By Kieran Mulvaney
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Early morning on the shores of Canada's Hudson Bay.
The gently rising sun cast just enough light and shadow to create confusion. Two nights earlier, the first snowfall of the season had blanketed the region in a thick, soft white shroud; one night later, fierce winds had blown much of that away, leaving only patches off which the low light ricocheted blindingly.
Every pale patch on the ground was a polar bear hunched in the willows, sheltering from the wind. Until it wasn't: Upon closer inspection, each suspect reverted to being snow, a rock, a trick of the light.
I was a guest on Buggy One, a kind of mobile research station on monster truck wheels (a stripped-down version of the buggies used for tourists); next to me, a small group of American scientists sat abreast, looking into a camera that was streaming video live to classrooms in Kentucky and Oregon, where schoolchildren were gathering for a virtual question-and-answer session.
How far can polar bears swim? How do they hold onto the ice? How long do they live? How big do they get? Are they endangered?
"Perhaps we'll see one walk past," one of the researchers had suggested, somewhat optimistically, at the beginning of the teleconference. But although there was no polar bear in the view of the camera, off to the side, among the willows, my eye caught movement. I looked again. This was no optical illusion. A polar bear was ambling, ever so slowly, in our direction.
It was moving as polar bears do: seemingly aimlessly, languorously, its head and neck occasionally swaying loosely and slowly from side to side. I put my camera to my eye, but even at the fullest extent of my telephoto lens, the bear was little more than a small white blob, barely large enough to occupy the very center of my picture frame. Whispering to myself, I urged it forward as it wandered toward us.
But however relaxed a polar bear's stride may be, it can effortlessly eat a great deal of distance in a surprisingly short space of time, and by the time I had bundled up and slipped out onto the buggy's rear deck, the bear was no more than 30, 40 yards away, casually looking up at me as it advanced. Like a ghost, its approach was silent until, suddenly it was so close that its head and then just its snow-dappled muzzle filled my viewfinder. I lowered the camera and looked the animal in the eye as it looked up at me.
Only now, with the bear perhaps two or three yards below my elevated position, did I finally hear an almost imperceptible noise: a soft crunch of snow beneath its massive paws. The bear paused and considered me. Then it huffed out a short breath and padded past the buggy and across the tundra, never looking back.
Ten years earlier, on an icebreaker in the Russian and Alaskan Arctic, I had marveled at polar bears that watched us nonchalantly from the ice floes. Their shoulders rolled as they swaggered like professional prizefighters.
"Oh, yeah," said one of the deckhands admiringly as we gazed at one seemingly self-confident specimen. "Look at him. He owns the ice."
My experience on that expedition so possessed me that, within months, inspired by the scenery, the wildlife and the prospect of an abundance of subject matter for my writing, I exchanged my Dupont Circle apartment for a cabin in Alaska. But the icebreaker voyage that had prompted the life change had been a unique opportunity; not once during my time in the 49th state did I return to the northernmost limits of the Last Frontier, and my interactions with polar bears were limited to gazing at the photographs that I had taken of that earlier trip and which now adorned my refrigerator.
Yet the memories, even as they returned, felt unreal and distant. The more I revisited them, the more I wanted more.
But that was easier said than done. Absent an icebreaker or the hospitality of researchers in the field, spending time with wild polar bears is next to impossible. Polar bears wander across vast areas of inhospitable sea ice; nowhere in their circumpolar Arctic range is it possible to simply book a room and spend a few days watching polar bears do their polar bear thing while you sip coffee and munch on a sandwich.
Well, almost nowhere.
Churchill, Manitoba, is the polar bear capital of the world. Perched on a southern corner of Hudson Bay, it was founded as a fur trading post in the 18th century and is today Canada's northernmost port and the gateway to the Canadian Arctic. There are no roads into town, and although flights from the provincial capital of Winnipeg are frequent and hassle-free, a train ride can take two days or longer over uneven tracks that cross undulating terrain. The community itself consists of no more than a dozen blocks, running northwest to southeast about parallel to the railway and the Churchill River.
For 10 months of the year, perhaps 950 people live and work here; but for six weeks from mid-October through November, Churchill's human presence is swelled by roughly 12,000 visitors and seasonal workers, the reason for their presence highlighted by the names of the businesses that adorn the main street, Kelsey Boulevard: the Bear Country Inn, the Lazy Bear Cafe, Great White Bear Tours Gift Shop.
Every summer, the sea ice that has blanketed Hudson Bay during the winter months melts completely, obliging the region's polar bears to come ashore en masse and travel inland in search of cool, sheltered hollows and dens. There they rest until the days shorten and the temperatures fall; they are instinctively driven to the shore in anticipation of the freeze that will ultimately envelop the bay's waters. As they do so, many of the bears meander past or even through Churchill.
Everyone in Churchill, it seems, has polar bear stories and a ready willingness to share them with only minimal prompting: the helicopter pilot whose girlfriend pulled open the drapes one night to see a bear staring in through the bedroom window; the longtime resident awakened by a mother bear and two cubs breaking into his cabin, only to flee in shock after they somehow managed to press the button that lit the propane stove; the worker at the research station on the edge of town startled by another female and cubs that were so close behind him as he lunged for safety that he hit the mother in the face with the door that he desperately swung open.
One story was told to me in the warmth of a basement room at the south end of town -- which, as all basements should, boasted a glowing fire, a big-screen TV, a wet bar and a hyperactive dachshund called Monty. Here, too, sat my hosts, Lance and Irene Duncan, proprietors of a bed-and-breakfast they dubbed Duncan's Den.
I warmed myself externally by the fire and internally with a glass of rye as Lance related a close encounter 12 months earlier. Kicking through the snow in search of a dropped tool, he had rounded a corner and come face to face with a polar bear. The contact appeared to startle each equally; the yell that Lance let out caused the bear to momentarily retreat and bought Lance the time he needed. He leapt into his nearby truck -- Churchill residents leave house and vehicle doors open for just such an occasion -- and promptly ran the bear out of town, his front bumper all but nudging the animal's rotund rump for several miles.
Once Lance recovered from the initial shock, he recalled: "I was mad at that bear for being there, for giving me a fright and for costing me part of a morning's work. And I was mad at myself for not paying attention and for putting myself in that position."
For Churchill residents, particularly those who, like Lance, grew up in the community, bear awareness is both ingrained and a matter of pride. The approach is one of neither blustering bravado nor crippling caution; common sense prevails, as does a collective desire to avoid placing human or bear life at unnecessary risk.
"Gone are those days when, if you were a bear that walked into the community, you were a dead bear," Mayor Mike Spence told me over coffee at the Seaport Hotel. "It was common to shoot 25 bears in a season."
Such a trigger-happy mentality did not translate into greater human safety. In the late 1960s, four maulings, one of them fatal, prompted the Manitoba Department of Conservation to post a wildlife officer in town permanently, but the approach to problem bears remained the same: Chase them away if possible; if not possible, or if they return, shoot them.
That changed with the opening in 1982 of the holding facility, popularly referred to as the polar bear jail. Today, that facility, fashioned from an old military hangar, is an important element of the Polar Bear Alert Program, which seeks to keep bears and humans apart for their mutual benefit.
The first line of defense is a series of culvert traps, baited with seal meat and placed around the perimeter of the community (the reasoning being that it is far better to tempt a bear with the smell of seal outside of town than with the smell of food in Churchill itself). If a bear is caught in a trap, it is taken by truck to the facility, where it will be held and eventually lifted by helicopter to a spot 30 miles or so out of town -- or, if it is sufficiently late in the season, onto the sea ice. But not all intruders are subjected to a spell in the pokey. Should a bear manage to make its way into town, Polar Bear Alert staff seek simply to remove it from the streets, firing cracker shells -- shotgun cartridges that explode in the air with a loud bang -- to scare a bear away and then following in vehicles to ensure that the interloper leaves town.
Program members give annual talks on safety to the town's children, lessons that they hope will stay with them through adulthood. Those talks often take place shortly before Halloween, the one night of the year during bear season when Churchill's children are allowed out after dark. On that night, the local helicopter company flies patrols to confirm there are no potential problem bears on the community perimeter, and most available vehicles are deployed around the edge of town to keep guard while the youngsters trick-or-treat.
But if the town folk are fully familiar with the risks and realities of living among the world's largest land carnivore, visitors sometimes appear vague about the dangers.
One evening, as Lance, Irene, two fellow guests and I drove home from the local bar, we saw northern lights in the sky and drove up the hill, away from the main street, to watch. We stayed in the vehicle, windows cracked open enough to prevent them from fogging, and looked on in awe as the aurora danced and shimmied above us. As we turned to leave, the truck's headlights illuminated a solitary figure standing by a bicycle and staring at the heavens.
Lance pulled up next to him.
"Good evening," Lance began. "Are you visiting us?"
Yes, confirmed the man.
"You know, this is extremely unwise."
The man looked blank.
"This is prime polar bear habitat, and this is peak bear season. We are right by the coast."
The warning was not registering.
"You should have seen the lights about a half-hour ago," said the man, "They were incredible."
"That may very well be so," Lance responded, "but it is really incredibly dangerous to stand out here at night. Bears come right by here all the time."
The man turned away, his bike at his side, and eased silently off into the darkness.
"Welcome to Buggy One," shouted Robert Buchanan above the engine's growl as we lurched across the tundra the day before my trip with the scientists.
There was not much, at that point, to be welcomed to. Unlike the Tundra Buggies in tourist service, Buggy One had no fixed seating, and I clung uncertainly to a folding chair.
Buchanan, a white-bearded man whose voice could be described as well-projected, began visiting Churchill 20 years ago, when polar bear tourism was in its infancy and conditions were, as he put it, "frontier-like." Spending time on the tundra involved driving a tracked vehicle that pulled a school bus, which functioned as diner and dormitory.
"It was nothing for the bears to poke their heads through the window while you were sleeping," he recalled. "And it was nothing to have to push the bears back out of the window and out of your sleeping space. I remember waking up with their breath on my face, and it's quite a rude awakening, and the only thing you can do is to chop them on the nose with your fist as fast as you can and as hard as you can, and they will back off. Of course, if you miss the nose and get them in the mouth, you're in dead trouble, and they'll yank you out of that window fast."
Not that Buchanan is the kind to encourage people to thump polar bears in their snouts. He is, after all, president of Polar Bears International (PBI), a nonprofit organization staffed entirely by volunteers, which he describes as a "finance and educational arm for scientists in the field." It was to Buchanan I turned when I decided I needed once again to set eyes on polar bears in the wild; he advised me to focus on Churchill, and he made introductions and helped smooth my arrangements. And it was Buchanan I called again when, after spending my first few days in Churchill listening to the polar bear stories of others, I decided that it was time to see some polar bears myself.
"Do you have a sleeping bag? Do you mind roughing it? Meet me in five minutes," he barked in quick succession over the phone. I grabbed a sleeping bag from Lance, stuffed a few things in a day pack, and an hour later was clinging to my chair as Buggy One -- which Tundra Buggy provides to PBI as a base for researchers and students -- bounced along the tundra trails.
"The thing about these bears," Buchanan said, "is that they are incredibly smart and incredibly patient. What we learned over the years was that if they saw an opportunity, they were going to take advantage of that opportunity. There was a bear once that had watched me for days, and we would have conversations. But he was watching my routine, and he knew that every morning I would step across and go into the school bus area for breakfast, and then one morning he just reached up and grabbed my boot. Very quickly, in like a quarter of a second, he went 10 yards in grabbing my boot, and I was very lucky that I had not tied my laces that day, and my foot slipped right out of the boot as he grabbed it. These are really cute and furry animals, but they'll kill you in a heartbeat if they get an opportunity, even if they're just playing."
After my first day on Buggy One, I understood why Buchanan had asked me how I felt about roughing it. I spent that night in a poorly heated buggy, curled up in a sleeping bag on a foam mat laid on top of a length of plywood. That night, as I tried to fall asleep as a wind buffeted the buggy, I thought of the welcoming warmth of Lance and Irene's basement. I pictured them laughing and sharing polar bear stories with other guests.
Two days later, I migrated to the comfort of the Tundra Buggy Lodge, from which I watched with my fellow guests as two young bears wrestled playfully in the snow, bathed in the twilight. Operated by the same company that manufactures the buggies, the lodge consists of several railway car-like trailers -- a pair of sleeping cars, a kitchen and dining area, and a lounge where guests are treated to conversational lectures from polar bear experts. At about $3,950 for a package including a three-night stay, the Tundra Buggy Lodge offers the pinnacle of polar bear tourism. The lodge's exterior appearance of functionality belies its interior coziness, and watching the tussling bears through the window of the warm lounge, it was possible for a moment to forget that we were on the fringes of the Arctic and not watching a documentary in ultra-high-definition.
Either way, the show was absorbing, and we gazed, entranced, as the two juvenile males threw snow over each other and wrestled each other to the ground. One of the two appeared to be dominant, forcing the other onto its back where it lay, paws waving in the air, as the first bear pinned it to the ground. As we looked on, a third bear emerged from out of the orange glow, heading toward the sparring pair as if contemplating whether to turn their tussle into a triple threat match before veering off in another direction.
It was a first glimpse, but I wanted more.
The morning unveiled a pattern of bear tracks around and beneath the camp, and a couple of hundred yards away, the same two bears were lying where they had wrestled the evening before. When they awoke, they stretched and moved toward each other again. For several hours, we watched from a nearby buggy as they alternately sparred and rested.
An adult female with three cubs appeared from over the horizon, wandered toward the lodge, keeping a wary eye on the youngsters, and then suddenly took off past the now-lounging adolescents, beneath our buggy and to a safe distance.
The appearance of an adult male attracted the attention of one of the sparring males, which rushed over to greet the new arrival. It became immediately apparent that the move had been a mistake.
The bears had almost touched noses when the younger one froze. As if at once recognizing the error of his ways, the youngster began to back slowly away, his head held low in a demonstration of submission. Eventually, the adult lay down to groom himself, and with that the youngster returned, surely gratefully, to the sanctuary of snow next to his companion and went back to sleep.
We lurched across the tundra until we came upon two bears dozing in the sun by the left side of the trail. The snow appeared disturbed, suggesting that they, too, had been wrestling. We drew up to them slowly; they looked at us casually. One hauled itself to its feet and wandered over. It walked in front of us, found a mattress of snow and lay down in the shade cast by the buggy. In due course, the other bear joined it, each now resting its head on its paw, their noses close together and their rumps farther apart, forming a V shape in the shadow.
I slipped outside onto the viewing deck, stood at the edge, my hands in my pockets, and gazed at the bears as they dozed. Periodically, one would open its eyes and look directly at me. I wondered what, if anything, it was thinking. Was it completely indifferent to our presence? Was it comfortable but wary? Or was it in fact displaying the predatory patience for which polar bears are famed, lying quietly in anticipation of my leaning too far forward and into striking range?
As had been the case a decade earlier, the sheer improbability of being just feet from a wild polar bear, and the relative security of the platform on which I stood, made the encounter feel, on one level, surreal and distant. But I also felt an intense sense of intimacy between us at its eyes peered directly into mine, and I was moved by the bear's silent dignity.
Then the bear closed its eyes again, and the spell was broken.
In the distance, the waters of the bay rippled slightly. I hunkered down into my coat as an angry wind whipped off the tundra. I pressed myself up against the rear of the buggy to protect myself, and then, all at once, the wind died down, and there was silence.
Kieran Mulvaney is a writer in Alexandria. His latest book, on polar bears, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in fall 2010. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.