CHURCHILL, Man. -- Over the years, I've swum with wild dolphins in Australia, snorkelled with blacktipped sharks in French Polynesia, cradled a giant stingray in the Cayman Islands and stroked the head of a cheetah in South Africa. But nothing quite compares with meeting the gaze of a polar bear in Churchill.
Coming nose to nose with North America's largest carnivore is not something I anticipated when I signed up for an "authentic Arctic experience" with Frontiers North Adventures last fall.
Sure I wanted to see the bears up close -- but perhaps not that close! The encounter occurred on the first day of a four-day trip billed as a Churchill Town and Tundra Experience and designed around the annual the polar bear migration.
Each July when the sea ice breaks up, the bears along Hudson Bay are forced ashore, where they spend the summer living off their fat reserves. In the fall, when the bay freezes up again, they venture back out on the ice to hunt their favourite food -- ringed seal. Though you can see these "kings of the north" at other times of year, they congregate in the highest numbers from early October to early November in Churchill -- the Polar Bear Capital of the World.
The sight attracts visitors from around the globe. About 12,000 bear-watchers descend on the town (population 800) every year at this time. Our group alone includes tourists from Germany, Belgium, India, the United States, and other parts of Canada.
Our first day begins well. Within an hour after setting out on the huge custom-designed ATV called a tundra buggy, we see two bears sparing about 50 metres away -- a highlight of any trip. The bears, which weigh roughly 580 kilos, are standing on their hind legs wrestling and occasionally knocking each other down onto the snow-covered tundra. Some say it's a form of play fighting because the bears don't have much to do at this time of year, or that they could be trying determine who's the strongest. Our guide David Reid says the sparring builds up muscle and helps the bears get in shape for seal-hunting season.
After the action dies down, we move on and see a third bear, then a fourth -- a young female sleeping behind some willow bushes that provide shelter against the wind. The next bear we encounter is the first to take any serious notice of us. It lumbers towards our tundra buggy and walks underneath. We watch through a grate in the floor of the outdoor viewing platform. Taking a cue from another visitor, I lay on the floor and peer down at the animal through the iron slats.
To my astonishment, the bear looks back and we lock eyes for several seconds.
I think of all the precautions I've read: Do not carry food while walking in bear country. Do not turn and run away from a polar bear. Do not play dead. But I didn't recall any warnings that said: Do not look a polar bear in the eyes. Was this wrong? For a moment, this stealth hunter seems harmless.
Then suddenly, without warning, the hungry bear lunges up at me, its black nose skimming the grate, prompting me to jump to my feet in a split second as my heart thumps wildly. Surprisingly, I manage to suppress a scream.
We had been told not to talk or make noise near the bears to avoid spooking them. But now I am spooked. Grateful for the protection the vehicle offers, I resolve not to make eye contact again.
During the second day on the tundra, we see so many bears, we stop counting. But Neil Mumby, our amiable driver, informs us the count is 21. There are glimpses of other wildlife, too -- a hare, a ptarmigan and a gyrfalcon, all camouflaged in the snowy landscape. The red fox is an exception with its rusty colour and bushy tail.
Someone spots a seal sleeping on a big rock at low tide, seemingly unaware of its vulnerable position amid hungry predators. Polar bears are said to have an acute sense of smell, which makes us wonder why a nearby bear hasn't picked up the scent of this easy prey.
Another mystery surrounds the bear population itself. Studies show Arctic ice is melting faster than normal, which has shortened the bear's hunting season on the ice. But Reid debunks the myth all polar bears are in trouble, saying there are differences among bear populations (13 of the world's 19 polar bear populations live in Canada). The western Hudson Bay population, which includes Churchill, has seen a decline from roughly 1,200 in 1984 to about 900-1,000 bears today.
"Female bears are not having enough cubs to replace those that are aging out naturally," Tricia Schers of Frontiers North Adventures says. "The other thing we're seeing is the bears seem smaller than in the past."
Schers adds that, on the plus side, "we saw a lot of females with cubs this summer, which is very encouraging and could be a good sign of things to come."
There's more to Churchill than polar bears. Our trip includes a bus tour of the town, a visit to Cape Merry National Historic Site, a short dog-sled ride with Wapusk Adventures, visits to the Parks Canada Interpretive Centre and the Eskimo Museum, and a slide show by local wildlife photographer Mike Macri. Churchill is also an excellent place to watch the Northern Lights (best from January to March) and see or snorkel with 3,000 beluga whales (mid-June to mid- August).
NEED TO KNOW
Frontiers North Adventures tours start at $1,500 (single-day trip including flight from Winnipeg, transfers and tundra buggy adventure) and go all the way up to $12,000 for an eight-day all-inclusive trip that includes overnight stays in the Tundra Buggy Lodge. For more, contact frontiersnorth.com or 1-800-663-9832. Other useful websites include everythingaboutchurchill.com and TravelManitoba.com.