Walking with polar bears in Canada

Come summer, Canada’s polar bears get playful. Skip the bus tour, sign up to walk with the white giants, and you’ll get close enough to gatecrash, says James Draven

‘Pop,’ splutters the feeble report from guide Andy MacPherson’s pistol. I was hoping for something a little more dramatic: we’re standing not 20m from a 250kg polar bear (yes, 250kg). Her head down, eyes fixed on mine, she’s in a predatory trance as she lifts her muzzle and sniffs the air for my scent. Such a scene may be what my mother feared, when I told her I was going to subarctic Canada to walk with polar bears. Family and friends kept repeating the word ‘walk’ back at me with incredulity.

Andy pulls the trigger twice more with similarly pitiful results: ‘Pop-pop.’ The minor commotion is not enough to deter a curious bear, but at least it’s drawn focus away from me: Andy has valiantly put himself on the menu. It’s only now though, as he regards his gun with a disdainful glower, that I realise there’s something wrong with his ammunition: he’s fired three duds in a row. Terrible timing for a weapon to malfunction. 

With remarkable sang-froid, he smoothly reloads his gun from a fresh box of rounds, while our taciturn, indigenous Cree guide, Albert ‘Butch’ Saunders, silently surveys the scene, the very definition of composure. I calm myself with the thought that Churchill Wild, my tour operator, has been organising polar-bear walking safaris for 22 years without incident. This is the first time in more than five years that Andy, veteran guide, has even needed to fire a banger deterrent from his starter pistol. Perhaps his ammo, having sat idle for so long in his pocket, has passed its sell-by date…

Canada, Nunavut Territory, Repulse Bay, Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) walking along shoreline past icebergs by Hudson Bay near Ar
Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) walking along shoreline past icebergs by Hudson Bay 

It’s been a long journey to reach the shores of Lake Hudson. Nanuk Lodge, our cosy wilderness retreat in northern Manitoba, is remote. I’ve taken four flights, going via Toronto and Winnipeg, stopping over at the end of the third leg for a night in Churchill, Canada’s famous polar-bear town, where the crack of special shotgun shells, designed to scare off inquisitive bears, can be heard in the streets at night. They’re such frequent visitors to town that Churchill even has a team of ‘bear cops’, the conservation officers of the Polar Bear Alert Program, and the world’s only polar-bear holding facility — locals call it ‘bear jail’. For most tourists this is the end of the line, and many flock here for vehicle-based polar bear tours each winter. But my journey doesn’t end here. I’ve gone one step further to meet these iconic animals on their own turf: in the height of summer, the green shores of Hudson Bay are so busy with the giants, it’s known as ‘the polar-bear waiting room’.

Hungry bears 

So, on the fourth and final stage of my journey, I fly out of Churchill and over Wapusk National Park down to Nanuk Lodge, in one of the tiny tin-can propeller planes that ply this route. The vast expanse of grassland green and samphire reds below contrasts with the blues and turquoise of Hudson Bay. Beluga whales splash in the water, while caribous and wolves roam the plains. This sunny, frost-free scene is not the kind of place you expect to see polar bears, but see them you do: bright-white against the verdant spread of nature, hundreds can be spotted dozing. You can’t miss them.

It’s not the only reason to be here in August. Sure, come winter, this polychromatic panorama transforms into snow-bleached tundra, and the azure bay freezes over.

It’s then that — after a long summer stranded on land — thousands of hungry polar bears finally step out onto the ice shelf over the water to hunt seals, and gorge themselves on blubber. This is when most tourists arrive in their droves. But what visitors don’t appreciate is that bears are at their most aggressive and elusive at this time of year; witnesses are seeing only one side to the polar bear. And during winter, visitors only get to see polar bears from articulated tundra buggies — gargantuan, enclosed tour vehicles that roll out of Churchill, while people try to snap photos through windows over their neighbour’s shoulder.

‘They’re such frequent visitors to town that Churchill even has a team of ‘bear cops’ and a polar-bear holding facility ’

Against the lush backdrop of Hudson Bay’s subarctic summer I get an altogether more intimate insight into the lives of these fluffy white bears. There’s a reason they call this ‘their waiting room’: with full tummies from a winter season of hunting, this is where they loll and laze in the undergrowth, occasionally poking a nose above the wild flowers, whiling away long days in slumber until the bay freezes again.

This is why, during my stay at Nanuk, we can approach bears on foot — even enormous males with the power to pulverise us. Perhaps more thrilling still, we sneak up on mothers cuddling their cubs. In each case, when they see us creeping up on them, they either take a few hesitant steps towards us — to investigate the strange creatures with telescopic noses that click and whirr and whisper — before fleeing the scene; or they roll over and nurse their cubs, stretching out among tall grasses and pawing the air. Sometimes they simply go back to sleep. The summer is a wonderful time to see these creatures up close, when they’re in a seasonal slump — like grandad after lunch. It’s a rare privilege to be able to stand on the same ground with them.

Tundra buggy with passengers looking for polar bears at sunset, Cape Churchill, Wapusk National Park, Manitoba.
 Tundra buggy with passengers looking for polar bears at sunset, Cape Churchill, Wapusk National Park, Manitoba

If you want to picture how this once-in-a-lifetime experience actually unfolds, imagine a safari, just a few notches lower on the thermometer. Everything about the experience — from the short-hop flights in light aircraft, to the 4WDs used to traverse sparse plains, dense underbrush, river crossings and swamplands — is redolent of a Kenyan lion-hunt. And because it’s summer, our vehicles are completely open to the elements. Even the weather has its own chilly charm. A dawn safari reveals dew-bejewelled spiders’ webs and steam rising from lakes with ethereal beauty; at night, the diaphanous drapes of the Aurora Borealis ripple through the sky.

Move very slowly 

The season offers up encounters you could only dream of at other times of year. Polar bears, I soon realise, are easily startled and, back at my accommodation, I even scare one off myself. Big Momma, a well-fed female bear, has been hanging around Nanuk Lodge all summer. She can easily be seen approaching through the panoramic lounge windows, and guests all bring their cameras to the table, poised to dash to the terrace to take pictures. One such lunchtime, on her daily lolloping constitutional around the perimeter, Big Momma emerges from behind an outbuilding to find me waiting with my camera on the other side of the fence, just a metre or so away. The majestic matriarch dwarfs me, but the shock of seeing a human sparks a comedic double-take, and I’m bemused to watch her run away.

The bear that prompts Andy to get his gun, however, isn’t budging, and remains undeterred. I remember the advice Rose, a tour rep who lives in Churchill, gave me a few nights before. If confronted with a bear, a) make yourself look big, b) don’t turn your back on it, and c) move away slowly.

‘Try to get into any building or car,’ Rose told me. Nobody locks anything in Churchill, because they wouldn’t want to deprive anyone of an escape route. ‘I couldn’t even tell you where the keys to my house are. I’ll go on a two-week vacation and leave my front door unlocked,’ she swears.

We’re pretty far from Churchill now though, so — puffing up my chest and looking as big as I can — I glance over my shoulder at our purpose-built polar exploration vehicle: a hulking 4WD powerhouse, with huge wheels and seats bolted to it. Staff have dubbed it ‘the rhino’. Unfortunately, it has neither doors nor roof, so won’t provide much protection from a 2.5m (8ft!) bear.

Polar bear sleeping Ursus maritimus Hudson Bay Canada Hudson Bay Canada
 Polar bear sleeping Ursus maritimus Hudson Bay Canada Hudson Bay Canada

Andy usually discourages them from approaching us simply by talking, or clicking a couple of rocks together — methods that I’ve already seen him use — but his chatter goes unheeded this time. Butch remains mute. His grandfather once advised him, ‘Don’t tell the white man all our secrets at once,’ and the tight-lipped guide has apparently taken this lesson to heart.

In fact, I’m also relishing the opportunity to study this polar bear up close. Her unique physiology — slightly webbed toes and musculature across her chest designed for swimming — defines her species as the world’s only marine bear. Even as she stalks us she still looks utterly adorable, but I realise the situation has escalated when Butch, whose hawk-eyed tracking has hitherto been silent, bursts into life and launches a few stones towards the bear. They explode like waterbombs in the puddles around her and she retreats, momentarily startled, before fear turns to annoyance and she’s back.

Bang!

Butch jumps into the rhino and aggressively revs the engine, making the vehicle lurch forward. After his ballistic assault on the polar bear, though, she barely breaks stride at the racket, and as soon as he kills the motor her attention is again fixed solely on us.

Bang! At last, a projectile rockets from the barrel of Andy’s pistol. The low-powered round arcs through the air and bursts just by our polar bear’s brow. It even makes my ears ring where I’m standing, so our poor bear must be deafened and, with a thunderclap that enshrouds her head in a cloud of smoke, she finally flees.

As Andy bins his spent cartridges and pours us coffee from a flask, I spy Butch’s redundant shotgun sat idle in the rhino, and note the absence of a pistol on his hip.

‘Sure, I have one,’ he smiles over the brim of his mug, and produces a gun from a leatherette case. ‘The company gave it to me years ago when I first joined.’

‘When did you last have to use it?’ I ask him.

He smirks in a way that silently betrays millennia of untold land-lore (maybe he just thinks I’m an idiot) and replies: ‘Never.’

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Credit: James Draven/The Sunday Times Travel Magazine/News Licensing