Their plight has made polar bears the symbol of global warming. Head to the polar bear capital of the world, Churchill in Canada, to see them while you still can
Steve was taking no chances. Standing by our muddy tour bus, clutching his rifle tightly, he surveyed the bleak landscape as we cooed over an Arctic hare lazing in the willow. Having led wildlife enthusiasts up here to the town of Churchill in northern Manitoba for 20 years now, he knows better than most the risks of wandering in polar bear country. A bear, he says, could come out of nowhere. And they often do. Come October these endangered animals congregate around Churchill and look out towards the vast Hudson Bay, waiting for it to freeze over, allowing them to hunt for seals once again.
But with the earth’s temperature rising and the ice melting at a faster rate every year, the bears face longer periods without a meal. Having not eaten for months, and desperately hungry, some bears wander into Churchill, scavenging through bins for food – not what you’d expect to see when you take the rubbish out.
The resilient locals have gone to great means to protect themselves from their carnivorous co-inhabitants. A dedicated patrol team is always on call and a polar bear jail has been built to house troublesome bears that keep coming to town. Those incarcerated will be marked and eventually airlifted a substantial distance and left on the tundra.
Despite the measures taken, strolling around Churchill – which is only accessible by plane or train - still requires care. “Remember not to turn a corner without looking first,” Steve told us gravely as we prepared to brace the cold for the short walk to Gypsy’s Bakery, home of the best service - and cakes - in town.
Of course, one does not travel to such a remote and obscure place for cake. No, it’s the bears that attract the crowds. A 4x4 won’t cut it here. Bear viewings take place on tundra buggies, monster vehicles that lurch across the tundra surface on their five-foot tall tyres. Each buggy comes with an open-air viewing platform at the back, but you’re still at a safe distance, even when the bears jump up on their hind legs and lean against the vehicle. Something they often do.
Although the bears roam the tundra freely, spotting one can take time. The landscape was surprisingly devoid of snow, leaving the flat vista covered with dark brown kelp and purple willow. Our eyes started to play tricks on us, possibly out of desperation. “Look, look! What’s that in the water?” asked one excitable, and possibly shortsighted, lady, who waved her arms towards the grey waves of the bay. “A rock,” replied Steve, dryly.
Mistaken identities aside – one of which actually involved a carrier bag – we were soon engaging in a stare-off with a bear. A monster of a bear. Nestled amongst a thick brown mound of kelp sat his gleaming white body, his heavy head resting on his thick paws. We rushed out to the viewing deck and huddled together like penguins against the howling wind. The bear was not remotely interested in us nor was he interested in stretching his legs for the purpose of a good photo, so we stood and admired him silently. He sniffed the air, sending a trail of vapour from his jet-black nose.
There were more bears to be seen in the days that followed. A mum and two mischievous cubs came by rather closely, sniffing the tyres of the tundra buggy parked in front before moving off towards the bay. Another busied himself by rolling in the earth beside us. The days were long and tiring, but sitting in the warmth of Gypsy’s - coffee and cake in hand - left us all feeling rather moved by these impressive creatures and their plight for survival.
Tour operator: Bales Worldwide
Airline: Air Canada flies from London to Winnipeg via Toronto. From there a transfer to Churchill is available from Calm Air.