Trip to the Polar Bear Capital of the World
The north wind howled across the frozen tundra, biting at every inch of exposed skin and driving small flakes of snow into our watering eyes. The ground was white to the horizon, uneven but mostly flat, with an occasional rock or scrawny tree jutting out of the snow.
The tops of my gloves were peeled back to make it possible to operate a camera, but after only a few minutes outside the polar rover, the searing pain in my fingers was becoming a distraction. The temperature was -18 degrees F, with a wind chill of -30 F.
Honestly, I was loving every minute of it.
Our guide had spotted a vanilla-colored lump partly buried in fresh snow from a distance of 150 feet and I had taken a dozen photos without knowing which end was the head and which was the tail. Suddenly, the lump shook and two black eyes and a black nose emerged from the flying powder, pointed directly at our polar rover.
The slumbering polar bear was awake!
All 11 in our group were on the open-air observation deck at the time, and our collective gasps of joy momentarily drowned the clicking of camera shutters. The magnificent animal strolled slowly through the stunted willows that grow on the tundra, keeping an eye on our group, more curious than concerned.
Within minutes, a second polar bear appeared, and then a third and a fourth, animals that seemed to spring from nowhere, having been so well concealed we had not seen them at all. Our excitement boiled over, and our tour guide had to remind us to hold down the racket to see if these beautiful creatures would approach us.
Eventually, one curious bear did just that, ambling by our mobile observation deck and then alongside the polar rover, from one end to the other. Toward the front, the bear stood on his back legs, put his front paws on the rover and looked us over, eye to eye, through windows 10 feet off the ground.
The great white bear seemed utterly nonthreatening and was close enough to touch, though we dared not.
I am writing today from the tiny town of Churchill, Manitoba, a remote outpost on the frozen shores of Canada's Hudson Bay. Churchill cannot be reached by road; we arrived two days ago on a chartered turboprop from Winnipeg.
At this time of year, the polar bears in this area outnumber the 900 or so humans. They congregate here each fall for six to eight weeks, waiting for the vast Hudson Bay to freeze over.
The extreme cold spell that hit this week is the best possible news for these animals. Huge sheets of ice are forming along the coast, moving as the wind shifts but growing in size all the while.
Within a few days, all open water will be gone and the ice will be solid enough to support polar bears that can weigh up to 1,500 pounds. The animals will disperse across an ice pack nearly twice the size of Texas to hunt seals, their only significant source of food.
Until that day, this shoreside tundra offers tourists the best odds on Earth of seeing polar bears in the wild.
We are here with an upscale, adventure-travel company called Natural Habitat. The company offers a wide range of eco-friendly nature expeditions and is the largest operator of tours in Churchill, the so-called Polar Bear Capital of the World.
Polar bears are found in five countries -- Canada, Russia, Norway, Greenland and the US (Alaska). There are only 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears in existence, and unfortunately most of the 19 subpopulations are declining in size. The US lists the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, while Canada lists the bears as a species of concern.
Polar bears are the largest land carnivores, with adult males reaching 8-10 feet from head to toe, and females 6-8 feet. Despite their size, they can outrun humans over short distances, reaching speeds of 25 mph.
While the 15 polar bears we have seen seemed almost cuddly, they are dangerous predators and are desperately hungry at this time of year, still living off the seal fat they consumed before the last ice pack melted, in July.
The best way to safely see polar bears is in a polar rover, a luxury motorcoach on steroids, with massive tires, a triple-wide aisle, a food-service area and a restroom. Built to hold 40 people but limited to 15 by our tour operator, it has more than enough room for everyone to switch sides as needed as we scour the countryside for wildlife.
Our tour included two daytime tundra rides and one nighttime ride that happened on our first evening in Churchill. We boarded the polar rover 45 minutes outside of town, turned off our interior lights and lurched slowly across the dark and frozen landscape as our headlights illuminated the falling snow.
We ate dinner in the rover and made our way past the Tundra Lodge, a mobile hotel positioned in prime polar bear territory for two months each year. The Tundra Lodge is a string of four or five attached, rover-sized vehicles converted into bedroom, dining and lounge cars. Natural Habitat guests can choose to stay in the Tundra Lodge or in hotels in the town of Churchill. Remote does not begin to describe the setting.
Last night, we were treated to the greatest bonus any sub-Arctic tour can offer, a magical display of Northern Lights. The only hurdle to watching them was the tour rule to stay inside our hotel after dark due to the possibility of polar bears wandering into town.
This is not an unusual occurrence -- four bears have walked through 300-yard-long Churchill since we arrived. When they could not be frightened off with firecrackers by the Bear Alert team, they were darted (tranquilized) and taken to a bear "holding facility" to sleep it off. They will be airlifted (by helicopter) onto the ice and released as soon as the ice is fully formed.
Despite the warning, we slipped out of the hotel and did our best to photograph the spectacular auroras amid the lights of the village and the numbing cold, with frequent glances over our shoulders.
Tomorrow we leave for Winnipeg and one last night at the lovely and historic Fort Garry Hotel, where we gathered to begin our tour. We'll find the friendly city the way we left it, blanketed in snow and beautifully decorated for Christmas.
Our trip has been handled flawlessly and is accessible to people of all fitness levels. We chose the last week of the season because we actually like extreme weather; it's much warmer here for the start of the season, in October.
I want to thank our brilliant Natural Habitat guide, Leah, a bear expert who has accompanied our group every step of the tour, and all the kind drivers and local folks we met along the way. It has been wonderful to be back in Canada; I've promised myself I won't stay away so long again.
I'll sign off now from the land of the polar bears and wish all of my readers a very Merry Christmas and a joyous holiday season.
Whether you venture far or near, may you find your own magic in the coming year.
To read more about Natural Habitat, please click here.
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