Great White Bears of the North
Tundra Buggies are what make Churchill, Manitoba what it is. Built locally on 8-foot high tires, they’re like giant monster trucks with triple-wide buses pancaked on top. They ferry tourists to polar bear alley about 35 kms (20 miles) east of the Hudson Bay town.
In 1984 when I first went to Churchill, there were only two tundra buggies. Now there are two dozen or more, including two small trains of them that serve as movable lodges where you can sleep right out among the bears.
Polar Bear tourism has become a big deal in Churchill. It may get even bigger if President Obama accepts the new Canadian ambassador’s personal invite to visit the place with his family.
I saw three or four bears in the summer of 1984 when I went there. They were scavenging in the town dump, now closed. With blackened faces, legs and underparts and, often, large painted circles on their haunches targeting them as ”nuisance” bears, they were hardly the Great White Bears of legend. I went back to Churchill a week ago to replace that soiled image.
Over 1,000 Wapusk (the Cree name for them) call this part of Canada their home. They winter on the ice on Hudson Bay, hibernate over the summer in the extensive reserve of Wapusk National Park south of Churchill, and then amble north to wait for the ice to re-form in the fall. October and November are prime viewing times.
Our day was not promising. Seventy kilometer winds and snow squalls reduced visibility to almost nothing. Worse, the winds made the bears hunker down in the low willows. On our 90-minute trip to the best viewing spots all we saw were two adventurous ravens cavorting in the stiff breezes and a grayish-white lump off in the distance that could have been a boulder but evidently had not been there yesterday. It was checked off as our first bear sighting.
All of a sudden out of the snow appeared several other tundra buggies. They had formed an arc about 25-30 feet from a large bear, standing on an iced-over pond. The bear was lazily scraping the ice with its huge right paw and then licking the spot, probably tasting sticklebacks frozen in the ice. Three gulls (Herring and Glaucous) swirled in to see if there’d be any leftovers. And a small Arctic Fox skittled around nearby, occasionally chasing a gull, occasionally also pawing the ice.
Our driver found another bear nearby just as it was rousing itself from a nap. It sat like the RCA dog for quite a while and provided better photo ops than the ice-scraper.
For lunch we parked parallel to the wind whipped bay and looked down at a small bear nestled in the sea kelp. Cute, little guy, probably a second-year bear of 200 kilos, that couldn’t care less that a huge tundra buggie with 40 photographers was less than 20 feet away. Like the lions and cheetahs of the Serengeti, the bears are habituated to tourist vehicles.
Later we returned to the frozen pond where a huge beast had replaced the ice-scraping bear. This guy stood six feet at the shoulder and probably weighed 1,000 kilos. It too was rather absently scraping the ice and licking the shards. After a half-hour of this monotonous activity, it headed toward the RCA bear about fifty feet away. The RCA bear raised itself onto all fours.
Everyone on the buggie tensed with anticipation; we all hoped for a battle royal or at least a playful scuffle.
As the huge bear approached, the RCA bear moved off. A comic chase ensued, almost in slow motion, around the entire perimeter of the pond. The pursuing bear would occasionally try to catch up to the pursued with seven or eight rapid steps. But once it got within a mighty swipe’s distance, it would slow down and let the other bear quickstep its way to a more comfortable distance. This occurred four or five times until the pursued bear ambled off and the pursuer returned to its ice-scraping.
An unresolved chase is rarely satisfying, especially when the audience is looking for good photographic action. But this almost surreal encounter probably said more about these bears and their “natural” fall behavior than any physical encounter could. I had read about the bears‚ state of “walking hibernation” and if this wasn’t a fairly good example of it, I don’t know what it was. Rather absent-minded, almost dazed, and purposeless activity. Just waiting for the ice to form and the opportunity to get their first meal in probably months.
On the way back to town we saw a couple more lumps of sleeping bear in the distance for a day’s total of seven. Not as many as we’d hoped to see, and not as exciting as it might have been, but a rewarding day nonetheless.