Stare into the eyes of a wild polar bear. It’s awe-inspiring. Also, it’s eerie — as if you’re gazing at the Ghost of Arctic Future.
Traversing the windswept tundra, it’s mid-November, and I’m marking Earth’s hottest year on record with a visit to see Ursus maritimus, the King of the Arctic — a threatened species whose survival depends upon an annual freeze-up. NASA and NOAA have declared 2016’s planetary surface temperature the warmest since modern accounting began in 1880 — the third year in a row to set a new high.
With about 10,000 translucent hollow hairs growing out of every square inch of black skin, polar bears aren’t big fans of a warming trend. It’s chilly enough for me to bundle up in gloves, a hat, Sorels and a down coat, but not freezing enough for sea ice. The bears’ layers of fur stand out in creamy contrast against the tundra’s dusting of white snow. My eyes quickly attune to finding their stately presence.
This polar bear expedition with Natural Habitat Adventures is based in Churchill, population 800, a remote and quirky Canadian outpost near Wapusk National Park, at the boundary between Manitoba and the Inuit territory of Nunavut. There’s nothing fancy about the place, but it’s clean and hospitable and they have Gypsy’s, a bakery that makes killer fresh rhubarb pie from a local greenhouse.
About 1,000 bears regularly travel through this narrow passage on the western shore of Hudson Bay. This is peak season for them to funnel toward the sea ice, earning Churchill the reputation as “polar bear capital of the world.” But I find myself equally lured by stories of the warm summer here, when upwards of 3,000 friendly migrating beluga whales let snorkelers, kayakers and paddle boarders mingle among their congregation at the mouth of the mighty Churchill River. Fur traders set up camp here for the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1717, but the town is still inaccessible by road 300 years later.
A thousand pounds of fat and muscle ripple with every lumbering, pigeon-toed step a bear makes, but by late fall, their fierce physique is increasingly lean muscle. Polar bears are lipovores, hunting meat expressly for the purpose of devouring the fat. Eat the ringed and bearded seal blubber; leave the protein for a snow-white arctic fox on your trail.
The bears are anxious for ice to form. They’re hungry for winter’s seal-fattening feast — starving if the ice doesn’t float in.
In the tradition of a safari, I spend days riding around in a six-tire monster truck with a polar bear bobblehead jiggling on the dash. My brain fills with intrigue about bear science and Arctic studies while my eyes devour the tundra. Access here is limited by strict permits. We humans are few. Polar bears are popping up constantly, along with snowy white arctic hare and ptarmigan. Exceeding the nine-foot stretch of a curious bear, I’m perched just above the grasp of paws as big as dinner plates and claws longer than a human finger.
This is technically the subarctic, a distinct coastal transition zone between the boreal forest and the Arctic tundra. Without sea ice, the bears have yet to move off land. We watch them prowl the tundra and an intertidal zone laden with orange lichen-covered boulders and piles of blood-red kelp.
I watch mama bears roam the shore with their cubs. Fat bears loll about, belly-up, in the mineral-rich kelp. Large males nap on frozen puddles, blending into the willows as “polar boulders” if you fail to keep a keen eye. Sometimes, a curious bear ambles up to our rover. One lies down in front of a tire. Another slow walks around the vehicle. A third wanders over to our back deck, where I stare down directly into his eyes.
The encounter takes my breath away.
An evening mesmerizes me with long, fluttering slashes of green aurora borealis melting out of the sky. It’s another special kind of magic. Everything in this wilderness is new to me.
In town, my small group mingles with locals, talks business with families who run trap lines and absorbs lore from mushers who run the brutal Hudson Bay Quest, a 220-mile dog sled race that traces the history of the fur trade. We get curling lessons and laugh ourselves silly sliding across the ice — an indoor activity safe from prowling polar bears.
We are amazed by intricate Inuit miniatures carved in whalebone, soapstone and caribou antlers at the Itsanitaq Museum. We meet a lively Métis woman who sculpts small polar bears and other Arctic scenes out of caribou hair — a traditional art called tufting. A few lucky souls head up in a helicopter to soar farther afield, watching over sparring Ursus.
For a week, I linger in awe. It’s impossible not to ponder the bears’ plight and this cinematic expanse they call home. I long to bring my nieces and nephews up here for an eye-to-eye encounter with the king of the frozen North. The bears are mighty. The terrain is both delicate and ferocious. And if you are fortunate enough to peer into their fierce and wild eyes, it’s impossible to look away from the perils of a changing climate or doubt the wonders of Mother Nature.