The threat of a polar bear attack has become a reality for the huge Canadian police and military contingent searching for the teenage duo suspected of shooting dead Australian tourist Lucas Fowler, his US girlfriend and a university botanist.
The manhunt for Kam McLeod, 19, and Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, continued on Saturday with the addition of a Royal Canadian Air Force CC-130H Hercules and personnel searching the unforgiving wilderness near Gillam, a remote area in northern Manitoba.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police distributed a photo on Saturday of a polar bear encountered by searchers 200km north of Gillam.
McLeod and Schmegelsky have been on the run since the bodies of Fowler, 23, from Sydney, and his North Carolina girlfriend Chynna Deese, 24, were found dead on the side of a highway 3,000km away in Canada’s west on 14 July.
Locals around Gillam predicted the teenagers would face extreme challenges – polar and black bears, wolves, irritating black flies and mosquitos, dense scrub and swamps – if they did, as suspected by the RCMP, enter bushland on Monday night after setting fire to their stolen Toyota RAV-4.
“A polar bear was spotted during the search for suspects earlier today – about 200km north of Gillam,” the RCMP, with a photo of the bear, wrote in a tweet on Saturday.
“Just some of the wildlife that can be found in northern Manitoba.”
The nearby town of Churchill is on a polar bear migration route.
The Canadian government, desperate to catch the fugitives, immediately approved the RCMP request for military support.
On the ground authorities went door-to-door canvassing locals in their homes and searching abandoned buildings in the hope of finding the duo or picking up clues.
The sweep included an abandoned hydroelectric building with 600 rooms.
The RCMP surmised the teenagers torched their RAV-4 and fled on foot in Gillam because there have been no reports of stolen cars or carjackings in the area.
After days of fruitless searching the RCMP on Friday admitted they were “exploring the possibility” the teenagers may have fled Gillam with the help of a third person unaware the two were fugitives.
McLeod and Schmegelsky, longtime school friends from Vancouver Island, allegedly embarked on 14 July near Liard Host Springs, in northern British Columbia, when they encountered Fowler and Deese.
The old Chevrolet van Mr Fowler and Ms Deese were driving broke down on the Alaska Highway and left them stranded.
Their bullet-riddled bodies were found in a ditch near the van.
Four days later and 470km away, University of British Columbia botanist Leonard Dyck was found dead on another highway.