Face to face with the polar bear
In one corner of Canada’s Hudson Bay, you can engage with polar bears
A lonely wooden lodge perches on the permafrost at the western sweep of Canada’s Hudson Bay in a cinematic landscape strewn with ice-coated boulders, snow dunes and vast, painterly skies. It’s mid November, the shoreline is frozen stiff, the ponds are hardened blue ice, and the flat hinterland is quilted in soft white flakes. Most of the animals and birds have already made their way south, but the thickly-clad, majestic polar bears are only just beginning to feel comfortable in their massive overcoats, and they’re heading north. They’ve waited for months for the sea ice to form so they can return to hunting seals that haul up on it and lay their pups in its icy chambers. Our bush plane lands on a rubble airstrip, and we arrive at Seal River Heritage Lodge run by Churchill Wild, located on a peninsula where a steady stream of polar bears is easy to view as they walk along the shoreline.
While they’re feared, misunderstood and shot in many other circumpolar locations, this subset of bears on this stretch of Hudson Bay is unusually trusting of humans – they haven’t been hunted or disturbed here as long as they can remember. At this remote lodge, we observe them up close from the enormous windows, and come face-to-face with them on our outdoor walks. “We’ve been here for over 30 years, canoeing, tracking, watching wildlife,” said the owner, Mike Reimer, “and we noticed the bears are not aggressive. They’re intelligent and curious and we realised that approaching them is possible.”
On foot with the ice bear
We follow our guide, Andy McPherson, in single file through bush-sized willow and open areas. Carrying cameras, tripods and binoculars, we tread carefully, trying to step on the less slippery areas dusted with snow. We spot a caribou pair in the distance. Half a dozen lively arctic foxes scamper about in our sight, roughhousing with each other when they’re not sniffing out lemmings. A female polar bear is approaching us steadily, while another is digging up ribbons of kelp nearby. We stand still, prepared to retreat. A volley of rapid clicks rents the air. She comes right up to within 10 meters of us. Andy steps up confidently and speaks to her; “Hey, beautiful! What are you up to today? Is your friend not playing with you?” She halts, and then comes closer. Andy smacks two rocks against each other. Rob, another guide has his hand on his 12-gauge gun, but the sharp sound is enough to turn her away.
We observe them for a while, then a message from the lodge asks us to look to the right where a large male is approaching. On the horizon, yet another female and cub are cautiously making their way over. The sun is hovering low, and the scene unfolding in front of us is aglow with a warm amber tinge. We’re aware that any one of these bears is capable of striking a death blow to a beluga whale, flipping a walrus calf in the air, and felling us instantly. Yet, we’re unafraid, as their body language is not predatory. Standing in their midst and watching them interact, spar, wrestle playfully, befriend and chase each other away is a rare privilege, and we’re thrilled to our frozen cores.
A nightly knock on the door
Drinks roll into yet another spectacular dinner in the cosy warmth of the lodge as we mill, swap stories and photos of the day. An image of an arctic hare shaking off the snow in bloom of light remains with me, and before long I’m curled up with a hot water bottle, asleep. I’m in a haze as I hear the knock. Has one of the bears come visiting, or the wolverine we waited for? ‘Let’s go!’ my friends call, slipping on leggings, balaclavas and under layers before hauling the heavy snow pants, jackets and boots. ‘The northern lights are out!’ We gather in the yard. The skies are painted with swirls and brushstrokes of luminous green that brighten and fade. I wonder if the polar bears too are captivated by them.
From HT Brunch, January 7, 2018
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