All Aboard the Polar Express

By Paula Stone
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 5, 2006

My fingers are numb from the cold. Snowflakes collect on my eyelashes as I stuff my camera inside my down jacket and my hands into the pockets. Still, my gaze stays fixed on the creature only 10 feet in front of me.

For an instant, we stare into each other's eyes. Abruptly, he sits down in the snow and yawns, and from my perch on the open platform at the back of an all-terrain vehicle, I look through giant canines into the gaping black mouth of the largest land carnivore on the planet -- the polar bear.

I've come to Churchill, Manitoba -- about halfway down the western shore of Hudson Bay -- on a "learning vacation" to witness the annual fall migration of Ursus maritimus . Before I left home, I checked the November weather statistics for this part of Canada: average snowfall 16 inches, daytime temperatures maxing out at 16 degrees, possible 22-below-zero wind chills. I must be mad.

The bear approaches our vehicle, and up close I can see that his nose is scarred from past battles over females and food. His nostril is the size of my fist. His feet are huge, the claws black, sharp, hooked. His coat is thick and white and stained. Curious by nature, he stands on his hind legs -- he is easily eight feet tall -- and leans against the vehicle for a closer look. Then he lumbers off to a nearby mound of snow, where he lies down and closes his eyes.

My bear is lethargic because he is emerging from a state of "walking hibernation": His metabolism has slowed down and he has been fasting since July, when the solid sea ice of Hudson Bay broke up for the summer and he could no longer hunt for his primary food, ringed seals. Polar bears use the sea ice as a platform and hunt by waiting, poised, at seal breathing holes. When the sea ice melts, polar bears come ashore at Cape Churchill -- the place on Hudson Bay where sea ice stays frozen the longest -- and disperse to the coolness of the vast subarctic tundra plains. There they conserve energy, nibble kelp and live mostly off their fat reserves. When temperatures start to drop again for the winter, the now-starving bears return to the coast and wait for the sea to refreeze and for the start of a new hunting season. This waiting period, for about six weeks from October to mid-November, is polar bear viewing season.

The bear in front of me remains motionless. Ah, he takes a breath. A full 15 seconds pass before he breathes again. I look around and notice more carefully this fragile and wild place.

The shrubs are gnarled and brown, the grasses withered. Ptarmigans -- arctic grouse that turn white in winter and are almost impossible to spot -- leave tracks in the snow that read like hieroglyphics. The few trees are stunted and bent over, branchless on their windward side. Frozen lakes are covered in a thin white blanket. The sky is vast, luminous in the clean atmosphere.

There is no place on Earth I would rather be . . . which says a lot, given that there is no cheap way to view polar bears.

* * *

Churchill has a monopoly on polar bear tourism, with the only population of the animals below the Arctic Circle. My five-day trip with the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, featuring cafeteria-style meals and dormitory lodging, cost about $1,800, not including the air or train fare to get to Churchill. Fees from these tours help support the mission of the center, an independent, nonprofit institute dedicated to education, research, conservation and management of arctic ecology.

In addition to the two-day Tundra Buggy adventure, our group of 30 gets to take a helicopter ride along the coast of Hudson Bay and a dog sled ride in nearby woods, and we spend a day in the town of Churchill. Two polar bear experts lead our group during the day, and in the evening they give informal lectures, show films and share firsthand experiences. We are a well-traveled, diverse group, coming from eight U.S. states plus the District of Columbia, Canada, the U.K., Switzerland and New Zealand.

Our all-terrain vehicle is a cross between a Dulles Airport mobile lounge, a Land Rover and an armored tank, with six-foot-diameter, high-flotation tires to protect the fragile tundra, and an open platform at the rear end. We travel on old military roads that are carved into the land, lurching forward, inch by inch, through mud and slush, into and out of ruts, over ice and snow. Fortunately, the buggy is heated and has a restroom.

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