Polar bear watching without fear at remote Manitoba lodge

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      I’m standing, transfixed with disbelief, on a ridge overlooking the Hudson Bay tidal flats. A pure white, 360-kilogram polar bear is bounding across a grassy plain toward our peacefully picnicking tour group. Did he smell our blueberry muffins? Or does he want a nice bite of human flesh?

      Indeed, I’m concerned that on this crisp, cloudy August day in northern Manitoba, I may botch the simple goal I set for myself before the trip: don’t get eaten by a polar bear.

      What am I doing here? Life seemed simpler before I flew from Winnipeg to the remote Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge for its multiday “Mothers and Cubs” bear-watching package. The unique, fly-in-only lodge lies some 220 kilometres from the closest paved road and is a one-hour flight from the hydroelectric town of Gillam. I’ve always been a bear fan, and the idea of seeing bears in the wild—on foot, not from a boat—was mind-blowing.

      As our eight-occupant bush plane wobbled above the coastline two days earlier, shouts and jabbed fingers alerted me to our first bear sighting just before 11 a.m. A mother and two cubs roamed along the water’s edge, presenting a strangely romantic and poignant vision, even from an airborne perspective.

      After landing, we grabbed our gear and moseyed over to the lodge’s fence-ringed, green-roofed huts, originally built for goose-hunting back in 1977. We met the Churchill Wild adventure outfitters, including Andy, the shaggy-haired bear savant, and our two veteran Cree guides: Butch tall and stoic, Gordie squat and talkative.

      We’d just sat down for lunch when a bear emerged from the brush. Everyone hastened outside to watch him. Beyond the wire fence, the big five-year-old bear slowly edged along, stopping to stare, snout raised.

      Why so nosey? “Bears see and hear as well as humans, but rely on their sense of smell even more,” Andy said. “They can scent things miles away.” “He’s just checking us out,” Gordie added. “If we move slowly and keep our distance, he’ll see we’re no threat.”

      Sounded reasonable, especially behind a fence. Andy cautioned against developing a false sense of security, though, as he outlined the safety rules: give the fence a wide berth, since a fast-moving bear could “push a protruding camera right through your face”; don’t feed the bears (duh!); and don’t walk straight toward a bear, since that can seem aggressive and intimidating. Polar bears—powerful, predatory, and curious—are potentially dangerous to humans. They may attack if they feel threatened or hungry. Still, just seven humans have been killed by polar bears in Canada in the last 30 years.

      Thankfully, this mellow eight-footer behaved himself as his grizzly-like hump vanished into the trees. You’d think these bears were on Travel Manitoba’s payroll, I mused. That night, I slept contentedly in my bunk bed beneath a cozy polar bear-themed quilt.

      The next morning, we began exploring the starkly beautiful landscape where the tundra meets the boreal forest. We rode in bouncing open-air buggies hitched to Honda ATVs, following dirt tracks and crossing rivers. Periodically, we stopped to check out local flora. Andy told us that about 400 out of the 20,000-plus polar bears worldwide lived near our lodge.

      In August, an ideal time to see bears here, they’re in a state of “walking hibernation”. They wander along the southwestern shores of Hudson Bay, waiting for ice floes to form so they can resume seal-hunting. Meanwhile, they live off their fat reserves. They snack on lingonberries or sedge grass but don’t need to eat full meals. (Good news!) Even drinking and defecating are optional, and the bears typically lose a pound a day. Jenny Craig has nothing on this program.

      Our second full day started slowly with sightings of moose, wolf, and bear tracks, but no actual animals. However, early in the afternoon, we encountered a sizable subadult bear who sidled into a spruce grove and chomped on gooseberries as we snapped photos. It was quite magical and, since this big teddy didn’t morph into Jaws, it was ideal ecotourism.

      Day Two was a success. I hadn’t been eaten by a polar bear.

      The Arctic natives have lived alongside bears for centuries, and I felt comfortable here too. Bears aplenty, hearty dinners, and fireside chinwags with fellow guests. What else could I ask for, apart from perhaps spotting the cloud-shrouded northern lights?

      On Day Three, we travelled farther east along the coast. That day, our first glimpse of the long-limbed, 360-kilogram bear nosing around our picnic site came safely through binoculars. But when he suddenly decided to get up close and personal, we realized this was a lot more real than, say, the San Diego Zoo.

      Would he try to take a bite out of us?

      The guides react quickly. As the bear charges up the ridge, Butch kicks an ATV into gear and roars toward him, while Gordie holds his Winchester rifle at the ready. Andy unleashes a “screamer”—a high-pitched firecracker—in the intruder’s direction. The goal is to scare him off without hurting him, and the guides show no fear.

      Startled, the bear halts 25 feet away from our group huddled around the ATVs. He gives us a “Huh? What?” stare before trotting away like a reprimanded dog. My breathing slows. I realize we were never really in danger. This bear was unruly, not malicious. He turns his head plaintively to look at us, but doesn’t come back.

      The wise words of Michael Jackson (or some version thereof) flit irresistibly through my head: “Beat it, beat it/No bear wants to be defeated”¦It doesn’t matter who’s wrong or right/Just beat it.”

      We’d spot a total of 10 “lovely white furballs” this day, as Gordie put it. All lone males. If bears hunted together, they’d have to share food and mating rights, and that’s just not their style, Andy reminds us.

      That night, the sunset glowed like embers before a blood-red moon rose on the horizon. The weather had cleared, like my mind, as our trip wrapped up. I no longer feared being eaten, but I was consumed with a desire to return.

      ACCESS: The full seven-day, six-night “Mothers and Cubs” package is $5,895 per person plus taxes, including roundtrip airfare between Winnipeg and the Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Tours run from late August through to the end of September. For more information on polar bear viewing, visit the websites of the lodge, Churchill Wild, and Travel Manitoba). The writer travelled as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission.



      Marie Rogers

      May 4, 2011 at 10:02pm

      I remember you telling me about this trip Lucas. Seeing the polar bears in Churchill has long been on my bucket list, and your article reinforced that desire. Thanks :-) Marie.