In the cooler

The polar bears are wild – but the people are wilder. Well, you’d have to be crazy to put a bear in prison, finds WILLIAM HAM BEVAN in Manitoba

Our driver, Jonathan, killed the engine. On a small mound beyond a patch of willow shrub, two polar bears were padding toward each other – fuzzy, dirty-yellowish shapes converging on the white tundra. Plainly, neither was about to give way. “I think we’ll see some wrestling here,” said David Hatch, our on-board naturalist. A murmur of excitement travelled down the cabin, followed by a rustling of camera bags. Some passengers rushed over to claim a vantage point at a nearside window; others made for the door to the open viewing platform, sending in a blast of icy mid-morning air.

The wrestling ritual was as formalised as sumo. First, the bears paused at a respectful distance, raising their snouts to sniff the air and ducking down, as if to affect a bow; then they inched forward to lightly touch a paw with each other. On some unseen signal, both reared up on their hind legs, launching into a mighty shoulder-to-shoulder clinch, and disengaging to heave and grapple with their powerful forelegs.

Crawling over the plain came two more Tundra Buggies – huge, ungainly vehicles, purpose-built for bear-watching, and resembling the clumsy offspring of an American monster truck and a Portakabin. But we had seen the bears first, and our buggy had bagged the ringside seats, no more than 20 metres from the action. With no small measure of smugness, David began a running commentary. “Those two look like males, and they’re probably brothers. Bears fight for real in the spring, but this is just play-fighting. We think they do it to tone themselves up for hunting… Oh my, there’s another one!”

Sure enough, a third bear was lumbering over the hillock to join in the fun. But the two wrestlers weren’t about to let their sumo ritual degenerate into a bout of all-in tag. The interloper drew close, poking his nose into the melee, only to be pointedly ignored. After a minute of pawing feebly at the combatants, he moped off. The games continued as Nanook No-mates stretched out on the snow nearby, eyeing the pugilists enviously.

In the putative I-Spy Book of Polar Bear Spotting, there are two sights everybody wants to tick off: a play fight between males, and a mother with cubs. That we had seen the first of these within two hours of setting out on the tundra was good hunting indeed. Already, several of the passengers had clicked their way through almost their entire supply of film – inadvisedly so, since more sightings were fairly much guaranteed on a Tundra Buggy tour.

We were just outside the town of Churchill, acknowledged polar-bear capital of the world, at the edge of Hudson Bay. Each October, many hundreds of bears gather here, knowing it is where the first sea ice will start to form. During the summer, the creatures have fasted, losing up to a kilo in body-weight every day. When the sea finally freezes, they are able to venture out onto the ice pack and smash their way into seal dens, gorging themselves torpid on the plentiful prey. The brief hiatus between the lean summer and the first hunt is the only time of year that these normally solitary creatures take on sociable habits, and it’s a spectacle that attracts more than 10,000 visitors to this desolate corner of northern Manitoba each year.

Our two bears soon tired of their sparring and hunkered down for a rest, so Jonathan fired up the engine to go in search of our next quarry. We made for the shoreline, from which the turquoise ice already stretched off toward the horizon in glassy waves. There is something uniquely still and eerie about a frozen sea, as if some greater power has paused the scenery like a video tape: it brought back a childhood recollection of when the BBC globe once stopped turning, giving me nightmares for months. But there was little time to mull on this, as David had spotted another bear, heading straight into our path. This was going to be a closer encounter. “Okay, here’s a big male,” he said. “Still in good shape, even after the summer. Keep the noise down, folks.”

We crept out onto the viewing platform as the bear circled our buggy, regarding its human cargo with a malevolent indifference. When we had been watching the bears play-fighting, there was still a residual “aaah” factor. Now the mood was one of silent awe, punctuated only by shutter-clicks; this was in no way a cute creature. Seen at close quarters, the world’s biggest land carnivore looks every inch the colossal killing machine that it is. When the bear leant up on its hind legs against the buggy, stretching upward with a muzzle full of sharp teeth and paws the size of LP records, it was difficult to connect it in any way with an ad-man’s caricature sitting on top of a glacier mint, or one of Santa’s supporting cast on a Christmas card. The bear’s curiosity was interrupted only when one of the septuagenarian ladies on our buggy forgetfully slammed the door to the onboard lavatory, spooking the bear into a swift retreat.

By the end of the day’s expedition, we had seen more than 20 bears – an exceptional tally. The coach was abuzz as we travelled back from the Tundra Buggy station toward the vast grain elevator that towers over the small town of Churchill. Take away the bears, and this – the Arctic’s last remaining grain terminal – represents the only commercial reason for the town still to exist. At the time, it was loading peas on to a ship bound for Spain, which would be the last of the year to leave before the ice rendered the port un-navigable.

Churchill’s livelihood was not always so brittle. Until the early Seventies, it was dominated by a bustling US military base and rocket-testing range. Although the barracks at Fort Churchill have long since been razed to the ground, the site is still marked by ancient Jeeps rusting on the tundra, and the white golf-ball-like radar tracking stations, now slowly succumbing to a creeping skirt of black mildew. Examples of ribald graffiti remain on the rocks near the airport, thanks to the American soldiers whose posting had given them a very Cold War indeed. I asked David Hatch what the military had thought of sharing their territory with thousands of polar bears. “Their attitude was pretty simplistic,” he said. “One bear – one rug.”

They would never have dreamed that the bears would one day be Churchill’s greatest asset. Yet despite the large number of tourists that invade during the brief bear season, there is still the sense that this is an outpost settlement, a blip on the face of a true wilderness. There is no road to the town, nor within the nearest 350km. The only way to get to Churchill is by air or rail. Choose the latter, and it takes 26 hours to reach any more sizeable settlement.

Many tour itineraries sandwich a day of local sightseeing between two tundra expeditions, but this is more of a scheduling necessity than because there’s anything much to see. Given its location, Churchill couldn’t be anything but plain and utilitarian. There are few distractions, aside from a clutch of souvenir shops, bars and places to eat (of which a few are temperance restaurants that do not serve alcohol – best to ask before ordering your starter).

At the top end of town is the post office – where visitors can get a polar-bear stamp in their passports – and the Eskimo Museum. In a scout-hut sized hall, this contains a ramshackle collection of Inuit knick-knacks, from flensing knives to folk-art carvings, together with the obligatory stuffed polar bear. It was originally established by missionaries, and still retains an air of patrician well-meaning – it is, as Dylan Thomas said of somewhere else, a museum that belongs in a museum.

The evening after the first buggy trip, we returned to the Churchill Motel, an eccentric little place run by a dour Croat with a permafrost scowl. Over a school-dinner of pork chops and mash with optional gravy, David spoke about the town’s ambivalent relations with ursus maritimus. The Manitoba Polar Bear Patrol is entrusted with the crucial task of keeping bears off the streets. By day, any nosing about too close are shot with a tranquilliser dart, and airlifted to the bears’ prison, near the airport. A spell in the cooler discourages them from associating the town with a source of food, and they are eventually released a safe distance away. At night, capture is impossible, and the patrol will try to scare off any intruders with pyrotechnic cracker shells or baton rounds. Only as a last resort will a bear ever be shot dead.

Given that the townsfolk are outnumbered two-to-one by the creatures, it seems little short of miraculous that the last human fatality at the paws of a bear happened as long ago as 1983. The bizarre circumstances of this incident have given local parents an enduring morality tale for their kids. “It happened when this very motel burnt down,” David said. “A local man sneaked up to loot the wreckage, and loaded up his pockets with meat from the deep freeze. Unfortunately, a wandering bear had the same idea, and ended up with something tastier.”

After dinner, I moved on to the lounge bar of the Seaport (“Manitoba’s Northernmost All-Amenity Hotel”, according to my copy of the local Hudson Bay Post) where many of the locals in the hospitality business hang out. Jonathan, the day’s driver, was there, with a few others from the Tundra Buggy operation and its rival outfit, Great White Bear Tours. I earwigged on their shop talk – from sightings of ice-hockey celebrities on the tours, to the fact that a newly built Tundra Buggy had just been delivered with its axle fitted the wrong way round.

Before long, though, conversation soon turned to the elephant in the living room: climate change. Each year, the ice pack outside Churchill forms later in the year, making the bear season shorter. “We need to start getting more publicity for the whale tours in summer to get by,” one veteran buggy driver told me. “We get even more beluga whales in Churchill than we get bears. And we can’t expand the bear operation – we’re right up to capacity. Any more and we’d upset the ecosystem.” At one point, the mayor popped his head in to join in the discussion. “Churchill’s that sort of place,” Jonathan said.

Later still, I found myself talking to a group of young Inuit men – among the most hospitable people I have ever met – and joined them for more beers in the Road House-like bar next door. Churchill is an important staging post for the population of Nunavut, Canada’s newest and northernmost territory, which was handed to the Inuit people in 1999. This group were whooping up their last night before a flight to Winnipeg.

We ended up talking about the polar bear. “We’re allowed to hunt them – Eskimos, that is – but we keep a few licences back so sell to the rich and stupid,” one of the Inuit said. I professed shock – not at the hunting, but at this decidedly un-PC term for his ethnic group. He grinned. “Eskimo is fine by me. It sounds way cooler than Inuit when you go down south.”

I ended up back at their lodgings, being offered cans of Kokanee beer from a snow-block outside, and marijuana from a walrus-ivory pipe. When one of the group fell off the verandah into a snowdrift, it seemed like an appropriate time to say my farewells, and set out for the motel.

The next morning, I felt like the sore-headed bear of common fable, but what I learned over breakfast sobered me up pretty swiftly. At about the time I had been staggering back to my quarters the previous night, a large male polar bear had wandered onto the main street undetected. It had broken in to Gypsy’s Bakery – less than 50 yards up the road – by wrenching an iron grille clean off the back of the store, and helped itself to the treats inside.

Few polar bears were to cross our path on that day’s expedition, though, and to the disappointment of many, our party never did get to see a mother with cubs. But the other fauna we saw more than made up for this. The tundra is home to a profusion of bird life – from the tiny snow buntings that chittered and swooped in front of the buggy, to plump, spotted ptarmigan, stock-still and camouflaged in the low willow bush. Thanks to David Hatch’s eagle-eye, we were also able to pick out arctic hares: big, snowy powder-puffs with black-flecked ears, unmoving except for the hyperactive twitch of their noses.

Most beautiful of all was the arctic fox. We stopped less than 10 yards from one of the creatures, which ignored us totally. With mannerisms that were more feline than fox-like, it would place its ear to the ground to listen for lemmings and mice under the snow, then suddenly crouch and pounce. Watching the bleached-white fox at its hunting was a captivating experience; then, a little later, we saw another, this one whippet-thin, scampering slowly and aimlessly over the open ground. “One of this year’s cubs,” David said. “Many of the foxes were born late this year, because of the weather, and it’s happening more and more. I don’t think this one will see out the winter.”

And unfortunately, it takes that sort of example to drive home the gravity of what’s happening here. Climate change means that on average, the polar bears are now more than 10 per cent thinner than they were just a decade ago, as the sea ice disappears; but to a tourist on the back of a tundra buggy, they’re still pretty damned impressive. It’s difficult to think of such a creature as vulnerable, yet according to recent research, the bears’ decline is so serious that they could be extinct in the wild within 100 years. A body blow for Churchill, perhaps; but humans can adapt, as the town has shown before. There may not be such luck for the other residents of the tundra.


Sunday Times Travel Magazine


December 2005