Canada: Bear land is their land

Jennifer Ennion goes on safari in Northern Manitoba
Two sizeable polar bears practise for when they are fully grown adults.
Two sizeable polar bears practise for when they are fully grown adults.

"Everybody stay nice and close to me," whispers Terry, a lean but rugged Canadian.

We weave in single file through tall grass, eyes wide and senses heightened.

Boulders tumble from the shore on to mudflats exposed by a large retreating tide. Behind us is a sprawling tundra that stretches down to the sub-Arctic frontier town of Churchill.

Ahead is Hudson Bay, whipped by wind and darkened by drizzle. Above, flocks of white snow geese cut through a cold sky.

The landscape is almost prehistoric, which seems only fitting for the largest land predators in the world.

We're in northern Manitoba, Canada, and this is polar bear country.

Soon after touching down on a private dirt runway in a nine-seater plane, my fellow travellers and I don our wet-weather gear to begin our search.

We've travelled this far north to wander with polar bears, a completely foreign concept for an Aussie.

We're loaded up with DSLRs, smartphones and video cameras in the hope of getting up close to these somewhat mythical and very dangerous creatures.

We silently march through the hip-high sea lime grass as a strong wind buffets our backs.

Without warning, Terry suddenly stops as a bear points its nose into the air. Then, the paws of a second bear thrust skyward.

"They're sub-adults, about five or six years old," Terry explains as we reach for our cameras.

We snap away as the bears roll around in their grass "day beds".

They know we're here, occasionally glancing our way and smelling our scent. But they're content lazing about and stretching in their private class of tundra yoga.

Later, these two spar like teenage boys with too much testosterone, and we're reminded just how fierce they are despite their cuddly appearance.

Standing on their hind legs, they push each other with strong paws and take powerful swipes, mock-fighting as practice for when they're big enough to compete for females.

The larger of the two, who's been named Mork by lodge guides, is about 450kg. The second male, who's yet to be named, hovers at about 360kg.

Seal River Heritage Lodge, which was opened in 1992 by Churchill Wild tours, is one of the only places in the world offering walking safaris with polar bears. Most other operators run tours from the safety of a "buggy" - a large truck.

During our few days at the fly-in lodge, we embark on twice-daily walks looking for bears but also learning about the other animals that call this place home, including the quick squirrel-like siksik and Arctic hare.

But, ultimately, it's all about the bears, with the window of seeing them limited to four months a year (July-November). As soon as the ice returns to Hudson Bay, the bears will leave the surrounds of the lodge, 740km south of the Arctic Circle, to resume hunting.

Each kills about 45 seals a season, with spring the primary feeding time for baby ringed seals.

When the ice melts, the bears are trapped on land. To get through summer, they slow their metabolism to preserve food and energy, which is why Mork and his friend are fairly lethargic.

"These guys are pretty laid-back bears," Terry says. "They've been great bears to have around, but they ignore us completely."

During Terry's seven years as a guide at the lodge, he's never shot a bear. If one gets a little too close for comfort, he'll first use his voice to scare it away. If that doesn't work, he'll bash rocks together and then use "bangers and screamers" (like a firecracker, shot from a pistol). He also carries bear spray and, only as a last resort, a rifle. Because of the potential danger, guests are prohibited from going outside the lodge without a guide.

That said, there is a fenced compound where visitors can get within centimetres of a bear -- if they come to you and the wire fence remains between.

Out on the tundra, 50 metres is the minimum distance permitted between you and a bear, but often you feel much closer.

"As much as we try, as hard as we work on it, you can't always know where every bear is," Terry says.

And that's part of the adventure.

Seeing these predators in the wild is truly a magnificent experience, and each sighting seems to, somehow, top the last.

And the good news is, that despite the bears still being hunted by Inuit 64km north in Nunavut, Terry believes their numbers are rising (although others disagree).

"I think there are fewer hunters and trappers than there used to be, so the bear population is growing," he says.

There are about 1000 bears around Hudson Bay, but it's the same three we see during our stay. We slowly learn their habits and personalities, especially Mork's.

On my last day before returning to Churchill, I scan the landscape one more time from the outdoor compound.

Again, the wind is fierce, rushing past cold ears and scraping over my Goretex jacket.

I breathe in the briny bay air as I soak in the views of never-ending Canadian wilderness.

It's then that I spot Mork one final time.

He approaches the fence, nose high in the air, and within minutes he's just centimetres from my face. I glance around to discover I'm the only person there.

It's just me and Mork. I couldn't be happier.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Air Canada flies daily from Sydney via Vancouver to Winnipeg. Fares start at $2279 in low season. For more information, contact Travel Utopia on 1300 312 131.

- AAP

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