Fake fur: Course simulating polar bear attacks and proper responses tests induces fear and chills

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Feel like you’re fine going out in the winter wilderness because you’re a decent shot at the target range?  How about when you’re panicked and winded, and have to turn quickly to shoot an attacking moving target with just your mounted flashlight as a visual aid in pitch blackness?

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Participants in a practical skills training course gather around a tripwire alarm system next to a tent at Longyearbyen’s shooting range Thursday. An instructor emphasized that, in addition to ensuing the system is reliable, placing the wire at the proper height so polar bears can’t elude it is essential. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

It might not be practical to fully simulate the circumstances of an aggressive polar bear encounter, but 24 people signing up for a first-ever public practical skills course got a chance to test their mettle under various stress conditions in the bitter cold, wind and snow – yet more impairments on judgement and actions – Thursday night at Longyearbyen’s outdoor shooting range.

The result was an explosive four hours as participants, split into two groups, divided their time between target shooting with various “twists” and using different preventative measures such as flashbangs designed to ward off attacks at various distances. But instructors went out of their way to emphasize that, despite the battleground soundtrack, this isn’t a shooting course.

“The emphasis is on how to behave during polar bear encounters in order to avoid harming or killing them,” said Fred Skancke Hansen, safety director at The University Centre in Svalbard and the lead instructor for the course.

The course, already being offered by the Arctic Safety Centre to guides and others regularly in the field, will likely be offered twice a year to the public in the future, Hansen said.

Participants were expected to be knowledgable with basic weapons handling and strongly encouraged to attend a free classroom presentation on polar bear safety the previous evening at UNIS. Once the shooting started the familiar experience of shooting targets from the range’s shelter was just to establish a benchmark for the shooting drills that followed.

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Shooters check their accuracy after a practical skills drill simulating a polar bear attack. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

“You’re actually shooting better from a standing position than kneeling,” Hansen said after the group spent a couple of minutes doing both. “That’s a bit frightening, actually. So we’re going to step it up. We’re going to add some twists and turns.”

That meant being extra careful in preparations before each shoot to avoid endangering fellow participants – time that wouldn’t exist during an emergency, of course – beginning with the basic scenario of a bear approaching from behind.

“When I saw fire turn around and fire two shots at the target,” he said.

The group did so, pausing a varying number of seconds before doing so. A check of the targets after the initial exercises showed a marked difference in marksmanship, with some showing the multitude of rifle shots in a close cluster to the target and others far more scattered. And while a bear is far more massive than the targets a higher likelihood of hitting it might be presumed – but doing in the chest, advised in the case of a true last-resort measure, was far less assured.

But that was barely a warmup, in more than one sense, to the adverse conditions of a real attack.

“Not all of you are scared,” Hansen said after the turnaround drill. “I can’t make you scared, so we need to simulate it. You need to run.”

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Audun Tholfsen, head engineer for operations and field safety at UNIS, shows different types of tripwire flares before leading a group outside to test them and other non-lethal devices designed to scare off polar bears. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

So the group – after again carefully loading and holstering their weapons, and donning headlights – set off into the dark from the shooting range in a rapid lap around the shelter before stopping in front of the target and receiving an immediate order to fire. They had a moment to gather themselves before doing so, but when they inspected their targets afterwards for accuracy there was a non-unexpected mix of quips about diminished capacity and some boasts from those asserting “I do better under pressure.”

The warmup provided by the bit of exercise was countered by periods of inactivity as a different series of explosions rang overhead from the second group firing flashbang pistols from a “campsite” several dozen meters away. Although polar bears have shown resistance to being intimidated by the pistols in recent years, instructors said they remain the best non-lethal option to deter an attack.

Closer to the tent they also fired flares from signal pens designed for short-range use into the darkness and inspected the mechanisms on a tripwire system rigged outside a tent. Audun Tholfsen, head engineer for operations and field safety at UNIS, noted systems now available are less ideal than one designed for military use.

“They work the best, but they’re really hard to get a hold of because they don’t sell them anymore,” he said.

Furthermore, while he had the group look at a tripwire system from the United Kingdom set up outside, he noted it’s not used by UNIS because its reliability is questionable. A similar system not set up properly was among the failures cited after an attack on a group of British students resulted in one teenager’s death in 2011.

Meanwhile, those with the rifles were engaged in a turn-while-walking drill where shots had to be fired within 15 seconds, with Hansen’s countdown resounding as loud as the shots in the darkness. Finally, he turned off the range’s lights had them try to hit the targets using flashlights mounted on their weapons – although without the “twists” from the earlier drills.

Which meant participants didn’t come close to simulating a sudden polar bear attack during a trek in the polar night – or while sleeping in a tent when all senses and functions would be drastically diminished. But both novice and experienced firearms carriers said they felt the course offered important training for reacting properly to an encounter.

Morten Dyrstad, who moved to Longyearbyen a few months ago and is the city’s technical sector chief, said he felt comfortable going into the field before the course due to his military experience. But he learned some new thing such as ensuring tripwire flares are placed at correct heights so bears can’t go under or over them – and, of course, the mentality is far different than an encounter in combat.

“It’s how the animal behaves,” he said. “All this is about hurting the polar bear and not getting in these situations.”

The course was only the fourth time Anne Sandnes, an architect who moved to Longyearbyen a few months ago, has shot a rifle. But she said that while doing so accurately can be a challenge under any circumstances, she said she’s satisfied with how she handled the twists thrown at her during the course.

“I’m comfortable now,” she said. “I hit the target.”

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