To the Lords of the Arctic
By Sharon Spence Lieb
Churchill, Manitoba Canada. “The Polar Bear Capital of the World.” On my flight, the onboard magazine reads, “Polar bears are the largest, strongest, and most bloodthirsty of Arctic predators,” according to a wildlife biologist. “They only know how to hunt and kill to earn their next meal.”
I’m on my way to join Churchill Nature Tour’s “Polar Bear Adventure.” Of course, they’ll take good care of me, but am I really ready to encounter bloodthirsty beasts? I hop off the plane into the frigid air, wondering if I’ll need my return ticket.
Upon climbing aboard a polar rover and heading into the tundra, a local photographer and guide Mike Macri shares his dramatic human vs. bear story.
“One day I’m walking along Hudson Bay’s shoreline,” Mike says. “A huge polar bear rises up from a rock behind me. I grab my gun and turn to face him. Six feet from my face, I’m terrified, yet thrilled. I’m prepared to shoot him if I have to.
I don’t want to. After what feels like forever, he snorts in my face, then lumbers away. What a relief. Then I check my gun: It was jammed. That bear easily could have killed me with one paw swipe. Why didn’t he? I’ll never know.”
Bears Out My Window
The next morning, it’s 25 degrees. Our group climbs aboard a polar rover emblazoned with “Great White Bear Tours.” Our Churchill Nature Tour guide Patrick Rousseau gives us safety tips on meeting the “Lords of the Arctic.”
“Polar bears are super aggressive,” Patrick warns. “Males can weigh 1,320 pounds and stand 10 feet tall. If you want to return home with your hands and head, I suggest you keep them inside the bus windows.” We laugh, but he’s serious.
The driver fires up the engine. Every snow-covered rock seems to be a sleeping polar bear. Huge bear paw prints meander into the distance.
“Bears at 11am,” Patrick calls out. “Two young males, sparring.” Cameras click as two yellowish polar bears stand on their hind legs, swatting each other’s shoulders and heads 20 feet from our polar rover.
“Are they fighting?” I ask.
“They’re exercising,” he replies, “getting in shape for a long winter of hunting seals. If they don’t build up their stamina, they can’t hunt, and they’d starve to death. This behavior is critical for their survival. Their paws are the size of a dinner plate and their heads are 14”-16” wide. Their powerful teeth can crack a seal’s skull with one crunch. And they can pick up a scent from 20 miles away. That’s why they come so close, smelling our lunch. And us.”A mother bear appears, adorable cubs in tow. She stops and sniffs the air as a strange male bear walks along the horizon. She freezes, staring intently as if to say, “Stay far from my kids or you’ll be forever sorry.”
Safely inside our polar rover, we take incredible photos from the back deck. Polar bears stand under the grate, smelling our feet.
During two exhilarating days, more than three dozen bears make an appearance. Some jaw each other’s teeth, others snooze in the willows. One looks like a giant stuffed toy, on his back, huge paws in the air.
Crush on a Polar Bear
So here I am in Churchill, thrilled that a massive hungry polar bear is right outside my window. I can’t hug him, or pet his ivory fur. Yet I can’t give up my girlish infatuation either. I stick my vulnerable head out the bus window and blurt: “I love you!”
But this ferocious Lord of the Arctic is hungry. Sniffing my warm flesh, his expression says, “Why don’t you give me your head? For a snack.” Rejected, I sulk into my bus seat, as Patrick saunters down the aisle.
“So Sharon, now you’ve got a hot date with a polar bear?” he grins.
“Nah. Not my type.”
“Sharon, you know what’s so great about this place?” our driver Bill says, “Every fall in Churchill we get to watch these incredible bears get ready for winter. In December, when Hudson Bay ices over, we watch their bums waddling north onto the ice. With a big bear smile on the other end.”
Now that’s my idea of a happy ending.
IF YOU GO
Churchill Nature Tours offers their “Polar Bear Adventure” in Churchill, Manitoba Canada every fall. Contact: www.churchillnaturetours.com. 1-877-636-2968.