Canada: Close encounters with white giants of the north

By Chris Hutchings

It's magnificent to see polar bears unafraid, at home in their world. Photo / Tourism Manitoba
It's magnificent to see polar bears unafraid, at home in their world. Photo / Tourism Manitoba

Getting up close to huge, white, fluffy - and so cute-looking - polar bears is one of the best thrills ever.

You don't have to venture on an arduous trip to the remote Arctic or head to the North Pole to have that special encounter. You can see these amazing creatures in the wild, while remaining within civilisation. Just head to Churchill in Manitoba, Canada, where the bears come to you.

Churchill is a little town on the southeastern shore of the Hudson Bay. A coincidence of history and nature has resulted in the town developing - thanks to the European fur trade and later the grain trade from Canada's wheat fields - just where the polar bears like to congregate.

The bears like the Churchill area because this is exactly where the Hudson Bay freezes over first in the northern autumn, and it is the last to thaw in the springtime melt.

This means it offers the earliest opportunity for the bears to get out on to the ice to hunt for food in October-November. And, by remaining frozen until late spring, it is the last drop-off point for the bears coming back to land by mid-July, ahead of their walking hibernation during the northern summer, when they virtually fast.

Bears hungry after their four months of forced fasting over summer congregate on the Hudson Bay shores outside Churchill, eagerly awaiting the chance to return to the ice and to hunt their favourite food - ring seal.

I went with Frontiers North, flying into Churchill on a five-day, four-night trip that included two full days in a buggy out on the tundra.

The scenery flying into the remote, isolated town of around 600 people is mesmerising - a mosaic of snow and ice sprinkled with midget firs all covering a seemingly hostile permafrost.

Our 2-hour tour on an old school bus took in the sights of the area.

First stop was the polar bear jail. Recently extended to 25 cells for its temporary inmates, it houses bears that develop a habit of roaming too close to town.

No one is allowed in - the wildlife service doesn't want the bears to develop a taste for room and board. The only time anyone goes inside - including wildlife service officers - is when rangers drop off a potentially troublesome bear or when a bear is to be helicoptered back out on to the tundra.

Once installed in their cell, the bears get nothing but snow. No food, no human contact, no light. Just snow, so they have an ample supply of water.

If you are lucky, you might see a bear being delivered or relocated. There are usually several a week at the height of the season.

It was bright and sunny when we first arrived in town. But our first day out in the Tundra Buggy was chilly, although nobody cared. Everything changes when you see your first white giant. Your mission has been accomplished - nature has come to the party. You have seen a polar bear in the wild.

Our first was curled up a little way off, snoozing in the lee of an embankment. The mass of white fur didn't stir, but we didn't mind. Nothing could subdue our thrill and excitement. It took a lot to drag us from our first encounter, despite our guide's promises of more and better to come.

And it wasn't long before the close-ups came. We'd rush out on to the back platform, impervious to the cold, just to soak in the experience of seeing such beautiful creatures up so close, our camera shutters clicking madly as we zoomed in on our prey.

A kilometre or so down the track, we came across two buggies already stopped, one teeming with tourists on the back landing. At its wheels, an adult male bear seemed engrossed, sniffing and licking first the front wheels, then the back ones. In between, he'd stand on his hind legs, peer up to the side windows and sniff the wind, much to the thrill of those inside.

He ambled to the rear of the monstrous buggy, stood up on his back legs again and gave those on board one of the biggest treats of their lives. They were just about as close as you could safely get to a polar bear, its nose almost touching the end of their camera lenses.

The bear was fascinated with the buggy. Several times he considered moving to the second one but meandered back to the first.

Eventually, it was our turn. The giant creature wandered lazily over to us, stopping once or twice, casually gazing up at us. At last, after perhaps an hour, our star sauntered off into the distance, and we too went on our way seeking our next encounter.

That's how much of the two days aboard the Tundra Buggy was passed. Polar-bear spotting was interrupted virtually only for steamy, delicious soup, sandwiches or hot chocolate.

We watched bears sparring or shovelling snow on to themselves - to cool down, believe it or not. They rubbed their stomachs along the white, icy ground, bums in the air, enjoying the feel of the snow. Or they played with torn T-shirts or branches of the willow scrub - they are renowned for their curiosity. Or they rolled around or snoozed. Twice, we caught a glimpse of a mother with a couple of cubs.

Eventually, a bear spotted in the distance, too far off to fill the camera frame, piqued little interest. On day one, we must have seen 14 to 16 bears. On the second, slightly fewer. I think everyone was too swept up in the excitement to keep a count.

But it's not just about the polar bears. The landscape is phenomenal in its starkness and hosts a lot more than the giants of the snow. We saw plenty of birds - the tiny, darting snow bunting and the ptarmigan, white, dove-like birds that live out among the willow on the tundra. We saw arctic hares and foxes. And in summer, some 3000 beluga whales fill the Hudson Bay. But that's another trip.

Our last day in Churchill was spent with an informative talk from a wildlife ranger on the habitat and life cycle of the polar bear, followed by an early afternoon dog sled.

It's magnificent to see polar bears, unafraid, exploring their world right up close. There are no cages keeping these curious, magical animals in. You are in their world.

And watching them go about their daily business is addictive. I wasn't the only one who left that remote, desolate paradise promising to return.

IF YOU GO

Frontiers North: This family-owned and operated business is run by Merv Gunter and his wife Lynda Gunter. The company's polar bear adventures took off in 2003 when they bought the Tundra Buggy Adventure company. They hold the licence to run bear-watching buggies out on the tundra and to Cape Churchill and Polar Bear Point.

- Herald on Sunday

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