Walking among polar bears
Above: On the tundra, a bear decides it wants to continue coming toward us.
North of Churchill, Manitoba – Moments after I clamber out of the single-engine plane and realize just how cold it is on this frozen edge of Hudson Bay, Andy MacPherson breaks my heart.
“To be safe,’’ MacPherson says, “we will keep you about 50 meters from the polar bears as we walk about.’’
MacPherson is saying more to the other guests at the Seal River Heritage Lodge, but I am processing that number. I do notice the 12-gauge shotgun slung over his right shoulder, I do hear the word “safety.’’
Yet all I can think is that the distance he has given means my single-lens Nikon probably won’t be able to capture any decent pictures of the predators I have flown 2,300 miles to see.
I stand on the graded gravel runway, now cold AND grieving. But that second part turns out to be premature, and unnecessary:
That’s because MacPherson had presented the wilderness lodge’s procedures the day before “Bones’’ ambled, pigeon-toed, right towards us along the shoreline. It was also before “Greenspot’’ moseyed around the outside of the lodge – and well before “Bob’’ opened his jaws to poke them through a large hole in the lodge’s backyard fence.
Actually, the guide’s announcement came before all the contacts we would have with the magnificent bears in the next four days. And the only times we were 50 meters from the bears occurred if we were that far away when MacPherson or fellow guide Tara Ryan first sighted them. Then, the guides herded the guests toward the bears.
Typically, the bears – usually one at a time – appeared as large ivory splotches resting or sleeping on the rock-strewn ground, where withered shore grasses provided a pale gold accent to the landscape.
MacPherson and Ryan, both in their early 40s and veteran wilderness guides, occasionally would lift their binoculars to find us bears.
But every day, the bears found us.
After breakfast and lunch each day, the guests at the lodge (one of four owned by the Churchill Wild company) would head out on walks of about three hours. We would seldom trek farther than 1½ miles from the lodge, walking the frozen shoreline or the gentle ridges that in summer define bay beaches.
Destinations for us includes the large freshwater lake from which the rustic, yet modern, lodge draws its water (it is treated before being served) and an archaeological site with rough circles of stones, used to anchor the flaps of teepees erected thousands of years ago.
But always the goal of our walks was to see polar bears. During October and November, they are waiting for the surface of the bay to freeze so they can walk on it to hunt seals. During these months, the males and non-pregnant females are in “walking hibernation,’’ using as little energy as possible because they probably have not eaten meat since the summer. Instead, they subsist on stored fat, wild berries, even kelp.
This is when Seal River operates “photo safaris.’’ There are an estimated 1,200 to 1,400 bears in this part of Manitoba, so they can seem relatively plentiful.
While they are not social animals – the mothers of new cubs must protect them from males – on my trip we saw as many as three bears at once, lumbering in a widely spaced follow-the-leader train. We also saw two males lying down together, apparently satisfied that they posed no threat to each other.
Other times the nine of us, including our guides, would find a bear on the move, and the guides would have us walk a route to intercept it. That typically produced the exciting interactions the guests valued.
Guests had usually been walking in single file, with a guide in front and back. When we encountered a bear, we would fan out behind both guides. We wanted photos, and the guides obliged us.
But if the bear should be coming toward us, it had to be diverted. The routine: One of the guides would talk to the bear, as if it were a domesticated animal. These first sounds were to get the bear’s attention away from the rest of the group.
The bears are curious but cautious. They would rather change their course slightly than walk to the strange noise. If a conversational volume did not deflect them from the group, the guide would raise his voice.
Further escalating the auditory experience, MacPherson would reach into his parka, pull out fist-sized rocks and clack them together — a sharp sound not familiar to the bear.
Twice, the guides actually kicked snow toward bears, which also worked. We never saw more than these minimal steps utilized to turn a bear – and only once, when the grizzled old male called Bones, short for Bag of Bones, came directly toward us, was I apprehensive. The guides had told us Bones was a no-nonsense type that the younger bears avoided.
Each guide also carries a small pistol, from which they can fire noise-making shells but without projectiles.
And the guides carry 12-gauge shotguns. The first shell is a blank, with the expectation that the sound of the percussion would frighten away a bear. Finally, the guide would fire a loaded shell toward the ground in front of the bear, so that the noise and ricocheting shot would turn the bear for good.
MacPherson said that in 20 years, Churchill Wild has never shot a bear. Shooting polar bears is banned on provincial lands not occupied by the aborigines, who are allowed to hunt bears and walrus, which they eat.
Once our guides were certain we would quickly obey the calm instructions to get out of harm’s way, Ryan and MacPherson allowed us to get closer to the bears.
Which left me wondering how I could describe to readers just how close I had been to a 700-pound carnivore. We were careful to give Bones plenty of room. We were less concerned about the four other males and two females we encountered, although it seemed that at least one of them, whom the guides had named Bob, wanted to hang out with us.
That was obvious one morning when I went into the fenced backyard of the lodge – the only fencing anywhere. Perhaps five yards from the fence was Bob, estimated to weigh 600 to 700 pounds and to be about 7 years old.
The thin wire fence had holes large enough to allow a camera lens through. As I took off my outer glove and turned the camera on, Bob came toward the fence. And he kept coming. Finally he settled down almost against the fence – and he opened his mouth and put his enormous upper and lower jaws around one of the holes.
I snapped some photos, had my picture taken by other guests. As long as we spoke to Bob, he kept opening his mouth and clamping it gently on the fence – flossing, the guides jokingly called this.
So I had a new standard of my proximity to the bears: No longer was my closest encounter to a bear about the length of a parking space. No, now I felt his breath and could have petted a bear.
And I did want to reach out to touch the top of Bob’s white muzzle. But his canine teeth were easily as long as my thumbs. And I wanted to keep my thumbs, all of my fingers. So I rejected the idea of communicating with Bob through the sense of touch.
If he kept flossing, then I could keep admiring him … an arm’s length away.
If You Go
The owner-operators of Churchill Wild, Jeanne and Mike Reimer, have had 20 years to expand and renovate the Seal River Heritage Lodge, which accommodate 16 in a variety of rooms sleeping two or more.
(The three other Churchill Wild lodges are busy at different times of the year depending on what critters you most want to see – beluga whales, mother bears with their cubs – or to fish for.)
With both a chef and pastry chef at Seal River, the meals always featured hot entrees, often a choice of soups, and incredibly rich desserts. Guests tend to burn off the calories during the 5-6 hours of frigid-weather walkabouts each day.
Cocktail hour begins about a half-hour after the afternoon walk ends. Hot hors d’oeuvres, cheeses or hummus are offered, as are wine, beer and liquor (also offered at dinner, the alcoholic beverages are included in the price of the lodge experience, as are three meals a day and flights on both small jets and single-engine planes, to reach the isolated lodge).
Cocktail hour passes quickly, as the guests compare notes on that day and display their new photos on laptops. After dinner, guests sit or sprawl on the huge leather couches and recliners in front of the wood-burning stove in the lodge’s lounge for presentations and slide shows about the region’s history, animals and how the Reimers and staff re-stock the lodge using a tractor to haul a huge sled for 36 hours over the Hudson Bay ice.
For more information on the Churchill Wild options, including prices and times, go to www.churchillwild.com
The Churchill Wild trips are typically four days in the lodge plus a day in the village of Churchill, about 40 miles south of Seal River. The price for 2014 trips is about $9,560, including two nights in a Winnipeg airport hotel before and after the lodge trip, and roundtrip flights to the lodge.
A cheaper (about $1,400 U.S.) one-day alternative is offered by longtime Winnipeg tour operator Don Finkbeiner. After a two-hour flight on a twin-engine plane from Winnipeg to Churchill, passengers climb aboard a purpose-built Tundra Buggy, which rolls high above the snow. The driver takes the Buggy along prescribed routes where bears sightings are frequent; the buggy has large windows, is heated and restroom equipped.
This trip involves a small breakfast on the plane to Churchill, and dinner in a village restaurant before returning to Winnipeg.
For more information on the one-day trip, go to www.heartlandtravel.ca .