Sean Whipple Polar Bear Hunt Interview
Men like Sean Whipple are few and far between and we are absolutely honored to have the opportunity to interview him for Hunting Insider. You may think you are extreme but are you Sean Whipple Extreme?
How did you get started hunting?
Although I didn’t start actively big game hunting until I was in college, I have fond memories of hunting upland game birds, waterfowl, and deer with my father/uncle from the age of 5. I believe that like most hunters, my drive to hunt was inspired by family outings and a deep respect for wilderness and wildlife. I can honestly tell you that when I harvested my first deer, something just “clicked”. From that point on, I knew it was what I was born to do. I had an overwhelming desire to experience hunting in all aspects, experience new cultures, and explore. I have been fortunate to have friends and family foster this passion along the way. Being from the Midwest, after dozens of deer hunts I decided I wanted to try for antelope. From antelope, I decided to try and hunt black bear, and then on to caribou. Before long, I realized how unique each experience was, and at 22 years old I made the decision that I was going to devote my life to hunting big game.
You have been on the quest for the North American Grand Slam, how did that become a goal?
The SuperSlam of North American big game entails harvesting one of each of the 29 recognized big game species in North America. My passion in life is conservation through hunting, and I developed that passion at a young age. However, the more I hunted, the more I realized how little I knew about hunting. Each species and geographic area poses unique challenges. Hunting a whitetail in Nebraska is entirely different from hunting a Columbia Blacktail in Washington. In the same way, hunting Rocky Mountain elk in Colorado provides different challenges and terrain than Tule elk in California. Additionally, hunting provides a cultural experience that you simply cannot encounter by just traveling to these destinations. Whether hunting with the Inuit in the Arctic, or the Bushmen in Africa, these cultures cannot be fully experienced without doing what they have done for thousands of years…..hunt. It gets you out of your comfort zone and opens you up to new ways of viewing wildlife, conservation, and your fellow man. I want to experience everything the world of hunting has to offer, and that’s why I am chasing the SuperSlam.
Polar Bear hunting is pretty extreme, how did you prepare for this hunt physically?
I take hunting very seriously, and to be honest, I was a bit intimidated by this hunt. I knew I wasn’t going to be hiking miles a day or have the physical exertion that comes with a mountain hunt. I also knew the weather and qamutiik (sled) ride was going to be punishment on the body. Everyone I know who has been on a polar bear hunt told me that the trip was brutal. I am a firm believer in training for the hunt, but I knew my success wasn’t going to be reliant on my athletic ability. Rather, I focused on my gear, mental state, and hydration/nutrition while in the Arctic.
Despite preparation, I still ended up spending a couple days in the hospital after the hunt for pulmonary edema and dehydration. The temperatures and constant pounding of the sled ride were like nothing I have experienced. If I had to do it over, I’m not sure I would do much differently to prepare, but I would certainly rate this hunt as the single greatest adventure in the hunting world. Not something to be taken lightly.
What gear did you have to acquire in order to participate in this hunt?
Having the best gear, lightweight layers with the highest levels of insulation, are absolutely essential when spending 8-10 hours per day in -30F temps. I knew my weak areas were going to be feet, hands, and face. My good friend Tom Lundgren had just been on a polar bear hunt last year, and loaned me some of his Arctic mittens, boots, and had great recommendations on gear to withstand the weather. All your gear, from boots to sleeping bag, should be rated to at least -20F to remain comfortable.
I rented a set of Canada Goose parka and bibs from my outfitter, which are the industry standard for the Arctic. Below that, I wore another light down jacket, a light hunting jacket, and two baselayers of wool and fleece. I had on two sets of wool gloves below my down mittens each day. For my feet I wore heavy woolen socks inside Baffin boots with an additional boot insulators (boot blankets) outside of those. Every morning I put hand warmers inside my boots and in my gloves, which helped immensely. I wore a balaclava and ski goggles to keep my face insulated. That being said, fogging was an issue for the goggles, and moisture from your breath freezes almost instantly. I can tell you without hesitation that no matter what gear you have, it’s still painfully cold.
Did I read that you got stuck in the airport on the way to this hunt?
If I learned anything on this hunt, it is to never plan on anything in the Arctic being on time. Several flights are necessary to get that far North, and weather is the limiting factor. Due to a blizzard, 30mph winds, and whiteout conditions, I was stuck in Iqaluit, Nunavut for three days before departing to Pond Inlet to start my hunt. From there, it was a full day ride in the qamutiik (126 miles) on the sea ice to get to where we would begin hunting. The outfitter builds in extra days specifically for this reason, as I lost 4 days of hunting before I ever got started.
Tell me about the ride on the ice in the Qamutiik? How many days did you spend on the ice?
I’m not going to lie, that ride is absolute torture. Regardless of padding, mattresses, clothing, there is simply no way to make it comfortable. At times the ice is quite rough and jagged, almost like looking across a field of boulders. By the end of the trip my entire body was sore, bruised, and I had downed an entire bottle of ibuprofen to manage headaches and back/neck pain. After we arrived in camp I spent four days on the ice, 8-10 hours a day riding in the qamutiik looking for polar bear tracks. It was an amazing experience, but there truly isn’t much nice to say about riding in that sled.
Who did you hunt with while in Canada?
I booked my hunt through Canada North Outfitting. They managed all the hunt details, travel, hotels, guides, and arrangements in the Arctic. With all the delays and schedule changes, their service was truly invaluable. With a quick call they would rearrange flights and hotel arrangements along the way, and I can’t speak highly enough about their operation. Once I arrived in the Pond Inlet, Nunavut, I hunted with the Inuit guides of Tagak Outfitting, owned by Sheatie Tagak. They are experts, and I would I trust them with my life anyday.
How were the guides and the team that hunted with you?
I have done a fair amount of hunting, but I realized very quickly after arriving in that environment that I was completely out of my element. My Inuit guides (all three of them) were professionals, and had been on hundreds of hunts for polar bear, caribou, narwhal, seal, etc. My head guide was Sam Omik. He was born in an igloo, and was a seasoned hunter with countless stories of his hunting expeditions. Each guide had a wealth of knowledge built over a lifetime of living and hunting in the Arctic. Given the weather, terrain, and the fact that hunting polar bears isn’t the safest endeavor on the planet, I am grateful they were there.
They were incredibly humble, kind, and had an amazing sense of humor. It was an honor to hunt with them, and I am thankful for the time they took to share their culture and wisdom with me.
What was it like to share meals with these men and what did you eat on this trip?
It was such an awesome experience. I got to know my guides personally and learn about their past, their family, and their experiences. I believe that a meal tastes so much better when it has meaning and you have worked for it. That feeling is compounded when you are cold, tired, and sore. The first night, after a 10 hour, 126 mile ride on the qamutiik, my guides brought out aged Arctic char and muktuk (in this case, muktuk was narwhal skin and blubber from a recent hunt). Both are consumed raw and relatively frozen. It was quite good, but a bit different than my palate was used to.
Of course, they also cooked foods that every American can handle…pork chops, mac and cheese, bacon and eggs for breakfast, etc. It was great to try traditional dishes, but I didn’t complain when I saw mashed potatoes on my plate. The hunt culminated with eating part of my polar bear. They sliced off steaks from the rump and boiled it slowly over the portable gas stoves we used to heat the tents. It was amazingly tender, and although I will likely never have the opportunity to eat polar bear again, I will savor that experience for life.
Tell us about the final stalk on this bear?
It was obvious from the first polar bear I encountered that they are completely unintimidated by human presence. It is common for bears to turn the tables and come into camp, and I firmly believe that they perceive anything breathing on the ice as a food source. After cutting the track of my bear, we followed it for approximately 3-5 miles before we caught up to it. On a dog sled hunt, they will traditionally turn the dogs lose to bay the bear, giving you an opportunity to get close enough to for a shot opportunity. The bear did not run, rather stood ground and popped its teeth, moving parallel to us while sniffing the air. We were close, and I estimate my shot was around 10-20 yards. All I know was my sight picture through the scope was pure white. One shot from a .375 H&H and it was over quickly, for that I am thankful.
When you got back from this trip, you spent a few days in the hospital, what happened and are you feeling better now?
I was dehydrated and had pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs) from breathing the freezing air. In those temperatures, everything freezes in a matter of minutes, so for drinks we chipped off ice from freshwater icebergs, boiled it, and made tea/coffee for lunch and dinner. While on the ice that is about your only option for hydration, and we were so focused on finding a bear that I was fairly unconcerned with how much water I was drinking at the time. Personally, I am not a huge fan of hot drinks, and it made it challenging to intake a lot of fluids. Combined with the edema, I was hurting by the end of the hunt. After some IV fluids, steroids, and antibiotics, I am much better now. I certainly have a greater respect for the people who live and hunt in this environment.
Polar bear hunting is extremely controversial. From our conversation the anti-hunters have already been attacking you. What would you like the average person to know about extreme hunts like polar bear?
I could probably spend days explaining the benefits of hunting. I started hunting because I love wildlife and feeling connected to nature. It ultimately led me to a Ph.D. in the sciences, and I care deeply for the future of conservation. Hunting is an incredibly emotional experience, and I’m not too proud to admit that I shed some tears after I harvested my polar bear. I do get hatemail, and I try to use it as an opportunity to explain conservation through hunting. For instance, although polar bears are considered endangered in the US, there is a sustainable population of over 30,000 polar bears in the Canadian Arctic. From that, maybe 10-20 tags per year go to non-Inuit hunters. All the money from these hunts goes back into the local community and polar bear conservation. All the meat from the hunt went to the Inuit community, and rather than sell my polar bear hide for profit, I donated it as well. These communities are built around subsistence hunting, and it has been a part of their culture for thousands of years. This entire act promotes stewardship and benefits not only polar bear populations, but the Inuit people as well. Hunters are the single largest contributors to the future of wildlife and habitat conservation, we should never apologize for that.
What did you learn about yourself on this hunt?
That’s simple…I’m not that tough. It is a remote and harsh environment that made me feel small, insignificant, and frail. I was humbled, and I feel incredibly blessed to have had the experience.
What’s your next hunting adventure?
I am fairly focused on completing the SuperSlam at this point, and have three more hunts planned for 2016 including Sitka blacktail deer on Kodiak Island in Alaska, Roosevelt elk in California, and coues deer in Arizona. Those are the only remaining deer and elk I have not harvested in North America. The great thing about hunting, there is always another mountain to climb.