Watching polar bears in the wild tundra offers the thrill of a close encounter, but the terrible feeling such experiences may soon be impossible. By Patricia Maunder.

Polar bear spotting in Churchill, Canada

An inquisitive polar bear approaches a tour vehicle outside Churchill, Manitoba.
An inquisitive polar bear approaches a tour vehicle outside Churchill, Manitoba.
Credit: Patricia Maunder

It’s late October in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. The edge of Hudson Bay, which takes a massive bite out of northern Canada, is freezing up, but not enough for the bears to end their months-long fast on land and begin the sea-ice seal hunt. As the first of my two days bear-watching ebbs away, I wonder if I’ve travelled thousands of kilometres, and spent thousands of dollars, for nothing.

The day began before dawn in Winnipeg, the capital of the province of Manitoba and the gateway to Churchill – 1000 kilometres north, by air or rail only. After buzzing noisily over a vast stretch of boggy terrain mottled with lakes, ponds and puddles, our plane reached its destination at 58º 46' N. Together with the few dozen other well-insulated souls of my Frontiers North tour group, I hurried from chilly Churchill airport’s tarmac to a waiting bus.

We bounced past the polar bear jail, where any Ursus maritimus that wanders into town is held for a short spell, as well as Cold War-era military facilities, some long abandoned, some converted for Arctic research. I later discover that the British considered Churchill for nuclear weapons testing before settling on Australia. I guess they preferred 40 above to 40 below.

The bus stopped at a former rocket launch site, now known as “launch” for the Tundra Buggies that take tourists in search of polar bears. These rudimentary yet spacious vehicles are custom-built for the conditions – massive wheels keep passengers beyond the reach of claws and fangs, even on the open rear deck, and can handle the old military tracks that have intentionally been allowed to deteriorate in this wildlife zone.

We lumber along for hours, the only excitement being slow-motion roller-coaster rides whenever the buggy lurches into, and somehow out of, muddy potholes that gape open as autumn ice gives way. There’s little variation in the flat landscape of frozen waterways, meagre, windswept snow and naked shrubs: occasional, teetering, ex-military lookouts (which are, from a distance, reminiscent of The Empire Strikes Back’s mechanical walkers on the ice planet Hoth); a few miserable spruce trees, whose stunted branches all point south – the Arctic winds blast north-facing growth into frigid oblivion.

The scenery’s colour and movement is more Samuel Beckett than Star Wars, yet every eye stays fixed upon it, searching for the species deemed vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Jim the jolly driver and guide scans the horizon with a well-practised gaze, while revealing some polar bear lore he’s gathered over the years. They are like people, he says, in that some are misanthropes that avoid the buggies, while others are curious, even sociable. He recalls one bear that, season after season, came running like a faithful dog when a particular driver approached.

Joanne, an American zookeeper and Polar Bears International volunteer, also watches keenly. It’s her penultimate day in the field, but eventually she gives up hope or takes pity on the forlorn eco-tourists and does some show-and-tell. She hands around an array of polar bear items, including fur (somewhat coarse), a claw (shorter and sharper than a grizzly’s shown for comparison) and a tracking collar, used to plot bears’ wanderings across Hudson Bay’s sea ice.

But there are no bears out on the bay now – so where are they?

Finally, Jim spies one in the distance. He drives as close as permitted – about 200 metres from the sleeping bear. Several buggies gather, and all on board will the creature to wake up and wander over, but it remains a small white smudge on this grey day.

By the time I check into my accommodation, the light has almost faded away, Churchill’s few shops have closed, and the streets are as deserted as the tundra. A pricey beer is the inglorious crown on a long day short on anticipated rewards, and the forecast for tomorrow – my last shot – is colder, greyer, with flurries. My mood is similarly bleak.

It brightens with an unexpectedly clear dawn, and Jim’s news that bears have been sighted on the tundra. He soon parks the buggy, side-on, like a friendly bear, at the edge of a frozen lake where our quarry is sniffing about.

I step onto the open deck, oblivious to the subzero temperatures, and watch the bear as he noses air and ice. The buggy’s human cargo must smell appealing, as he ambles toward us, casting a lanky shadow on the ice. The fur on the other side of his body shines almost silver in the sun.

Everything else is utterly still on the silent tundra.

The bear’s features become clearer: prodigious paws curl up and inward as he walks; long snout, slightly blue around the muzzle; absurdly cute little ears for such a big, dangerous beast; black eyes, as intense and mysterious as black holes. It’s as if this bear and I are the only creatures in the universe when he stops, not two metres away, and looks up into my eyes.

Time and breathing resume when the bear walks off under the high-based vehicle, directly beneath my feet, then emerges on hind legs to sniff at Jim’s window. He ambles over to a nearby buggy, which lists sharply toward the crowded deck.

The bear wanders away, but we encounter several more, including one that chews seaweed on the icy shore out of boredom or desperation. None, however, come as close as the creature that looked me in the eye, that seemed to stare into my soul but was probably just sizing me up for breakfast.

I see his face in my mind’s eye while buzzing back to Winnipeg, where I seek more polar bears. In Assiniboine Park Zoo’s transparent underwater tunnel, I watch them swim with strength and grace, playfully sparring and wrestling with rubber toys. It’s mesmerising, but an experience tempered by seeing them later, bored and dirty, in their enclosure of concrete and grass.

I’m also entranced by the sculptures at Winnipeg Art Gallery, which has the world’s largest collection of arts and crafts from the Inuit peoples of the far north. Their representations of bears in stone, bone and tusk are dynamic, almost demonic, and reveal something of the violence not apparent in the placid creatures I observed.

These experiences at zoo and gallery are fascinating, even joyous, but I have a nagging sense of sadness, too. In less than a century, such experiences, defined and confined by humans, will probably be the limit of polar bear encounters. Dispiriting days on the tundra will become more common, until the world’s polar bear capital shifts to Dubai, Las Vegas or some other place with a knack for artifice and spectacle.

Heading home, on a plane contributing to the doomsday scenario for wild polar bears, I wonder if my Churchill adventure will soon be as exotic as tales about Tasmanian tigers and Yangtze River dolphins. Or is there an unexpectedly bright, clear dawn ahead?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 17, 2017 as "Polar bare".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Patricia Maunder is a writer, editor and broadcaster based in Melbourne.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on June 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.