The Bears up There
A few hours from the Canadian town of Churchill, you can meet one of the world's most fascinating, beautiful creatures, the polar bear. WORDS: Michelle Hespe
Meeting the great white residents
It’s early November and in front of me, the big, lone figure of a polar bear sits — back straight, black-nosed snout pointed skyward — on the shoreline of Polar Bear Point in Hudson’s Bay, Canada. The bay has begun to fill, as it does every year with the onset of a freezing winter, with millions of ice chunks that have formed in the Hudson River’s fresh water and been pushed along the coastline. The small sets of waves that usually stroke the areas’ shores can barely form let alone break now, as the big ice pieces are multiplying by the day and turning into what the locals call ‘shark’s teeth’, because they jut up at jagged angles. It’s as though a giant ice machine has been at work for years.
The polar bear is watching the changing scene intently, almost longingly, because it knows that the bay is edging closer to becoming solid enough to act as an enormously wide boardwalk for him to make his way stealthily into prized seal territory. It’s his heaven. That’s why he’s looking out at the bay so longingly, praying for the scent of seals. Or he may have caught a whiff of one as it surfaced momentarily to gulp in the air it needs for survival. Who knows? He may have caught the scent of another bear that will become a competitor when seal season kicks off.
The bear is desperately hungry. He hasn’t eaten much apart from berries, grubs and goose eggs since July, so he’s lost 40 percent of the 800 kilos he weighs after a great season gorging on seals. The thing that’s on this mind, tormenting him and his rumbling guts, is that the annual seal blubber bonanza is coming soon, but that its peak is not until March when millions of fatty little seals are born. Before the seal birthing time, he hunts adult seals, but he usually only gets one in every twenty that he goes for, so he wastes a lot of energy on failed attempts that could be saved for more salubrious hunting down the track.
Yes, seals are what he’s here for, but as polar bears are lipivores (aka fat eaters) it’s the blubber he wants, not the red meat. He’s not a carnivore, as most people think due to the many images of polar bears ripping into other animals, because he instinctively knows that meat would take too long for his digestive system to process. So he’ll very particularly take only the seal’s skin and fat, and leave the rest for the Arctic foxes and ravens that follow his movements out on the ice. They’re not his friends — although they stick by him as if they are, always slightly out of reach — because they know that the big white bear means business in seal hunting season, and that means easy meals for them as they get the skinned, blubber-less leftovers. It’s a common sight to see Arctic Fox tracks running parallel to polar bear tracks in the snow and ice, for this very reason.
But for now, the big lonely figure looking wistfully out at the bay has to eat more berries, eggs, and whatever else he can scrape out of the ground while waiting for the ice to work its magic. Then, when Hudson Bay is frozen, he can walk across ice that a human being would fall through despite weighing ten times as much, by expertly distributing his weight upon incredibly furry platter-sized paws. Then it’ll be game on. “‘He’s sitting there, knowing the time is coming soon.” says our Scottish guide from Frontiers North Adventures, David Reid. Although from Glasgow, David has always been drawn to these far-flung lands and now lives on Baffin Island when its not polar bear season, in the neighbouring Canadian state of Nunavet. “For now, everything is about the preservation of his energy in order to survive,” he says. Another polar bear approaches the first bear’s shoreline resting spot, and he quickly, submissively, moves away. “Did you see that?’ David asks. “He’s probably sized up the other bear and he knows he’s bigger than him, so he won’t waste energy on fighting with another male if there are no females nor food to fight over. On the ice in hunting season, it’s a different story. Even before the hunting begins however, polar bears come across another bear, they’ll approach one another, smell them, and then sometimes grab one another and assess who is bigger and so who might pose a threat in a few months’ time when it’s all business out there.”
As if on queue, the polar bear our group has been watching reaches another spot in the tundra, lies down and puts its enormous head in its paws. Its eyes are half-closed and it looks tired after its long walk to the shore and another day with such a lack of food. He’s out of fuel.
Hundreds of his kind are now heading towards the parts of the coast will freeze over first (bluffs, points, bays, and fresh water freezes before salt water does) but he knows that for now, he must not only wait, starving, but also not use any energy to burn off the little fat he has left in store. However because so many of them come together in this one region that freezes over before many other areas in Hudson’s Bay, there’s a lot of sparring between bears. “Just like if you’ve been lying on the couch for days and then you need to go out and fight, you need to get to the gym and build yourself up again,” explains David. “You need to get your muscles working and make your mind sharp. You need to get pumped up. So the bears here come together and spar. They’re feeling out one another’s size, but also getting some well-needed exercise in before seal hunting begins.”
Kills during this waiting period need to be easy and not create too much exertion — a lucky bear might find a whale or seal carcass washed on to the shore. But it’s the vision of blubbery baby seal pups in his head — harp and ring seals — that keep him dreaming of March. Sure, polar bears have to locate the seal dens where the babies lie just under snow caves (thus the famous pouncing of polar bears often seen in documentaries) but when young seals are on the ice, it’s a seal buffet. And because these bears can pick up a seal scent from 25km away, its not hard to locate targets.
David explains that in March, hundreds of the bears heading across the icy tundra towards the freezing bay are females whose cubs have sucked everything from them after four to five months in a birthing den. Even though females can drop their heart rate to less than ten beats a minute, they still lose most of their fat over this period. So the females also desperately need food, not only to support their cubs until they are 2 years old, but also to give them more energy to fight off the male bears that might go for their children (for food or to free mum up for mating). And some of them have walked 50 to 100 kilometres on an empty stomach with cubs sporting legs that are barely big enough to make it over the sides of mum’s tracks in the snow. “It’s not an easy start to life,” David says. “It’s brutal.”
So every year in March’s minus 30 to 40 degree temperatures, it’s a bloody battlefield on Hudson’s Bay, for the world’s biggest bear — a frenzied fight as they stalk seals and fight (often to the death) to find a new mate. But in the months prior to this, in the calm before the storm when temperatures are above minus ten, polar bear antics are the reason so many people travel across the world to sleep in bunks on a train-like lodge in the middle of the windy wilderness. As though on a scientific expedition, there they have the chance to spend three days seeing, photographing, and learning as much as they can take in about the majestic polar bear.
The bears can loop their way far around the Tundra Buggies, but many don’t choose to, because by nature they are curious creatures. They amble up, sometimes stopping to inspect the vehicle and rearing up to place their paws up on its side and get a good look at the human beings all sporting cameras. Some keep their distance but most don’t. The Tundry Buggies have been coming out into this part of the sub-arctic wilderness for over 40 years, and as polar bears live for 20 to 30 years, some of the bears have grown up seeing the eager groups of human beings documenting their every move. They know no harm has come from the operation so they are not bothered by it. In fact, the scents coming from it and the people probably provide some distraction, entertainment even.
Tundra buggy fun
The adventure makes you wonder — what is it about polar bears that make them one of the top animals in the world that people crave to see in the wild? Is it their unusual blend of adorability and ferociousness that captures people’s hearts? Their sheer enormity and supreme reign as the only creature out here with no predator except man? The wild sparseness of their wilderness playground? It’s safe to say that it’s a mix of all of the above, but when you see polar bears in the wild, it’s their eyes that grab you. Even though they are simply black — there’s no flash of yellow like a tiger’s eye, no soft or sad expressions often caught beneath an elephant lashes — but rather a simple cartoonlike face made of black lines and dots on a pure white background. Yet everyone wants to capture that classic polar bear face looking straight into the camera — the small head with small ears followed by an enormous body. It’s a face that has drawn millions of people to the ends of the earth to spend three days on big truck-like buggies with monster truck wheels, run by Frontiers North Adventures.
Since 1979, the Tundra Buggy Adventure operated by Frontiers North Adventures have been doing an incredible job, offering theirs guests the best chance possible of seeing polar bears up close in their natural sub-arctic environment. It’s not uncommon for groups to see between ten and 30 polar bears over the three days — our group saw nine in the first three hours of the first day out. Guests are also spoiled rotten in the Canadian wilderness (which is can be harsh, especially for those accustomed to more mild and warm environments) by being kept toasty warm, fed with copious amounts of beautifully cooked, hearty meals prepared from scratch by an onboard chef, and given the chance to meet and learn from knowledgeable guides and scientists from Polar Bear International, who have a research centre on one of the buggies.
The lodge is like a train with carriages for different purposes. The well-heated accommodation carriages have rows of bunk beds with curtain dividers so that everyone has their own cosy space onboard. There are share bathrooms with eco showers and toilets to keep the lodge’s footprint as low as possible, and there is a lounge for drinks and nibbles before dinner is served in the dining carriage. Guests head out on the buggies for day-long tours (8 until 4.30pm) and while they’re away, the tundra lodge fills with the scents of baking as Emma (otherwise known as ‘Lodge Mumma’) bakes some goodies and Chef Toby whips up dinner for the 40 or so guests.
The guides and buggy drivers (who wear a few hats — including being well-educated guides who also set-up buggy lunches and tea breaks) join guests for dinner so that stories, advice and knowledge can be shared and questions can be answered every evening after the outdoor adventures. By the time three days has passed out on the tundra, guests leave polar bear country not only understanding more about these incredibly special great creatures, but also full of fresh air and an experience that wilderness lovers all have floating around at the top of their buckets.
Frontiers North Adventures' Tundra Buggy Adventure frontiersnorthadventures.com