We were supposed to be quiet while opening the windows so that we wouldnt startle the bears, but the excitement inside the Tundra Buggy was too much to be contained. Everyone on my buggy polar bear scientists, conservationists and media had seen polar bears in the wild before. Some on this tour had been studying bears for decades, having climbed into maternal dens for research and taken blood samples from tranquilized bears.
But there we were, slamming our school bus-style windows down so we could train our cameras on a mom and cub. For me, this was my first cub sighting, and the little bruin did not disappoint. It cuddled with mom before rambling off a short distance to jump up and down on a frozen pond. After breaking through the ice, the cub grabbed a shard and sucked on it as if it was a lollipop. Then it was back to mom for a reassuring snuggle.
This was my third fall on the tundra near Churchill, Manitoba, the Polar Bear Capital of the World. As a volunteer for Polar Bears International, I have traveled into the Great White North three times. It was, however, my first visit during bear season.
Every November, hundreds of polar bears gather along the shores of the Western Hudson Bay to wait for sea ice to form. After months of fasting, these bears are ready to get out on the ice to hunt seals, the mainstay of their diet. When the ice melts in the summer, they are forced ashore to spend the next few months in a state known as walking hibernation. They live off their fat reserves until the sea ice forms again.
November also sees the tourist migration. Like the bears, we camera-toting folks gather in Churchill, hoping to commune with the ice bear before it heads to its hunting ground.
Polar Bears International volunteers do a little of everything while in Churchill. I helped with meal cleanup, drove scientists to the airport and filled in wherever I could. I also interviewed scientists and locals for content I could use later in my position as social media manager for Polar Bear International. I posted updates and highlights on the organizations webpage, Facebook page and other social media outlets. And I took lots of photos.
Each day, Frontiers North Adventures fills its Tundra Buggies with polar bear enthusiasts hoping to look into the eyes of a bear, or at least get a great photo to show their friends and family back home.
The first time I saw a polar bear, I was glad to be about 12 feet off the ground in the Tundra Buggy. That put me a little higher than a bear can reach, even if its standing up on its back legs. Behind us, the sun was setting in bright reds, pinks and oranges, lighting up the tundra. It was October and the willows and lichens glowed gold, red and umber. Someone spotted a single bear hanging out in a kelp bed up ahead. Slowly, it stood up and walked over to us, curious to see what we were up to.
The bear circled the buggy, and we followed the bear, sticking our cameras out whichever window it was nearest. Then, as we gathered on the back deck, the bear stood up and sniffed us. Just a couple feet of air between me and a polar bear.
That night, and the next three, I stayed at the Tundra Buggy Lodge, a train car-style lodge in the middle of the tundra. From the dining room, I watched polar bears chomping kelp and sleeping. One young bear kept walking over to the lodge to check us out.
Most days, I hopped on a Tundra Buggy and explored the subarctic, spotting bears, arctic foxes, arctic hares, ptarmigan and even a seal out in the bay. The buggy drivers are all naturalists whose knowledge of natural and cultural history brought deeper meaning to my trip.
On what came to be known as the cub day, we left Churchill in the morning and almost immediately spotted a bear. Then another bear and another. It wasnt long before we saw the first playful, ice-eating cub with its mother.
Throughout the day we watched four mothers and five cubs. It seemed cubs were everywhere we looked. They pounced on mom, one investigated the buggy, another nursed while its mom reclined on her haunches.
Seeing the closeness and protectiveness of the mothers made me miss my own cubs back in Montana, but I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I would never forget. The bear experts among us admitted that it was one of the most prolific cub days in their careers.
I remembered flying into Churchill from Winnipeg there arent any roads to the 1,000-person town, so flying or taking the train are the only ways to get there. From the air, the gray and white tundra looks deceptively flat. The boreal forest appears as lichens on a rock, and the partially frozen Churchill River winds across the landscape like a white snake. Its not until youre on the ground that this place has any dimension, and you realize the trees and hummocks and pockmarked landscape are the perfect place for polar bears. Or at least it used to be.
While the migration to the shores of the Hudson Bay is part of an age-old pattern, the time on land has increased for polar bears by about a day per year for the last 30 years because of climate change. This most southern population of polar bears is now spending an extra month on shore. For polar bears, shore life means fasting. The bears we saw this year were skinnier than in the past, and while twins used to be the norm for polar bears, more and more moms only have the reserves for a single cub these days.
As the sun started to set, the cubs we had been watching all day start to hunker down with the moms. Curled up together, its was hard to pick two bears out of the pile of yellowish white fur.
We began the slow drive back to Churchill, already reminiscing about what an amazing day we had and how lucky we were to be some of the few to see wild polar bears.
Plan your own polar bear trip
Frontiers North Adventures has more than 25 years of experience in Canadas north. They can plan and book your whole trip, or set you up with a day trip.
The Tundra Inn is a hotel, pub and hostel. The cozy, family-run hotel provides comfortable, spacious accommodations infused with small-town charm. The pub and restaurant serve hearty and wholesome pub-style food with a Canadian-Arctic twist. www.tundrainn.com
While spotting polar bears is the highlight of any Churchill trip, there is more to see and do in this frontier town.
Dave Daily at Wapusk Adventures gives you the lowdown on dog sledding history and Metis culture before sending you out with his sled dogs to run the Ididamile.
The Eskimo Museum has more than 850 high-quality Inuit carvings on permanent display. The exhibits include historic and contemporary sculptures of stone, bone and ivory, as well as archaeological and wildlife specimens.
The Parks Canada/Wapusk National Park visitor center is also a must-see when in Churchill. The small space is packed with natural and cultural history.
Polar Bears International is the worlds leading polar bear conservation group. Their mission is to save polar bears by saving their sea ice habitat. Learn more about polar bears at their website.
This story originally appeared in The Great Falls Tribune, December 12, 2013