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.

Now, on the left side, two large male bears approach each other on a frozen lake. We all aim our cameras. The bears stand on their hind legs, lock jaws and start to play-wrestle. The brief encounter ends when one bear lies down on his back, his paws splayed. The pair then parades off the ice in single file and lies down for a rest.

There are at least a dozen other bears in the vicinity -- sitting, slumbering, lumbering. All are waiting for the ice to come. One tests with his paws the strength of the ice on a frozen bog; after two pushes, he breaks through.

On our second day, the driver takes us to a more distant location where, the previous day, he had spotted a female with two cubs. But first he stops, in the middle of no place in particular, it seems, and points to a white snowy owl. One of the world's biggest owls, with a four- to five-foot wingspan, it is perched on top of a gravelly hillock scouting for prey. I am close enough to see its eyes blink. A juvenile gryfalcon -- the largest of all falcons -- cruises over nearby bushes, hunting for food, as a white arctic fox, also on the lookout for the next meal, trots across the flats. Life is tough here for the lemming -- an arctic rodent that is the lowest creature on the food chain.

We find the mother bear sitting upright behind a mound of snow, nursing her cubs. Ever-vigilant, she sniffs the wind, wary of males who are twice her size and might try to kill and eat her cubs. The cubs blend into the curves of her body. When they finish nursing, they tumble and play by her side. She digs through the snow and tundra with her paws to reach the permafrost and lies down on the cool bed. The cubs join her, and together they rest.

Our final stop is along the coast, where the biggest bears wait, claiming first rights onto the ice. These dominant males can stand a towering 10 feet tall and, by the end of the hunting season, will weigh 1,200 pounds or more, insulated with a six-inch thick layer of fat. The one we watch, nicknamed Dancer by the driver, sprawls on his back, twisting and turning, punching the air with his paws.

* * *

The next morning, our 30-minute helicopter ride along Hudson Bay gives me an even richer appreciation for the polar bear's habitat. The scale and beauty of this place is immense, stunning. Bear tracks in a snow field below reveal intersecting patterns of migration and a wrestling match. At the edge of the field, two polar bears sprawl, resting. The helicopter circles around three moose for a better view. The moose glance up at us, frightened, and start to run. I flush -- as much as I love the ride, I know I have crossed the line, no longer a guest in this regal domain but now an unwelcome intruder.

We spend the afternoon with the dog teams, watching them circle their stakes, yap with delight when they get attention, and test the limits of their trainers and one another. I get to both sit on the sled, bundled in blankets, and then stand on the runners as my team trots the one-mile course. I am just getting the hang of it when the ride is over. Lest any of us be lulled by our exhilaration, one trainer tells us about the thrills and dangers of dog sled racing and the time he almost lost his life.

The last day of the program, we go to town (pop. 1,000). It is a sheet of ice. With cleats on my boots, I explore the side roads. The houses are weathered, huddled together for warmth. Snowmobiles and pickup trucks are parked in driveways. Two children, without hats and mittens, pull each other on a sled. Few others are outside.

I walk to both ends of the one main street, where most of the hotels and souvenir shops are located. An immense grain elevator looms at one end -- a relic from the 1920s, when the railroad was built to haul western grain to the bay and transport it to Liverpool, England, by the shortest (albeit usually frozen) sea route. I check out the grocery and hardware stores, curious to see what types of provisions the locals buy, and purchase a pair of gloves, knowing they will be warm.

That night, at a farewell party at the center, we feast on local specialties and traditional foods -- arctic char, a fish of frigid northern waters that is related to the salmon; caribou; a cakelike bread called bannock that can be pan-fried over a campfire; blueberry wine -- and discuss the future of the polar bear. In Churchill, the close proximity between bears and people is a constant management challenge. But the greatest threat to long-term polar bear survival, worldwide, is climate warming.

Photos at the center show that Hudson Bay, in years past, has been frozen solid by this time of year. But this year, once again, the bay is still totally ice-free. In addition, the spring breakup is averaging three weeks earlier than 30 years ago. Polar bears thus have less time to hunt and feed and store the fat they need to survive their summer fast, and they must fast for increasingly longer periods until the ice refreezes. Lower birthrates and adult-bear weights have already been documented; the size of the Hudson Bay population has declined by 17 percent in the past decade.

Churchill is also the mosquito capital of the world, so named for the infamous swarms that emerge each summer from the surrounding bogs and lakes in search of blood. As I pack my layers and boots for the journey home, I wonder why anyone would choose to live here year-round, in such a harsh, unforgiving, isolated environment.

Michael Goodyear, the center's energetic executive director, grins when I ask him about this. Nowhere else could possibly be better, he says. In addition to hosting polar bears, the area is a world-class bird migration and breeding site. Beluga whales calve here. It is one of the best locations in the world to view the aurora borealis.

And, I remind myself, there is nowhere else you can travel where, before crossing the street, you have to look both ways for polar bears.

Paula Stone is a freelance writer in Bethesda.

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