On Thin Ice with Churchill's Polar Bears
“Is that one?” exclaimed one of my tour companions, a Coloradan geophysicist named Redge. Pointing through the window of our lurching Polar Rover—a sort of hulking souped-up ice Hummer, with six-foot tractor tires for navigating rutted tundra—he indicated a distant buff-colored lump. In the next seat, our guide Eric gamely raised a pair of binoculars to assess the lump, then dropped them again immediately.
“Rock,” he announced. The dozen in our group let out a communal groan. Though it was only our first morning out, and we had two full days of bear scouting ahead of us, we’d been jouncing along for almost an hour and seen nothing but boulders—plus swaths of bear tracks, some of them tantalizingly fresh-looking.
“You guys, relax,” said Lisa, our Rover driver, who’d spent several seasons ferrying groups through the 3,200-square-mile Churchill Wildlife Management Area (the only part of the region sanctioned for tours). “You’re going to see bears.”
Within 10 minutes we realized she was right. First, as we approached the coastline, sticking to well-worn trails as conservancy law required, we began to see lumps-that-looked-like-rocks suddenly become animate (all of us shrieked as one far-off mound raised a distinctly bear-shaped snout to the wind). And once we had parked for the afternoon on a crest overlooking the slushy shore, we began to spot them all around us. There were several young males, crouched and dozing, spread among a thicket of willow shrubs not 20 feet away; further off, a mother and yearling cub kept cool by lolling on a frozen pond. Out our front windshield, we saw two large adults slowly approach each other and start playfully swiping each other with their snow-caked paws. The mock-skirmish escalated until they were wrestling and flailing on the ground like a pair of gargantuan puppies.
Late that afternoon, Redge’s wife, Linda, suddenly gasped, “Look!” A huge, splendid-looking bear had just hoisted itself from its resting place under a dwarf birch and was now shuffling, ponderous and pigeon-toed, toward our vehicle. Quietly, Eric motioned for us to follow him out the back door of the Rover and onto the elevated viewing deck.
By the time we had all zipped our parkas, grabbed our cameras, and gathered on the platform, the bear was already circling us. In hushed amazement we gazed at its thick, buttermilk-colored coat, its long scarred snout, its tiny folded ears. For an electrifying few moments, it paused beneath the deck, peering up at us through the steel mesh of the floor. The soft chuffing of its breath sent clouds drifting between our boots.
It was when the bear emerged out into the sunlight again that it happened. Turning abruptly, it effortlessly rose to its full height—nine, maybe 10 feet—planting two forepaws like furred bathmats against the Rover, just inches below where my mittens rested on the railing. The bear stretched its great shaggy head toward us, its wet nose quivering. Next to me, a Texan equity investor named Ed emitted a startled snort: the bear had fixed its black eyes right on him.
And then at once the encounter was over. Unceremoniously, the bear dropped to its forepaws and simply lumbered away.
That evening, over supper at a restaurant in Churchill, I listened as Ed recounted the experience to another group of diners.
“I swear,” he said. “That bear and I had a moment. For, like, 20 seconds, we locked eyes…it was like he was looking into my soul.”
Across the table, I chuckled. “Ed,” I chided. “Twenty? It might have been five.”
Unconvinced, Ed shook his head. “You can say what you want. All I know is when that bear looked at me, time stopped.”
I held my tongue. The truth was, Ed was right. For however long it had lasted, our confrontation with the bear had been hypnotic, like something we’d collectively hallucinated. I wouldn’t have been surprised afterward to find that hours had passed.
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.