family pulled up on a snowmobile and greeted them. He’d seen them from a distance and decided to go check on them. 

When he discovered they were polar bear hunting, he became excited and offered great news. He’d cut a big bear track earlier in the afternoon. Suddenly, a frenzy ensued as camp was being loaded back up and things were moving once again. Michele was amazed they were going to hunt the bear instead of camping for the night. But opportunities like that don’t come along often. 

Michele, with her guide Omik, took off right away on the dogsled while the rest of the crew followed on snow machines soon as they could get everything together. If she got the bear, the plan was to camp where she shot it. It sounded like a great plan at the beginning, but things were about to get hairy.

A Bear, and Waiting

They caught up with the bear after about three hours as the sun was getting low in the sky. It was a big male; a definite shooter. Days are long that far north in April, but no one wants to be on the ice with the world’s largest predator after dark, especially with no camping gear. The rest of the crew was nowhere in sight. Omik decided to turn one of the dogs loose. 

Bears can travel at a shockingly quick walk. You could never catch a polar bear on foot, but a dog that knows what it is doing will bring the bear to a standstill. The bear’s attention is focused on the dog, which provides safety for the hunter and guide, and allows a bowhunter to get close enough for a shot.

Within minutes, the dog had the bear bayed and they carefully closed the distance. Omik was expecting Michele to shoot, and indicated so with a sense of urgency. But Michele didn’t come all this way to shoot a bear without her husband present and filming it. Omik could not understand why she wouldn’t shoot. 

There was a communication gap for some very tense moments before the snowmobiles appeared on the horizon. By that time, Omik had turned more dogs loose and they were surrounding the bear, making a shot difficult. It was mass chaos, and this normally nerves-of-steel extreme huntress began to feel like she was going to panic! 

Finally, the camera was rolling. She got her bow drawn and tried to settle the pin on the churning mass of dogs and bear. When she saw an opening, she loosed the arrow. The bear made a move. Her shot was a clean miss.

Flight attendants are trained to remain calm when emergencies arise, but this was pandemonium. The bear was moving around, Jim was getting into a position to film the shot, dogs were yammering, the guide was urging her to shoot, adrenaline was surging and her heart was pounding. Michele forced herself to settle down and take a deep breath. She calmly sent the second arrow right through the bear’s heart at 40 yards. Within seconds, the bear was lying in a heap. Jim got it all on film and Michele Leqve was the first woman on record to kill the world’s largest land carnivore with a bow and arrow. No one else can ever make that claim. 

There was quite a celebration and lots of photo shooting as camp was set up and the bear was dressed. The Inuits use every scrap of the bear — including the guts. 

Michelle has mixed feelings about shooting the bear on the third day of a 14-day hunt. On one hand, the hardships were so extreme that it was a blessing. On the other, shared hardships create close bonds between people and the feelings she has for the natives who accompanied her are strong. She would have liked to have had more time with them. What other things might she have seen and done if she was out there longer? She will never know.

When asked if she would do it again, she was quite adamant.

“Once is enough,” she replied. “I wouldn’t do it again. It was a once-in a lifetime experience.”

The income from the polar bear hunts has a remarkable effect on the native people. Thirty-two bear tags are issued for that large area in most years and without those, the people would not be able to have the comforts they have today. They love the byproducts of a bear hunt too. The day Michele and her crew arrived back in town, local radio announced that a bear had been shot and the location where people could get a share of the  meat. They waited in line to get a share. 

Polar bears are abundant and in fact, with hunting being curtailed due to misguided regulations brought on by climate change concerns, the population is dangerously high in some areas. The natives understand how important polar bear hunting is to the health of the species as a whole. They understand it is important to keep the numbers of male bears in check, because the males kill bear cubs and often eat the females, too. Plus, too many bears take a toll on the seals and other animals the people depend on for food. There’s an important balance to be maintained and hunters are a vital part of that balance. 

Michele is grateful for the opportunity to do this and remains humble about it, despite the fact that she made hunting history. The hardships and the triumphs will be etched in her memory forever and no one can take those away from her. She says the one thing that sticks with her most is the constant unknown attached to the adventure.

“I just never knew what to expect or what was going to happen next," she said. "It is not like a whitetail hunt where you kind of know what things to look for. This extreme experience was all new every step of the way.”

Bonus: The Bear and Politics

Despite the fact this was a legal hunt, Leqve cannot bring her polar bear hide into the United States. The U.S. has made it illegal to bring even legally taken bear hides across the border, in part due to politicized global warming issues.

Leqve also has been mercilessly attacked on social media, but continues defending hunting. She has faced criticism from people who do not understand about sound wildlife management and have yielded to the unfounded fear that bears are dying due to climate change. Nothing could be further from the truth, Leqve says; the bears are abundant as ever. Due to fewer hunters, as pressure from the U.S. is reduced by stricter regulations, the natives are engaged in harvesting more polar bears to keep the population in check. 

Leqve’s mounted bear is on display in a large sporting goods store in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. When the store closed, she was left with a difficult decision. She was offered $60,000 for the mount, but after some research learned it would be illegal to sell it. Eventually, she presented the bear as a gift to some friends they knew in Saskatoon.

Leqve is at peace with her decision. She has the memories, the photos and some amazing video footage to remember it by.

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