We had to wait for the all-clear before we could leave the arctic crawler. Our guide, rifle loaded and cocked, walked out onto the rocks and scanned the area making sure it was safe for us to explore. Once out there, I crouched down on the pebble-grey rocks, flecked with coppery lichen and picked a handful of the shiny jet-black blueberries which lay tucked under the sparse sprigs of greenery which somehow grew on the barren land.
“Polar bears eat this,” I thought to myself, as the tart sweetness of this most determined Canadian berry flooded my mouth, “I’m tasting what they taste.”
It had been a morning of excitement already out in the wilds of Churchill, Manitoba on the edge of the edge of the world. Where else could you enjoy a drive-by Beluga whale sighting? We’d bumped along through the pot holes and past the shoreline in the old school bus that our lodge used as transit and seen them from the road, their snow white bodies glittering in the sunshine as they swam through the waves.
Today we were on the hunt for the polar bears who’ve made this remote part of northern Canada famous around the world. Each winter between October and November, the bears lumber away from their sumer time habitat and back across to the pack ice to hunt seals. Every hotel room in the sleepy town of Churchill sells out as it becomes the ‘Polar Bear Capital of the World’ with fully-booked tundra vehicles heading off onto the ice for bear watching safaris. There are even mobile hotels which pitch up wherever the bears are, so visitors can spend a few days out on the ice, witnessing the beauty of the bears. More elusive in the summertime, but still possible to see, we were heading out onto the protected tundra in a giant buggy to see if we would be lucky enough to track any polar bears down.
“Let’s go and see something big and white and furry!” exclaimed our guide as we got on board. Furry and cute they may be, but the reality is they are wild animals–and potentially lethal ones at that. In a town like Churchill, living with bears, and all that entails, becomes second nature. For instance, all car doors are always left unlocked in town, if you spot a bear in the street you need to get away fast and find cover, so you can jump in any vehicle and call for help. Guides travel with rifles and ‘bear bangers’–firecrackers which hopefully will scare a bear off, as no one wants to have to shoot a bear. Churchill is proud of its record of no human deaths by bears since 1983 and takes its bear conservation very seriously.
We slowly juddered across the rocks in the massive arctic crawler, scanning the miles of wind-flattened landscape for bears. So often my heart would leap with excitement, there, a bear! A huge one, curled up by the… no, just a rock. And again and again, it was just a rock; the tundra makes perfect camouflage for the creamy-white bears, being, of course, all creamy-white glacier-formed quartz and scrub with patches of low-lying greenery. But then we saw one, a real bear, elegantly doggie-paddling across a small pond. We stopped the crawler and turned off the engine to wait and watch. As we did, our bear turned to look at us, his black nose and eyes clearly visible against his fur, before deciding we were uninteresting and resuming his dip. Fascinated and delighted, we watched him, before some twenty minutes later he strode out of the pond, fur dripping and shook himself, like an immense dog, before slowly walking away to a patch of rocks, and then he disappeared from sight, cloaked by the landscape.
That was our only sighting that day but I wasn’t sad; I felt like I’d witnessed something wonderful and rare. I’d seen this creature who belonged in a world of snow and ice sun himself on a warm August day. I’d watched the pleasure he clearly felt in bathing in the cool water. This whole vast tundra was his domain. This unforgiving landscape was his home, despite having a climate so harsh that even the trees only have branches on one side, so fierce are the icy winds. We were just privileged visitors that day, lucky enough to share a brief sunny moment with this rare and endangered bear.