Due to a production error, the provinces of Quebec and Ontario were switched on a map of Canada in Sunday's Travel section.
We had raced from the Land Rover through the savage cold to drop our luggage in the lobby of the Polar Motel, a snug refuge from the cruel winter climate of Churchill, Manitoba. The wind blasting down from the North Pole rattled the windows and shrieked around the eaves, the temperature was already 20 below and dropping, the light was failing fast. Great time to pour a shot from the cozy bar in the rooms and snuggle in for the night -- right?
All 12 of us American visitors clamored instead for Dan Guravich, the tour leader, to take us out instantly on a quick search for polar bears in the hope we could see at least one before the feeble sub-arctic sun went down. Though he has virtually lived with the bears for almost a decade of intense study and photography, Dan is still infatuated with the brutes and agreed eagerly.
Our group was only one of several that come in late autumn to Churchill, on Hudson Bay 700 miles closer to the North Pole than the Canadian-American border, to get a look at polar bears.
Churchill is the jumping-off place for the Canadian Arctic, the northern terminal of Canada's farthest northern railroad. Its population varies with the season, as tourists and scientists from biology and astronomy research labs come and go, but it never passes 1,500. Many of the residents are Indians and Inuits, as Canadians call Eskimos. The architecture is Early Pioneer, but the business district has several smart gift shops and comfortable motels. Restaurants are passable. Those amenities cater to touritsts who come in spring to see the teeming birdlife and in the fall to see the world's greatest concentration of polar bears. Indeed, it is the world's only gathering of the solitary hunters that roam the sea ice pack through the winter night.
Except around Churchill, Arctic veterans can go years or even a lifetime without seeing a bear. In fact, polar bears rarely see each other, except during mating season.
A peculiarity of Canadian geography drives the bears together briefly at the southwestern corner of Hudson Bay, a vast inland sea as big as Texas, big enough to let several hundred bears spend the winter hunting in splendid isolation. But the ice of Hudson Bay melts under the summer sun. As the open water spreads, the bears try to cling to the remaining ice, thus being compressed into an ever-shrinking space. As the last flake sloops away, they must walk ashore near Churchill to scatter about the interior till freeze-up allows them to escape again.
In autumn as the temperature drops, they feel the promise of frost and crowd around the shoreline watching for the first sign of the welcome freeze-up. That's when the nature snoopers like our group come in to ogle them through binoculars and camera lenses.
Yielding to our eagerness to punish ourselves again in the cold, Dan yelled, "Suit up. Hurry and we'll catch a couple of bears before dark."
Our station wagon raced past the town's famous garbage dump, where a few shameless bear families unto the third and fourth generations have given up the proud life of a hunter for the squalid comfort of living on offal. They pay for their soft life by suffering degrading stains on their magnificent white coats. And they must go through periodic shots of angel dust -- an animal tranquilizer -- darted into them by government wildlife technicians who put them through medical indignities to study their vital signs.
Several cars full of tourists lurked about the dump, but Dan shooed us past.
"Let's find some real bears," he said. "Some honest hunters with clean coats. When you see your first free-roving bear up close, you'll be glad we didn't stop."
Strobes popping fitfully in the gathering gloom drew us to the shoreline. A band of seven photographers who had come in on the same plane with us had left their cars and on foot were grabbing photos of a 300-pound youngster newly separated from its mother. They were so excited they had forgotten normal caution and had formed a circle around the nervous animal, inching ever closer to get better close-ups.
"Those idiots are going to goad the poor fellow into charging one of them, so he can break through that ring," Dan said. "Then they'll have to kill an innocent bear."
Fortunately, a threatening lunge by the bear scattered the photographers and the youngster was able to excape escape into a copse of stunted willows where the paparazzi could not follow. Chattering eagerly, the visitors sauntered back to their cars, serenely unconscious that they had just narrowly missed being mauled.
Our group was considerably more sophisticated about wildlife viewing. All were veterans of field trips to distant lands like the Himalayas and the upper Amazon. Far from crowding bears dangerously, we were nervous about intruding and disturbing the bears' normal life pattern. Roy Bukowsky, a research biologist who advised our group, reassured us.
"Responsible tourism is the best protection the bears have. Before bear-watching parties jazzed up the winter economy around Churchill, folks shot as many as 29 bear intruders each fall. Now, the bears are a tourist resource, so we trap any bear that becomes a nuisance and cage it in a quonset hut till time to release it on the ice."
So we piled into our tundra buggy next morning with the smug assurance that we were the bear's best friend, a shield against extinction.
The tundra buggy is an ungainly hybrid built of a 20-passenger bus body riding six feet above the tundra on immense tires that carry the buggy's eight tons on a pressure of only three pounds per square inch to spread the weight and do minimal damage to the fragile ecosystem. Like a lifeboat, a Honda three-wheeler rides the roof. The driver is armed with a 30-06 rifle firing 52-grain softnose bullets. He showed us a little race starter's pistol, loaded with a tiny concussion grenade.
"This bird bomb is our main firepower. It zaps out about 50 feet and pops like a firecracker. Usually, that's enough to drive off a bear. If it doesn't stop him, we'll resort to the rifle, but only because it makes a bigger noise. It would have to be a tougher situation than I've seen in this buggy to make me aim at a bear."
(Later, in another group, one of the visitors persisted in hanging out the window to photograph bears from unusual angles. A bear sneaked up on his blind side and severely mauled his left arm. He came near bleeding to death and losing his arm. He returned the very next season to resume his bear-watching where he was so rudely interrupted. It is the only accident so far recorded among tourists on the bear watches.)
The morning's expedition started under a wintry sun, a good omen, for sunshine is rare at that season. The thin mantle of snow sparkled. We shivered inside the bus, though it was probably more from excitement than cold, for the bus is tolerably warm till it's time to open the windows for photography.
Binoculars manned by a score of seasoned game watchers swept the tundra. Planed flat by a gigantic ice field 10,000 years ago, the landscape is pitted by hundreds of small rivulets, lakes and ponds. Each waterhole is ringed by stunted willlows and arctic brush, providing cover for birds and small mammals such as snowshoe hares amd the foxes that hunt them. Snowfall is surprisingly sparse, but already a thin snow cover had accumulated, so that the only relief to the blue-white expanse of flat tundra was the streak and splotch of the brushy water courses. Without the promise of the game we were hunting, it would have been a scene as bleak as the Viking vision of hell.
First excitement came from the birders who made up at least half our number. They had set up sighting scopes in the aisle, though the buggy pitched and rolled like a destroyer in a North Atlantic squall. John Rowland, an internationally famed birder, made the first score when he screeched, "Passerines!"
He had spotted a flock of dim little sparrowlike creatures that turned out to be snow buntings. They puzzle evolutionists because they turn white in summer and brownish in winter, in a backward effort at camouflage as though they had their seasons reversed. We also spotted a hoary red poll, who entered a half dozen life lists, including mine, as a first sighting.
When we saw a white gyrfalcon fleeing a snowy owl that was trying to hijack the falcon's vole, the birders went into the traditional birding triumphal dance -- squealing, pumping knees up and down, shaking fists beside the ears, grimacing with joy.
Impatient with the disloyalty of birders to his beloved bears, Dan snapped, "Let's not waste any more time on snowy owls," and almost set off a fiery mutiny among the defenders of our feathered friends. Then when our first bear approached across a frozen lake and we all jammed the starboard windows for a view, Dan hustled us along, saying our first bear was a juvenile and we would see "dozens of bears that will make that runt look puny."
Near the shoreline, we watched two huge males approach us on a collision course. Like the sheriff and the hired gun in the Saturday afternoon horse opera, they paced deliberately forward, each coiled like a spring to make the lightning draw if the other tried to get off a sneak shot.
Nothing happened. With the great common sense of the wild, when the smaller one took in the impressive muscle of the big one, he gracefully conceded without drawing or dropping blood. The winner by default came up to the buggy and reared to his hind feet to beg in vain for a handout. We were impressed by the intelligence of the rival who had backed away from the fray. The Strong Boy's head was level with the window, which was nine feet off the ground, higher than the ceiling in the average living room.
Giving up on us as lousy cheapskates, the big brute flopped to his belly, elevated his rump and pushed himself forward with his hind legs, his chin sliding along the ice like a grotesque snow plow. He rammed his head deep into a snowbank and went to sleep with his skull protected from sunstroke under three feet of snow.
We scored a dozen bears of varying sizes before our spartan lunch of crabmeat and shrimp-salad sandwiches and a modest little Rhenish white wine -- well-chilled, naturally. For our noontime entertainment, a pair of juvenile bears wrestled playfully. A white Arctic fox, its eyes rimmed with black like a houri from the Arabian Nights, skittered about, nervously waiting for the two playboys to quit fooling around and settle down to some serious hunting so he could pick up the scraps. On my Walkman, I alternated Mozart and Beethoven to test which strains better moderated the rigors of Arctic living.
Restored, we turned our attention again to the outdoors. A roly-poly mother and two half-grown cubs came slithering across the ice of Bird Cove, sliding occasionally into open water and clambering back to the slushy half-formed ice floes. Fearful of the bad temper of a protective mother, the two playful youngsters and their fox hanger-on scampered off.
The family climbed out of the freezing water to a ridge only a 50-mm lens reach from our buggy. As they squirmed and wriggled clownishly in the snow to wipe off the freezing water of the cove, we fogged hundreds of feet of video and still film. It was only when the film ran low that we noticed that our fingers threatened to snap off if sharply rapped. We headed home, swearing that next day we would double and triple our film supply so that we could hang on long enough to get thoroughly frozen.
And so the days wore on, with bear sightings at 20 or more daily. We counted red and cross foxes, king and common eider ducks, seals and rock ptarmigans. For a glorious half hour, we watched a fisher hunt around a frozen lake. The fisher is a huge weasel so rare that even Dan and Ray, old Arctic hands, were excited by the sighting.
At our departure for the sunny south, we met at the airport a new batch of bear watchers who were going with Dan far out on Cape Churchill to live for 10 days in a primitive camp so that they could visit with the world's largest concentration of the truly big granddaddies of the polar bears. The temperature had dropped again to 30 below, and the warm interior of the plane was undoubtedly cozy. Nevertheless, we envied those newcomers who were setting out in that Arctic storm to spend 10 days shivering and groaning with the cold and having a glorious time.
Polar bears are more fun than warm toes.