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I'm reading the latest research report about polar bears in the lounge at the Tundra Buggy Lodge when—whump—the whole room shakes. I put down my hot cocoa. Whump. I put down my reading material as the sound reverberates. Getting to my feet, I go to open the window across the room and look down. Just five feet below, a 700-pound polar is standing on its hind legs, staring up at me. It sniffs the air, black nose twitching as its massive white neck cranes up. One twist of those jaws and my head will be yesterday's news. After our moment of mutual contemplation, I feel cold and close the window; the bear continues to stand his ground, considering what to do next.
At this hotel there's nothing unusual about having a few dozen giant bears sniffing around. After all, the Tundra Buggy Lodge isn't your average resort; it's not even a building. It's a strung-together train of sleeping, dining, and lounge rooms mounted on huge tires five feet in diameter, parked on the coast of Hudson Bay near Churchill, Manitoba. For two months each year, this otherwise undistinguished stretch of tundra becomes polar bear central, a hub for the world's largest land predators and the people who love them.
My fellow travelers—a mix of wealthy American retirees and obsessed polar bear enthusiasts—and I have journeyed here to witness the remarkable convergence for ourselves. Forty years ago any bears coming in contact with humans would have been summarily shot, skinned, and nailed to the wall. Now the government spends hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to sedate them, put them in a polar bear prison, and chopper them out. This dramatic change in approach and attitude has a lot to do with economics, as is often the case. Today polar bears are Churchill's main source of revenue, luring thousands of tourists annually to an unremarkable little town in the middle of nowhere. Whether that's entirely a good thing—for people or for the bears—is another matter. So during my weeklong excursion, I tried to answer the lingering question Can man and bear find happiness together on a patch of frozen nothingness? Or is one subarctic town just too small for the both of us?
Getting to Churchill is no problem at all—if you're a polar bear. More than a thousand of them spend the summer hiding out on the western shore of the bay. Though they are formidable killing machines, weighing up to 1,500 pounds and capable of speeds of nearly 25 miles an hour, evolution has tuned them to subsist on a diet of mostly seals caught in or near sea ice. For four months a year they wait ashore, eating almost nothing. In mid-October temperatures start to drop and the bears begin their migration to the sea, congregating in the vicinity of Churchill, where the sea ice forms relatively early. By late November, when the ice has hardened enough to carry their weight, the ravenous polars set out to feed.
For people, getting here is a bit more difficult. From New York I have to connect through Toronto to Winnipeg, where I spend the night and board a charter flight at dawn the next day. We fly due north for three hours, the vast grid of farmland gradually giving way to a mixture of forest and field, and then to an endless wilderness punctuated by rivers and lakes. As if someone has turned up the contrast on a TV screen, the landscape suddenly becomes dusted in white. The forest turns to taiga and soon to a frozen expanse of tundra that stretches to the horizon. We're in a different world, as strange and forbidding as a distant planet. We begin our descent into Churchill and the pilot announces the temperature on the ground: 15 degrees below Celsius, or 5 degrees Fahrenheit. A little warm for this time of year.
I'm traveling with a party organized by Frontiers North Adventures, the largest and oldest operator of tours into Churchill, having run trips here since 1987. The company is famous for its Tundra Buggies, a fleet of vehicles specially designed for viewing the bears. As this is a photography-oriented tour, our guide is Robert Taylor, an accomplished naturalist who's also a photographer and author of one of the finest books on the Churchill bears, The Edge of the Arctic. An affable and understated man, Taylor seems as thrilled by the prospect of seeing polar bears as we are. "I can't wait to get out there and have a look," he says. "Polar bears are so fascinating. Even when they're sleeping, there's something that draws you to them."
I spend that first night at the town's best hotel, the Tundra Inn, a cozy, simply furnished establishment centrally located amid the half-dozen streets that make up downtown. The next morning the mood is euphoric as we drive east to the Tundra Buggy depot—a modest affair consisting of a raised platform of sturdy planks alongside which sits a row of buggies. The vehicles, which can each carry 18 to 40 passengers, resemble large white containers with oversize wheels and a back porch for open-air viewing. Once we're inside, our driver gives us a brief safety lecture and off we go, lumbering over the tundra on our big, bouncy tires.
It takes us all of three minutes before we see our first bear, a big male sprawled on his back in a snowbank, appearing like a giant mogul on a ski run. We stop a few yards away, the cameras click and whir amid oohs and aahs, "Amazing!" and "Can you believe it?" We drive a hundred yards to the next bear, which is slumped on its belly, and the one after that is a young male ambling across a frozen pond.
No matter how many bears we stare at, seeing them up close remains an electrifying experience. This is not your typical tourist attraction. You're immersed in the realm of the polar bear. The size and power of these great whites makes them gripping to watch. Yet there is also something graceful, almost delicate about their sleek form. Indeed, some visitors become so entranced by the beauty of these predators that they forget their relative position on the food chain. "I had a couple from Germany," says one operator, "that complained after the tour because their guide wouldn't let them leave the buggy to pet the bears. At first I thought they were joking, but they really were mad. They wanted to touch the bears because they looked so gentle."
For a moment it feels as if we're all alone with the giant animals, communing with them one-on-one. Here we are, on some of the planet's most inhospitable terrain, practically eye to eye with its largest land predator—yet we're as comfortable as we would be among our closest friends. Then another buggy pulls alongside us. And another. More visitors press against the windows and squeeze together on the rear deck, videotaping and taking photos. There must be 50 of us gawking at a pair of bears, reminding me that for all the polars the area draws, it attracts far more people.
Twenty-six years ago the picture was completely different. In 1979 an enterprising Churchill rental-car operator named Len Smith built the first Tundra Buggy. Some visiting National Geographic photographers used it and loved it. The word spread. The next season 20 tourists showed up. Though Smith agreed to take them around the tundra for five days, he was sure they would be bored to death. "I thought by the fifth day they would be ready to shoot me," he says. "But it wasn't like that at all. One couple has come back every year for twenty-five years."
Interest surged faster than Smith could build buggies. Today nearly 13,000 people visit Churchill during polar bear season, contributing some $24 million ($30 million Canadian) to the local economy. Without this attraction, the town might not even exist. During World War II, Churchill was a major way station for aircraft being ferried from the United States' West Coast to Europe, and after the war it housed a U.S.-Canadian army base and rocketry range. Once the military pulled out in the early seventies, the population dwindled from 6,000 people to about 800. Now tourism is its raison d'être. "I don't know where we would be without it," Smith says.
The boom in polar bear expeditions has had both positive and negative effects on the animals. The bears are rarely shot to death these days, but the preponderance of the Tundra Buggies may inflict enough stress on them to reduce their survival rate. "When vehicles are around," explains researcher Markus Dyck, "bears spend more time being active and vigilant, which makes them burn energy unnecessarily. That won't cause them to die right there on the spot, but these animals already have a lot of stress, so any tiny additional factor could bring the whole barrel to a spill."
The solution, according to Dyck, is for buggy drivers to avoid causing excess commotion. Happily, many are doing just that. "A lot of drivers have already changed their attitude," he reports. In fact, I was struck by how assiduously our Tundra Buggy crew avoided disturbing the bears.
If tourism has been a mixed bag for the bears, it has been so for Churchill as well. Though visitors may keep it afloat, you can't exactly say the town is thriving. It has that battered, dusty feel that Arctic locations often do—the elements take their toll and things don't get thrown out, they get fixed. The town sits about a hundred yards from the waterfront, and while the waves crashing on the icy shore make for a chillingly lovely sight, none of the buildings overlook it. Warning signs marked Polar Bear Alley line the waterfront, discouraging people from roaming the area, which I learn is an important migration route for bears trekking up and down the coast. As our bus driver observes, "You can walk from one end of town to the other in six to nine minutes, or, if a bear is chasing you, two to four minutes."
Locals use such humor to soothe nervous visitors and sometimes to deal with the reality of their own potentially homicidal neighbors. "From kindergarten," explains 25-year resident Joan Brauner, "kids are taught never to make a sharp turn around a corner outdoors because the worst thing you can do is startle a bear. Everyone knows you must kick your door before opening it, then look around before walking through. The number-one rule: Always walk with someone slower than you."
My second day in town I'm awakened in my hotel room at 4 a.m. by a series of sharp reports somewhere outside my window. They turn out to be small explosives set off by the city's bear patrol. Having lots of bears out on the tundra is great for tourism, but when the animals start to wander through the neighborhoods, it's bad for humans and bears alike.
That day the Natural Resources department captures three bears on the outskirts of town and flies them by helicopter to a remote site 40 miles north. "Simply because of Churchill's location," says Richard Romaniuk, head of the Polar Bear Alert program, "bears are always going to be coming through. We try to scare them away, but if that doesn't work we have to trap them or tranquilize them. We handled one hundred seventy-six bears last year and only lost one, who didn't wake up from the drug. We think that's a pretty good ratio."
Heading back to the tundra for my last day with the bears, I'm thankful I've chosen to spend my nights at a hotel in town instead of out at the Tundra Buggy Lodge, which tends to leave you a bit isolated. Undoubtedly, the lodge would have provided a uniquely intense way of experiencing the polars. Yet coming back to Churchill at the end of each day gives you a chance to savor the human side of it all. I love the town's small but well-organized museum, which includes displays of Arctic wildlife and native Inuit culture. And I have particularly enjoyed rubbing elbows with the locals at the diner every morning. By taking some personal initiative, I've been able to make the trip my own.
As we roam the tundra that day we find bears everywhere, some solo, others in groups. When not sprawled in a sheltered spot, they play, spar, or sniff at the Tundra Buggies, sometimes standing with their paws against the vehicles, straining upward as if to rub noses with the humans inside. The afternoon wears on and the sun breaks through the low overcast, painting the expanse of snow and shrub and glacial scree with a golden light. We head back to the depot and Taylor is ecstatic: We've seen more than 50 bears. "This is my best day of observing bears in twenty years," he says.
On the Tuesday after I leave, the Bear Control department reports that some 60 bears have gathered within a few hundred yards of the Tundra Buggy Lodge. That night a blizzard blows in, the windchill drops to 20 below, and the sea ice freezes half a mile out into the bay. One by one the bears wander off onto the ice, ready to hunt. Within two weeks they will all be gone, the buggies will have been driven off to their winter quarters, and the only sound on the tundra will be the howling of the wind over the drifting snow. But the bears will remember this place and they will come back. And so will the people.
JEFF WISE SPECIALIZES IN ADVENTURE TRAVEL AND AVIATION.
Polar bears, or Ursus maritimus, are ideally suited for the Arctic terrain north of Churchill, where temperatures routinely fall well below freezing. A four-inch layer of blubber insulates their bodies, in addition to a thick blanket of fur. Though it appears to be white, the fur is pigment-free. Its hollow core scatters and reflects light like snow, helping camouflage the bears as they stalk seals at airholes in the ice. Their skin is pitch-black to absorb heat from the sun, and their immense paws measure a foot wide and are covered with soft bumps called papillae that help them grip the ice. The partially webbed front paws distribute their weight and act as efficient paddles in the chilly water. A polar can swim more than 60 miles without stopping (their buoyant blubber helps keep them afloat) at a rate of six miles per hour. On land they can sprint at speeds of 25 miles an hour—but only for short distances before overheating. On average polar bears plod along at about three miles an hour.
—DANIELLE K. JOHNSON
GETTING UP CLOSE
If you want to experience polar bears one-on-one, you have just a small window in which to do it, since the animals only congregate on the edge of Hudson Bay for a few weeks in fall. Frontiers North Adventures offers two types of Tundra Buggy excursions in Churchill, Manitoba, from mid-October to mid-November. Hard-core conservationists will prefer the Specialist tour ($4,395 per person to sleep on the buggy; $3,895 to stay in a Churchill hotel), with its impressive roster of guides: a naturalist with a biology degree who works for the Manitoba conservation society and three professional wildlife photographers. Those interested in both seeing bears and glimpsing the area's history should opt for the Enthusiast tour ($4,075 and $2,770, respectively, including tickets to the Eskimo Museum and a dog-sledding trip). Though knowledgeable, enthusiast guides are not as pedigreed as the specialists; they're mostly outdoor lovers and retired science teachers. All tours include a night in Winnipeg and round-trip flights to Churchill. $ 800-663-9832; www.tundrabuggy.com