Eye to Eye with the Ice Bear
Updated: Mar 2
By William Gray
Churchill, Manitoba, Canada
Polar bears can weigh 650kg and sprint at over 40kph. They are fearless, powerful hunters that can smell you coming from miles off. That’s why I’m in a Tundra Buggy – a giant-wheeled ‘snow bus’ that provides a safe vantage from which to observe these magnificent beasts. Timing is crucial though. Peak period is October-November when they congregate near Churchill, a Canadian frontier town rubbed raw by frigid winds that howl across Hudson Bay.
Our polar bear safari sets off at a glacial pace, the buggy creeping through a tundra landscape of lichen-blotched rocks and wind-pruned shrubs. We splash through shallow lakes and crunch over the shingly ridges of glacial eskers, always following rough tracks so as not to damage this fragile habitat.
It takes a good half hour to reach the shores of Hudson Bay (a mile away) where a northerly wind has white-ribbed the sea and piled spume against huge drifts of kelp heaped along rock-strewn beaches. It’s a harsh environment, particularly during late autumn before the first snows have smoothed things over.
Tossed around by the wind like loose refuse sacks, ravens twist and turn; a lone tundra swan hunkers down in a pond and, briefly, we spot a peregrine falcon scything above the tundra, scattering willow ptarmigan through a patch of dwarf birch.
Our first polar bear is dozing on rocks behind the beach. The buggy edges to within 12m of him, but the bear’s not bothered by our presence. He barely glances towards us before turning his attention to a full pedicure of his forepaws. Grooming finished, he yawns, rolls over and goes back to sleep, oblivious, it seems, to the dozen or so pairs of human eyes transfixed by his every move. After all, to him it’s just another day waiting for the bay to freeze over.
This ice bear seems particularly chilled, so we leave him in peace and trundle on across the saturated landscape, more water than land it seems (an appropriate haunt of Ursus maritimus).
Other wildlife to be found here includes arctic fox, caribou and several species of birds, including gyrfalcons and snowy owls. Apart from a flurry of willow ptarmigans, however, we have a quiet couple of hours – a game drive in slow motion. The tundra yields its natural treasures slowly. This is not a place to be rushed. You have to be patient and look hard.
It helps, of course, if your Tundra Buggy driver knows a particularly good spot for polar bears. An exposed point jutting into the bay has been a favoured haunt for years. Overnight buggies are set up here for the season, both for scientists and tourists.
Soon we have found three bears. The first is sleepy and secretive, barely visible in a birch thicket. But the other two, a young male and an older male with a scar on his right shoulder and a full Roman nose, are out in the open. The youngster is in playful mood and keeps wandering over to the older bear and butting him. No reaction. Still looking for mischief, he ambles towards a Tundra Buggy and gives it a good once-over, gnawing a tyre, checking out the suspension and straining upright on his hind legs to sniff at the tourists who are craning over the outdoor viewing platform at the rear of the buggy.
When this loses its novelty, he returns to the older bear and succeeds in getting him riled enough to have a play fight, both bears taking swipes at each other, standing up in face-offs and baring teeth. The older bear uses his massive weight and height advantage to keep the youngster at arm’s length, but after 10 minutes or so he’s clearly bored with such juvenile behaviour and finds himself a quiet patch of scrub to hide in.
The younger bear redirects his attention to the tundra buggies, this time ambling over to ours. He rears up and places two massive paws on the side of the viewing platform and, for a brief moment, I am staring into the eyes of a wild polar bear, his black muzzle snuffling a few feet below me.
Accommodation in Churchill includes the Lazy Bear Lodge.
October to November is peak season for bears;
Tourist Information: churchill.ca
Conservation Projects: polarbearsinternational.org