On Thin Ice with Churchill's Polar Bears
Like just about everyone growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, I was captivated by polar bears. The Life on Earth nature programs I watched as a child, and the photo essays I pored over in my parents’ issues of National Geographic, all painted the same majestic picture of the world’s largest land carnivores. The images of bears striding through pristine snowscapes, perched gracefully atop ice floes, and tussling with their cubs had given me a peculiar sense of security; even if I never got to see them, it was good to know these magnificent creatures were holding the fort at the lonely, frozen apex of the world.
In recent years, though, the media portrait of polar bears has changed. Now televised footage of these regal animals is sure to be accompanied by a catalogue of sobering facts. Listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 2007, Ursus maritimus, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report, may be close to extinct by 2050. The culprit, of course, is climate change—rising temperatures that have already caused dramatic recession of the Arctic sea ice where bears hunt and feed (nearly 23 percent, according to one study). In their more southerly habitats, polar bear populations over the past three decades have declined by more than 20 percent.
No child raised on David Attenborough could fail to agonize over these statistics. At least I couldn’t. One day last summer, after watching a particularly upsetting Animal Planet program about starving polar bear cubs, I moaned to my husband that soon the world’s polar bears would be gone.
“Not all of them,” he replied, consolingly. “I’m sure there will still be some in zoos.”
That settled it. Within a week, I’d researched and signed up for a three-day “Classic Polar Bear Tour” with Natural Habitat Adventures (NHA), an ecologically minded outfitter with a special affinity for endangered wildlife. I didn’t want to see polar bears in cement enclosures, lounging on painted “glaciers” and paddling in chlorinated pools. I wanted to see them where they belonged—while they still belonged somewhere.
Empty, snow-covered tundra stretches for hundreds of miles in every direction. An icy wind is blowing; a thickly batted quilt of cloud covers the sky. But I am trying mightily to jam open a frost-streaked window, brutal weather be damned. I want a clear view out of the rugged steel “Polar Rover” vehicle I’m in.
That’s because, atop a nearby ridge, two fully adult male polar bears—maybe 700 pounds apiece—have risen to their hind legs and clasped one another in a fierce embrace. As I struggle with the window sash, the bears grapple and strain, baring their curved incisors, muscling each other with their brawny shoulders. I know the bears are only posturing, testing each other in a mostly harmless display. Still, I want to be closer to all that power. I want to hear the growls and heaving breaths, the scrabbling of claws on frozen ground.
It’s why I’ve come, after all. I would travel to this bitterly cold, desolate expanse of subarctic Canada for only one reason: to get as near as I can to wild polar bears.
By the time I’ve jimmied the window open an inch, the two sparring bears are already exhausted. Panting heavily, each drops back to all fours with a hefty thud before backing away from the other. It’s then, as they pivot and amble off in separate directions, that I see the concave swoop of their bellies and realize how skinny they are.
For a moment, as if on cue, the bears both pause and raise their noses in the Rover’s direction, sniffing deeply. I imagine, excitedly, that they might be curious enough to approach. But then each turns away in retreat, and I realize the truth: they were probably just looking for food.