15 Feet From White Death

By Gayne C. Young

Sergeant Long dutifully studied the distance between ice floes completely unaware he was being hunted. Oblivious to the danger stalking closer, Long continued measuring tide levels, happy for the diversion from the monotonous existence of life aboard a trapped ship. 

For several months the America lay exposed and dying, the victim of crushing pack ice on the western coast of Crown Prince Rudolf Land. Isolation, sunless days that plummeted to 62 degrees below zero. No certainty of rescue left most members of the 1903 Fiala-Ziegler Polar Expedition teetering on the edge of despair or madness. In an effort to keep their wits about them the men did what they could to stay on some sort of schedule. Sergeant Long was no exception.

Roughly 1,000 yards away, expedition leader Anthony Fiala scanned the frozen bay below the remains of the America for signs of game. Polar bears and several species of seals were often sighted upon the ice and their flesh would offer a welcome change come meal time. Although fully stocked with enough provisions for two years, fresh meat was always a scarce commodity aboard ship. Armed with an 8mm Mannlicher carbine, Fiala hoped to change that.

Surveying the jagged, “rough ice” beyond the bay, Fiala spotted a huge bear scrambling through the uneven maze of frozen peaks and deep cuts toward Sergeant Long. Grabbing another clip of ammunition Fiala ran to the unsuspecting Sergeant, the bone dry -45 degree air burning his mouth and nostrils and scraping his lungs with the power of a sandblaster. Screams of warning were wiped aside by the howling wind, and all efforts to get the Sergeant’s attention went unnoticed.  

The scent of an unknown flesh grew stronger and stronger in the bear’s nose as he ambled his way toward its source. He, too, was looking for fresh meat. The bear couldn’t identify the creature that stood beyond the jagged ice but could tell from its smell that it was edible. Based on the way it failed to notice its surroundings it would be an easy kill as well. Just as the bear reached the edge of the frozen bay, another of the upright creatures appeared. The bear slowed his descent to the ice floe and waited to see what, if anything about his opportunity for an easy meal, was about to change.

Once within shouting distance of Sergeant Long, Fiala warned the man of his impending doom and ordered him back to the ship. Winded by his run but determined to supply the men with fresh meat, Fiala scanned the rough ice for signs of the bear but failed to spot him. Knowing the animal was close by, Fiala devised a plan; rather than venturing into the rough ice in search of the bear, he’d let the bear come in search of him.

Fiala lay upon the ice in an attempt to resemble a basking seal. He kicked his feet back and forth to imitate a tail and bobbed his head up and down as if periodically waking from his nap to search for danger. To make sure he wasn’t ambushed from behind, Fiala “flopped around every once in a while.”

As the frozen pain of the ice crept into his bones Fiala grew more and more anxious. Years of arctic exploration gave him great respect for polar bears. He knew of their acute sense of smell, of their uncompromising patience when still hunting, and how their white pelage allows them to become almost invisible when stalking game. He also knew that one was less than 200 yards away, watching his every move and waiting for the perfect moment to strike. 

Measuring over 10 feet in length and weighing upward of 1,700 pounds, the polar bear is the largest land predator on the face of the planet. Despite this size they are extremely fast, able to cover short distances at up to 35 mph. This surefooted speed is obtained with wide, fur-covered paws that offer superb traction as well as insulation. In addition, paws are also utilized as paddles in open water, and when combined with extremely buoyant, hollow, air-filled guard hairs, polar bears are as at home in the water as they are on land. So much in fact, that some in the scientific community list them as marine mammals. Even the animal’s scientific moniker defends this stance as Ursus maritimus means “maritime bear.”

Whether in the water or on land, polar bears are formidable predators, perfectly designed for hunting in some of the most inhospitable places on Earth. Sharp claws and long canine teeth at the end of an elongated neck aid in grasping and holding prey on slick ice. Their powerful jaws are designed to kill smaller species of seals with a single crushing bite to the skull. Sheer muscle power and stealth allow them to take animals more than twice their size, such as walruses and beluga whales.

These observations must have railed through Fiala’s mind as he turned to his left to see an enormous piece of ice buckle and rise toward the sky. Before it reached its crest, the skyward edge of the frozen slab slowly began to descend as if the entire table was nothing more than a child’s see-saw balancing on some unseen midpoint. The cause of this playground activity continued ahead until, at the edge of the glacier plank, it lunged forward onto the same sheet of ice where Fiala lay.

Holding his position and trying to remain calm, Fiala became entranced at the set of black eyes glaring with intensity in his direction. Taking full advantage of his prey’s hypnotic lapse, the monstrous bear swiftly advanced, the ice beneath his thundering gait booming with percussion blasts. With less than 75 yards between them, Fiala exploded upward, leveled his rifle, and quickly found the center of the bear’s skull in his sights.

Burning with adrenaline Fiala pulled the trigger, confident that his shot would drop the bear in its tracks. But instead of the rifle’s report, a horrified Fiala heard the faint tap of the firing pin as it came to rest on the cartridge before it.

Fiala’s rush of adrenaline boiled to panic. He considered his knife but at the sight of the juggernaut barreling toward him thought the better of it. Knowing his fate depended on less than a second’s actions, Fiala stepped forward and screamed at the top of his lungs. The bear immediately halted, startled and confused.

Taking full advantage of his momentary reprieve Fiala nervously inspected his rifle while trying to keep one eye on the bear. Thinking the bolt was frozen he quickly began rubbing his hands back and forth over the mechanism to warm it. Bullet after bullet sprung free from the rifle, spinning through the air before plinking on the ice as Fiala inadvertently ran the bolt through rotation after rotation. No longer stunned by Fiala’s actions, the bear tilted his head and began “hissing like an enormous snake.” 

Fiala matched the bear’s hisses with continued screaming and cussing as he frantically searched for another clip for his now-empty rifle. Immune to Fiala’s vocal abuse, the bear ambled forward, sizing up his prey for attack. Fiala slammed home a new clip, leveled his rifle at the moving bear’s form and pulled the trigger.

Nothing. Another misfire.

Fiala quickly jacked another round into the chamber and squeezed only to once more hear the gentle tap of another misfire. Meanwhile the bear bulldozed ahead at full speed. With less than 15 feet between him and white death, Fiala tried his rifle one last time. The sudden explosion caught the bear in the face, flipping him head over heels backward. Completely stunned that his weapon worked, Fiala reloaded and fired once more at the now-fleeing bear. The second shot caught the bear in the hindquarters, dropping him as he reentered the rough ice. A third shot to the brain finished the beast. It allowed Fiala the chance to breathe once more.

Later while looking the bear over, Fiala made a frightening discovery: His first shot somehow missed the bear. Only a face full of powder with extreme power behind it flipped the bear over and allowed Fiala to live.  

That night as the crew of the America processed the great white bear, Fiala had the opportunity to speak with the man in charge of the expedition’s weapons. The two men concluded that a coating of oil on the firing pin was the cause of Fiala’s many misfires, a harrowing aberration to contemplate as he prepared to eat the beast who nearly ate him.

From the FE Films Archive

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