The polar bear problem, Canada, The Scotsman
From my vantage point in the twin prop plane above Hudson Bay, I see an epidemic of polar bear fever as big as the Arctic Circle itself. Dozens of cream-coloured bears are returning to their winter home on the bay, grasping for kelp on the seashore with paws the size of baseball mitts.
It is only a fleeting glimpse, but the view from my frozen porthole captures the polar bear’s northern migration in all its serene, timeless beauty.
I had heard about Churchill’s great polar bear migration for years, and I had always dreamed of travelling to the Canadian sub-Arctic, but nothing had prepared me for its epic scale. The skies were vast, the sunsets evangelical and the remote wilderness was nothing short of inspiring. Abounding with natural marvels and largely untouched by human ambition, it struck me as a land of endless prospect. This was the wild Canada I had always imagined since first visiting Edinburgh Zoo’s resident polar bear Mercedes as a child.
Every October, the town of Churchill and the surrounding Wapusk National Park – roughly the same size as Belgium – is invaded by wandering bears making their way to the Hudson Bay as it freezes over. It’s a unique kind of problem to have, but this northern outpost of Manitoba is a rather unique sort of place: human population 923; polar bear population, more than 1,000.
As soon as enough sea ice has formed, they march in hypnotic procession across the ice shelf hunting for seals, which bask in the icy waters further north. When spring returns, the bears return to the mainland to den down for the warmer summer months – but for now, this sub-arctic outpost is the kingdom of the ice bear. And as I fly in, the polar bears are still awaiting the big freeze.
Only moments from Churchill airport, with temperatures nudging minus 15, tour guide and local resident Paul Ratson introduces the town’s most famous building: the polar bear jail. From under his ice frozen beard and whiskers, which bristle as he huffs and puffs through the cold, Paul looks like a cross between a frost-bitten walrus and one of the Hairy Bikers. “The polar bear jail came into being to control the number of nuisance bears wandering through town,” he tells me. He is wrapped up like a human igloo, a walking wardrobe of polar fleeces and parka jackets. “There are only 29 cells but in jail right now there are 22 or 23 bears. It’s getting kind of busy.”
As the largest carnivore on land, it is an almighty Yogi Bear-sized problem: male polar bears weigh up to 700 kilos, can jab faster than Mohammed Ali and run up to 50kmph; the same speed as a Range Rover deep in the Arctic snows. It also costs $2,000 every time a bear needs to be sedated and flown out of town by helicopter. “It’s much more cost effective keeping them under lock and key, because it’s not Disneyland out there,” grins Paul. “They are dangerous creatures that do not differentiate between people and young cubs for food. But these are the bare necessities of the tundra.” I swear he has used this line before.
After check in at the aptly named Tundra Lodge, I join my group tour in the company of blonde polar bear expert Hayley Shephard. Working for Frontiers North, Canada’s premier adventure tour operator, I know I am safe from any anti-social bear with an ASBO. A pioneer of wildlife trips to Greenland, Norway and the Northwest Passages, Hayley has studied her maps and planned out a two day eco-tracking mission. Of course, once in a lifetime adventures like this bring out only the finest in society: on board with me is a real estate director, a London barrister and a misguided philanthropist who will keep asking where the penguins are.
Beyond the town’s outskirts, it remains a hostile environment. Despite nomadic Arctic and Inuit tribes having lived and hunted in Northern Manitoba for 4,000 years, it wasn’t until 1717 when the Hudson Bay Company built Churchill’s first permanent settlement – a lonely log fort and trading post – to capitalise on the North American fur trade. Today, however, Churchill remains as remote an outpost as it ever was: there are still no roads in or out.
Coloured by these thoughts, I climb aboard the Frontiers North tundra buggy – engineered as a cross between a Soviet tank and a NASA moon explorer – and head out into the void. Out on the tundra plateau, the willow bushes dusted in fresh powder look like the bleached skeletons of small animals. It is harsh and wild but immensely beautiful. There is a solitary grazing caribou – either lost or anti-social – and the scuttling shadows of arctic foxes and arctic hares. “On the sub-Arctic, where the land is frozen below us, a footprint or a vehicle track will last forever,” says Hayley. She peers through her binoculars, glassy-eyed and focused, turning from side to side. Then she gasps: “Polar bear at one o’clock.”
After an hour of searching, our quarry lies on the coastal road of the Hudson Bay shore –scratching its belly as though it had just eaten a five course meal from The Balmoral. He gracefully turns to watch our approach, raises his snout to the wind, inhales deeply, and makes a bear line straight for us. My heart skips a beat.
From the open-top rear-section of the buggy, the polar bear eye-balls the group from afar. Then through childlike curiosity, plods forward to meet us head on. It may be the world’s largest land carnivore but as I stand almost nose to nose with an inquisitive oncoming polar bear, I feel oddly at ease. Within seconds, a second smudged white bear appears on the horizon but this time two baby cubs are in tow. And then there is another. Momentarily, we are surrounded by nosey bears. “This is the only type of guiding I ever do when my guests never ask me, can we not get a little closer?” giggles Hayley. My chapped lips break into a once in a lifetime smile.
As evening falls, the tundra feels so silent that it beats in my ears. Be it the slicks of chalk-marked tundra, the violent orange of the horizon or the boreal forests, Churchill has shown nature at its grandest. If there was a soundtrack it would be a lulling, hypnotic blend of muted trumpets and Pachelbel’s Canon. Better still, I know this is only the tip of my proverbial iceberg: for tomorrow, the tour continues, and I will rise with a salmon pink sun at my back and go polar bear tracking once more.