I blame Coca-Cola. Remember all those adverts with the cute, fluffy pure-white polar bear, kicking back and savouring the world’s most popular carbonated fizzy drink? Or those other adverts for Fox’s glacier mints? Again, an adorable bear, whose fur is whiter than white. Well it’s lies, all lies!
I recently left the tiny town of Churchill, Manitoba in Canada (population: 950, not including the bears), which is the self-proclaimed “Polar Bear Capital of the World”. OK, so there’s not much competition for this title, but it certainly earns its attention grabbing moniker.
I was pre-booked on to a tour with Frontiers North, who run the Tundra Buggy adventures out into bear territory. It’s not advisable to make the journey to somewhere this remote without booking your tour, accommodation and travel well in advance (some people book 12 months in advance). Also come prepared for the cold – with the wind chill factor it was down to minus 16 C, apparently warm for this time of year!
After a 7:30am pick up we headed off by bus to the tundra buggy launch site, monstrous vehicles using the largest compressed air tyres in the world (yet with less pressure than the average bicycle tyre, so as to cause minimal damage to the natural environment). When one of the mighty white bears comes right up to the buggy – as one did on our trip – you’ll be glad you’re in the safety of such a huge vehicle. Apparently, all polar bears are left-handed, as evidenced when they test the side of the vehicle with their massive paws – they’re naturally curious, but despite their cute image they are fierce creatures. The apex land predator of their kind, the biggest and strongest of all bears, their Coca-Cola image couldn’t be further from the truth (also, they’re not as white as you imagine, but more of a whitish yellow) They can also easily outrun humans, something of a surprise when you witness how slowly they lumber across the icy landscape all around us.
During bear season in Churchill (roughly mid-October to mid-November), the bears are at their most desperate and hungry after a summer unable to hunt for seals. They come here, and specifically to Wapusk National Park, which contains the largest denning area in the world, while waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze over, thus enabling them to head out on to the ice where the seals await.
On our daytrip we were lucky enough to see a mother with 2 “coys”, or cubs of the year, probably born around January, as well as one large male right next to the buggy, 2 pairs of adolescent males sparring (in the far distance sadly, but this is the bear’s land so we didn’t venture any closer) and over 30 other bears. If your budget allows you can also choose to stay at a “tundra lodge” – basically a collection of buggies joined together and based out on the tundra, so you can enjoy breakfast with a bear right at your window! On a practical level, these packages are very expensive but it is possible to organize each component yourself (3 hour flight or 2-day train each way, buggy tour, accommodation etc) to make this once-in-a-lifetime trip within the reach of mere mortals.
Towards the end of the day we were also lucky enough to see an arctic fox, and on the bus journey back to town we passed by the polar bear jail – where naughty bears that are repeatedly found in the town are locked up! Once they have hopefully got the message that humans are not a food source, eventually they are flown back out on to the tundra.
In a country not short of natural wonders, this ranks high on the list – and for any keen wildlife enthusiast or photographer, it is simply unmissable. It’s like Frozen Planet – without the need for a television. But go before it’s too late – if the reports are true, global warming will have destroyed their icy habitat, meaning they can’t feed, and could be extinct within 50 years. Once you’ve looked one of these beautiful animals in the eye you’ll understand just what a tragedy this will be.
All words and photos were taken by regular contributor Lee Hubbard.