Polar Bears, Canada, August 2006

Well I have just returned from taking one of my 3 precious weeks of leave this year and have squandered it on a polar bear expedition in Northern Canada.  I have had this trip in my back pocket for years – ever since I saw a National Geographic spread on it, so I’ve finally taken the opportunity to do it while Canada is in “my backyard”.  However it hardly rates as a daring exploit and is the least “adventurous” of the adventure travels I have ever indulged in, as I will explain.  We flew on a charter plane to the edge of the Arctic Circle on Hudson Bay in Northern Canada, to a little whistle-stop town called Churchill.  We loaded into oversized “tundra buggies” – refitted airport firevehicles with 8 foot tyres, heavy duty suspension (oh and a restroom and propane furnace aboard!) and steered out onto the arctic tundra.  Our digs for the next 4 days was a mobile lodge, 6 carriages in length that is towed out to a point on Hudson Bay for prime polar bear viewing.

Now polar bears exist on a diet of mainly plump ring seals, and at the end of Spring – April, May when the sea ice melts they find themselves unceremoniously “grounded” and remote from their usual seal hunting grounds.  Come October, November as the temperatures plummet the sea ice reforms and a parade of hungry polar bears starts to line up along the shoreline for the winter buffet that awaits them again.  So for a limited season there are fantastic close-hand viewing opportunities of these magnificent animals.


Being a “Sunshine State” girl at heart I am not going to argue with anyone preventing frost-bite and hardship during a sojourn in the Arctic.  However, the propane furnaces in every carriage and the buggy could have almost caused global warming in their own right, and the fact that you’re never allowed down on the ground to walk around means the outside climate is almost irrelevant.  Maybe I feel that some wildlife experiences should still be earned and that there’s less satisfaction in a “tour” that drives you effortlessly for sightseeing rather than experiencing the habitat by arriving on your own two feet through some toil and sweat.  Either way it will be the last “tour group” that I join for a while as the average age was around 70 (sorry to grey nomads out there) and the intractable narrative and running commentary from some in the group detracted significantly from the beauty of the wilderness experience.

Tour group grumbles aside, the encounters we had with around 12 to 15 polar bears over the 4 days were amazing.  Make no mistake that if we were allowed down on the ground to walk about that we would be polar bear lunch within moments!  These creatures are of an incredible size and with a graceful lope and inquisitive nature.  There were 3 polar bears that slept outside the lodge each night – a rather surreal experience to be eating dinner as a polar bear strolls past the window… or to wake up and find a polar bear reared up on hind legs trying to sniff into the windows. The bears seem very accustomed to the buggies and the lodge and frequently sniff around or climb up onto the side (hence the 8 foot tyres!). We were lucky enough to see a mother and cub, as well as a fortunate bear that found a seal stranded on the rocks of the shoreline at high tide and gorged himself with his first meal in many months.  The bear was stained red from head to toe and, when the show was over we watched him stagger clumsily to an icy shallow pool where he collapsed face first in the water for a contented snooze!  I have some amazing close-up photos of one bear that circled our buggy and then decided to take a nap for a while under the front wheel. The inspiration of looking straight down into those large liquid eyes as his massive white chest heaved slowly and sighed frosty breaths into the arctic air – I felt for a moment like I had somehow entered his world.

Polar bears weren’t the only highlight of the trip, as our daily buggy drives took us exploring the surrounding tundra. We spied snowy owls and the pure white winter coat of the arctic fox.  Night time treated us with some clear arctic skies and brilliant displays of the aurora borealis or northern lights, dancing in vivid green ribbons and curtains across the sky.

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