Close encounter with polar bears
I’m now getting back to the latter part of my Canadian trip in 2004. My last post saw me in Churchill, northern Manitoba, a remote place famous for big white bears. And big white bears was my reason for being there.
I booked a polar bear tour before I left home and seeing this threatened species in their natural environment was to be one of the highlights of the trip.
It was fairly early in the morning when the mini bus picked me up from the b&b. With just eight of us heading out it was a nice small group – I imagine when the season gets cranking these tours are well subscribed. We went out of town 20km or so to the tundra buggy depot where we transferred into one of these odd looking vehicles. It came complete with furnace so we were nice and cosy as we slowly crawled and bumped around the sub-arctic tundra.
The first stop was near the tour company’s mobile lodge located near a polar bear nesting area. There was to be no getting out of the vehicle on this tour and the buggy was high enough off the ground to be out of reach for inquisitive (or hungry) bears.
Next to the lodge – which was basically a couple of long rooms on wheels – was a female bear with cubs.
We watched them for a long time. Initially they were sleeping, all curled up together, but they eventually started to get a bit restless. The bears are not fed as that would create all sorts of problems, but food smells from the lodge are perhaps inevitable.
After sniffing around the lodge for a while, one of the cubs came over to our buggy. He/she was bold, standing on hind legs up to the windows and under the grated platform at the rear. We were thrilled at being able to inspect a polar bear so closely.
We then saw another female adult bear which had wandered into the area.
However, mumma bear wasn’t having a bar of that and chased her away under the lodge.
We left the nesting area to drive further afield, stopping for lunch overlooking the coast. Winds from the north made it a bitterly cold day but the furnace was brilliant. A couple more bear sightings during the afternoon helped round out the day until it was time to head back to base.
I would love to return to Churchill one day but it is not to be taken for granted that the bears will always be accessible. Climate change is slowly reducing the duration and intensity with which the Hudson Bay freezes over each year and this threatens the bear population as they have a shorter period of time in which to hunt. I’m glad I took the chance to see them when I did.