Manitoba: Bear witness

This remote corner of Canada is known as the world's polar bear capital. In October, they gather in their hundreds on the sea ice to hunt and chances of spotting them become near guaranteedTuesday, May 14, 2019

By Sarah Barrell
Polar bear investigating a Tundra Buggy in Churchill

The jaw closes, swallowing our driver Neil’s head whole. The mandible is massive, dwarfing not just Neil’s head but his neck and shoulders too, but all I can focus on is the beast’s enormous nasal cavity: a pit-like depth recalling that of a colossal prehistoric predator. “Now I know what a seal feels like,” laughs Neil from inside the skull. “He’s not wrong,” says our resident scientist, Melanie Hout. “Hunting bears clamp down over a seal’s breathing hole in the ice, trapping its head. And… well we know who wins there.”

We’re glad Melanie is with us in the Tundra Buggy. Outside the enormous all-terrain vehicle, sleet is whipping across Northern Manitoba’s flat tundra wilderness. Melanie is a volunteer scientist from conservation organisation Polar Bears International. A welcome distraction, her demos are accompanied by fascinating ursine facts that paint a rich picture of what, we hope, is to come. Sightings are near-guaranteed on the Hudson Bay’s shores in October, when the nomadic beasts gather in their hundreds, waiting for sea ice to form so they can step out across the frozen bay to hunt.

Wildlife tourism — boosted by huge numbers of polar bear sightings in recent years — has put this outpost in the far north of Manitoba firmly on the map. Its fur trade heritage and remote location (access is by air, rail or sea only) make for an absorbing frontier town vibe. Roads peter out in the boggy tundra just beyond the centre. With nowhere to go, car theft is pointless, so residents leave vehicles unlocked, providing useful refuges from a charging polar bear. Although the chances of that happening are greatly diminished now the town’s rubbish dump has been replaced with a secured facility.

“The sleepy young male is momentarily revealed, coal-black eyes blinking into the wind”

It’s on the tundra that the real action happens. For tourists with deep pockets, overnight stays in the Tundra Buggy Lodge offer the chance to spot bears from the comfort of your own bed. Alternatively, all-terrain, low-impact Tundra Buggies, like the one Frontiers North Adventures has taken us out in, make bumpy progress across the ice in pursuit of bears.

Being out here in a blizzard is no joke, but our patience is soon rewarded when Neil notices that one of the tundra’s unhelpfully bear-shaped boulders is, in fact, a bear. The sleepy young male is momentarily revealed, coal-black eyes blinking into the wind. His nose comically rotates, tracking a scent that could be up to 20 miles away, before he returns to his stone-like doze. Soon the sightings come thick and fast, and we spend a mesmerising hour watching another young male clawing and licking at piles of nutrient-rich kelp. He’s only 30 feet away, his garden-rake-sized claws a chilling spectacle.

Later, in a scene that draws a collective ‘awwwww’, we watch as a rag-tag group of juveniles scratch and sniff along the shore of a frozen lake; one female stops to make perfect teddy bear rolls in a patch of heather. It’s hard not be taken by the bears’ puppy dog charms. But then one moves — fast — reaching our vehicle’s viewing platform before there’s even time to adjust my camera’s focus. He rears up, paws thudding onto the buggy, epic nasal cavities at work, sniffing me out; his oil-black eyes fixed on mine. “Buggy love,” says Neil on seeing my dumbstruck expression. It’s a goofy look I’m to wear for days to come.

Did you know?

The world’s largest land carnivore, an adult male polar bear can weigh up to 2,000lbs. Their fur is translucent, and only appears white because it reflects the light. Beneath the fur, their skin is actually jet black.

The Churchill Wildlife Management Area covers 3,280sq miles, all of which is protected boreal terrain just outside town. From June to November, the subpopulation of polar bears around Churchill sometimes forage for food on land, leading to an increase in conflicts with humans. Fortunately, in Churchill, the few bears that do make pests of themselves (usually juveniles) are sedated, quarantined in the Polar Bear Holding Facility, then helicoptered back onto the tundra to be released.

Polar bears live in territories that ring the Arctic Circle: Canada, Russia, Alaska, Greenland and Norway.

How to do it

The five-day Churchill Town & Tundra Adventurer tour costs CAD$3,249 (£1,905) per person including accommodation in Winnipeg, flights to Churchill, accommodation, transfers, activities and meals (international flights extra).  frontiersnorth.com

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