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Watching polar bears in Churchill

Watching polar bears in Churchill

For a few weeks each autumn, the polar bears outnumber the people in Churchill, Manitoba. The bears have spent the summer in the snow-covered north, where their thick coats and an underlying layer of fat have kept them warm. But as the weather changes, and the temperature drops, the waters of the Hudson Bay begin to freeze, and this is just what the polar bears need. It allows them to wander out across the ice and catch their food of choice-- ring seals. They gather on the tundra like OAPs queuing at the doors of the evening buffet.

For the last four days I've been part of a small group of wildlife lovers in one the Frontiers NorthExternal Link Title, "tundra buggies." These are large metal skinned vehicles, with huge tyres that carry you far above the icy ground. Plenty of seats, lots of window space, an outdoor 'balcony' at the rear, mugs of hot chocolate on tap inside, and a giant heater make this the ideal platform for spotting the poster boy of climate change.

Nose to nose with a polar bear – from the safety of the Tundra Buggy.

The bears are used to the buggies trundling over the frozen ground of the Wildlife Management Area just outside Churchill. This is where many of the bears congregate as they wait for the waters of the Hudson Bay to freeze. They aren’t here for long, but it’s long enough to ensure that we’ll definitely see the bears and the incredible wildlife spectacle they present.

As snowflakes fill the air outside we watch in awe as two huge males rear up on their hind legs and begin a boxing match that would put Tyson and Holyfield to shame. Back and forth, their giant paws smack at each other, and then it’s in for the wrestle— bellies slammed together, mouths open, teeth bared.

Eventually some bear-logic decides the winner and they saunter off to lie down, spread-eagled, tummy flat against the ice in order to cool off— looking for all the world like a giant cuddly rug.

Polar bears resting on the ice.

The following day a mother and her cubs amble towards our buggy. She seems to be telling her adorably cute children that these large white boxes with their smelly occupants (polar bears have an incredible sense of smell) are harmless and inedible. The cubs look at us curious, but keeping close to mum. They hang around for a while, sizing us up, sniffing the air, ears twitching as cameras click. Eventually mother decides it’s time to go. We all sink back into our seats. Silent. Our eyes filled with those embarrassing tears you get when you’re completely overwhelmed by an experience.

Although the bears sometimes come up to the buggies, stand on their hind legs and place their shaggy paws onto the metal sides so we can (almost) get nose to nose with them – we’re perfectly safe. The buggies are solid, and the windows a little too high up – even for a polar bear. So this is the ideal way to feel ‘up close and personal’ without putting ourselves in any danger.

Tundra Buggies and cameras – you don't get one without the other.

At night our buggies dock with the Tundra Lodge— a series of metal trailers on struts above the ice. There’s a cosy lounge where we gather for pre-dinner drinks and to relive the day, a dining room where the food is home cooked, plentiful and delicious, and two sleeping cars with bunk beds and bathrooms. Everything you need for a few nights on the ice – and as I lie in my bunk, looking out of the port hole window at the moon casting shadows across the tundra, I watch the bears settle down for the night, biding their time until the ice comes and they can head out to sea to catch seals and eat for the first time in months.

Dinner time at the Tundra Lodge.

Churchill is protective of its bears and over time the humans here have worked out a way to live alongside these potentially dangerous creatures. One successful, albeit unusual, innovation is the polar bear gaol. If a bear wanders too close to town it’s caught and put in a specially constructed cell. And here it will stay until the water freezes and it can be released onto the ice far from town.

Polar bears sparring in the Arctic tundra.

In order to help preserve the bears' habitat, Frontiers NorthExternal Link Title carries everything we need onto the tundra and when we leave, everything is brought back-- all the waste, all the grey water, all the sewerage. Absolutely everything, including the lodge itself, is removed.

I never thought I'd see polar bears in the wild, let alone get so close to them I could count the hairs on their nose, but in Churchill it's possible-- and it's surprisingly easy. There's a reason they call Churchill, "The Polar Bear Capital of the World."