From a distance, it’s almost impossible to spot a polar bear with the naked eye. The yellowish-white of their fur blends perfectly with the snow and ice that cover the tundra landscape, and they appear like nothing more than lumps of snow or pale rocks.
Up close, there’s no mistaking them for lifeless objects. You can see huge muscles that ripple underneath a mantle of thick fur, long claws that scrape across the ground in a pigeon-toed walk and dark, intelligent eyes.
The first time a lone female approaches our Tundra Buggy and then stands on her hind legs to get a better vantage, I swear she’s looking at me, and it’s tempting to open my window and reach out for some polar bear love.
“We are not here to interact with the bears,” our driver, Jim Baldwin, reminds us periodically as the giant safari truck trundles along the raised eskers and beach ridges that count as roads in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA), an 850,000-hectare tract of boggy taiga and tundra near Churchill, Man., that abuts Hudson Bay’s western shore. Every October and November, numerous polar bears congregate in this area because the land juts out into the bay and traps ice floating down from the north, eventually forming a shelf. When this happens, typically by mid-November, the bears head out onto the sea ice to hunt seals all winter long.
“They inspire fear, yet there’s this gentle side to them. It’s the contrast between strength and vulnerability—that’s what I love about the bears.”—Hayley Shephard, Frontiers North Adventures
Photo courtesy of Frontiers North Adventures
Of course, I don’t really want to pet a polar bear. Like the eight other tourists sharing the Tundra Buggy with me on this tour with Frontiers North Adventures (two days in Churchill and two out on the tundra), I just want to observe the magnificent animals in their natural environment and perhaps see an arctic fox or snowy owl.
But the landscape itself is also worth observing. It’s beautiful, in a desolate kind of way; a vast and empty canvas that seems to stretch into eternity, punctuated by shallow ponds, arctic willows and, on the edge of the boreal forest, lopsided black spruce trees that have been sculpted by ceaseless northern winds.
Even though I’m in a modern, heated vehicle, I am moved by the wildness and remoteness of my surroundings. Eight hours spent watching polar bears lounge carelessly among frost-covered willows, or sparring playfully with each other to ease the boredom of waiting for the water to freeze, is raw and powerful.
It’s also weirdly ironic. You get the sense that on the tundra, the concept of “zoo” has been turned on its head—we’re the ones in a wheeled cage, surrounded by beasts at the top of the food chain.
In this context, the bears’ mannerisms occasionally come across as eerily human, especially when they stand on their hind legs. It’s easy to see why the Inuit believe polar bears possess isuma, loosely translated as intelligence, thoughts and feelings—basically, the capacity to act like a person. In Inuit legends, bears were thought to be humans wearing bearskins who simply donned the hides to their advantage when hunting.
Photo by Katie Halls Hutchings
That didn’t stop early indigenous peoples from hunting polar bears if the opportunity presented itself—the animals were prized for their meat and hides. But for the most part, these early nomadic tribes kept their distance and the bears reciprocated, preferring to hunt seals. It was a relationship of respect, explains Lorraine Brandson, curator at the Eskimo Museum in downtown Churchill.
These days, the human-bear relationship is a bit trickier in Churchill (approx. population 800), where permanent buildings make up a frontier town that is smack in the middle of the polar bears’ annual migration path. During bear season, the Polar Bear Alert crew patrols the streets for furry interlopers and hazes any out of town.
I don’t spot any bears in town, nor do I hear any scare-cartridges being shot off to frighten them away in the dead of night. But, at one point, I do see a bear, rendered helpless from a tranquilizer, being airlifted from Churchill’s notorious polar bear jail to about 50 kilometres out of the town to get another chance at freedom. (Rather than being destroyed, polar bears that repeatedly venture back to town after being chased off are sent to “jail,” basically a holding facility.)
“For the most part, we try to co-exist with the bears, but they don’t always cooperate,” says Churchill local Paul Ratson. “We have bears around our house a lot.”
Like the Inuit before them, this proximity to dangerous predators—and the frigid temperatures that blow in with the bears—doesn’t seem to faze the residents of Churchill. There’s a spirit in Canada’s north, a collective drive among the people who live here to survive and thrive, in spite of the elements.
Photo by Alex de Vries
It’s a spirit that has existed for centuries. At the Parks Canada Visitor Centre, I learn more about the peoples who originally populated the north—the Inuit, Dene, Chipewyan and Cree—and how they adapted to the harsh climate, making waterproof sealskin boots, caribou hide parkas and igloos complete with raised sleeping platforms (the cold air would then sink below).
Fortunately for tourists, adventure gear has improved and we now dress in down-filled jackets and insulated expedition boots (and sleep in heated hotels). Yet the wind still blasts through my clothing every time I step outside.
I’m thankful for the heated Tundra Buggy during our last day chasing bears in the CWMA. Unlike in Africa, where animals seem to greet your jeep like a scene from The Lion King, life in the Canadian north reveals itself more slowly. You must wait and scan the horizon, hoping to see an arctic hare hunkered between willows, a gyrfalcon perched atop a rock or a distant movement that indicates a bear lumbering across the frozen coastal plain.
“It’s a lesson in patience. Nature reveals itself in its own time,” says our guide, Hayley Shephard, who’s been leading groups with Frontiers North Adventures for 13 years. She’s seen everything from mother bears nursing cubs to lone males wandering the streets of town.
“They’re one of the most dangerous animals that walk this earth. They inspire fear, yet there’s this gentle side to them,” says Shephard. “It’s the contrast between strength and vulnerability—that’s what I love about the bears.”
We see more bears on our final tundra safari; a mom and her yearling cub, as well as a lone female gnawing at grass and kelp in the intertidal zone. Though at home in this wild place, they’re still vulnerable, waiting on the weather, trying to stay out of jail, until the water freezes and they spirit north for the winter, specks of yellowish-white swallowed up by a sea of ice.