This polar bear looks as if he wants a smooch. (Photo: Bret Love and Mary Gabbett)
I’m practically face-to-face with “Chubby,” perhaps three feet away from one of the most formidable predators on the planet: a polar bear.
Weighing in at nearly 1,500 pounds, he stands on his hind legs, stretching his sharply clawed paws up as high as they will go (around nine feet) on the side of Natural Habitat’s Tundra Lodge, a trainlike mobile hotel.
All aboard Natural Habitat’s Tundra Lodge (Photo: Bret Love and Mary Gabbett)
He sniffs the air curiously — whether he’s sniffing me or the fragrant food odors emanating from the lodge’s dining car, I can’t be sure — and I suddenly find myself thankful for the reinforced-steel barrier between us on the open-air viewing platform. My pounding heart feels stuck somewhere in my esophagus as I gaze into his big brown eyes. Chubby may look just as adorable as the bears in those cartoon Coca-Cola ads, but we’ve heard harrowing tales of tourists losing limbs by getting too friendly with a hungry bear.
Chubby earned his nickname from the Natural Habitat staff by being the largest, laziest, and friendliest of the four to six polar bears that always seem to surround the mobile Tundra Lodge, which is parked on the shores of Hudson Bay just south of the Arctic Circle every year in October and November.
Here, in the wilds of Churchill, Manitoba — the self-proclaimed “Polar Bear Capital of the World” — male polar bears come to congregate annually, waiting for the water to freeze so that they can venture out onto the ice in search of ringed seals. Churchill is prime bear-watching real estate thanks to polar winds that turn the shallow water into ice early in the season.
A polar pair spotted on the trip (Photo: Bret Love and Mary Gabbett)
This gathering is a remarkable phenomenon you won’t find anywhere else. Male polar bears are typically territorial, brutally clashing over food and breeding rights. But they come here in what our naturalist guides call a state of “walking hibernation,” weak and hungry, moving slowly and deliberately in order to conserve their energy for the winter hunt to come.
I’ve seen these majestic mammals only once before, and in very different circumstances. In the mid-’90s I visited Sea World Orlando, where a lone polar bear paced endlessly in maddening circles, clearly distraught from being confined in his tiny enclosure. It brought tears to my eyes to see an animal so stressed by captivity, and I’d been longing to see polar bears in the wild ever since.
Now, ironically, I’m the one in captivity. For obvious reasons, visitors to the Tundra Lodge are confined to the trainlike cars and the well-protected viewing platforms that connect them. When we do leave to explore the tundra on our daily guided tours, we pile into a massive ATV Polar Rover, which is built on a fire engine’s chassis and has the sort of gigantic wheels you’d see on a combine.
A bear looking at the humans in captivity (Photo: Bret Love and Mary Gabbett)
We move at a crawl, crossing shallow lakes just beginning to gather frost at their shores, bouncing over rocks, and scattering flocks of snow buntings that fly in our wake. We stop often to watch the wildlife, which stands out in striking contrast to the autumn hues of the tundra. We see gyrfalcons (a hunting bird prized by the Vikings), red-breasted mergansers (a diving duck species), ptarmigans (aka “snow chickens” or “tundra turkeys”), snowy owls, red foxes, and even an adorable arctic hare.
The only other place we see polar bears on our excursions is near the Tundra Buggy Adventure Lodge, the only other lodge in this vast wilderness area. But by far the best views come from just hanging out in our Tundra Lodge, surrounded by bears, bays, and occasionally, busloads of travelers in Great White Bear Tour Polar Rovers.
This is one happy-looking polar bear. (Photo: Bret Love and Mary Gabbett)
We sit in the warm, cozy lounge, sipping on coffee and hot cocoa and looking out the windows for signs of activity from the sleepy bears. We give them identifying nicknames: Gimpy walks with a slight limp and is quick to squabble; Freckles has spots on his face and seems to come and go frequently; Scarface is younger, smaller, and more skittish than the others, with a noticeable scar on his nose from a previous fight and the most beautiful fur.
Just a little skirmish between polar bear pals. (Photo: Valerie/Flickr)
Every day around suppertime, the sluggish bears begin to move around, and we quickly maneuver to have our cameras at the ready. The excitement begins with one bear gently nudging another, almost as if to say, “Hey, you wanna play?” Most of the time, the other bear just rolls over and goes back to sleep. But at least once a day, they start wrestling clumsily, looking a bit like (humongous) drunken puppies. The action ramps up in intensity until both bears rise up on their hind legs, pushing and shoving each other in a test of strength.
They rarely draw blood: These little skirmishes are a safe way to establish the hierarchy of who is the biggest and baddest bear. Doing so now helps them to avoid more deadly consequences later, out on the ice, when the battle for food and breeding rights becomes much more serious. But for now, they’re merely the highlight of our day — a few minutes of excitement in what is otherwise a remarkably peaceful experience.
Ready for your close-up, Mr. Polar Bear? (Photo: Alex Berger/Flickr)
It’s difficult to explain the transformative power of that experience, being so close to one of the few creatures on the planet known to actively hunt human beings. It’s humbling (and, some might argue, necessary) to be reminded that we are not always at the top of the food chain and that perhaps the balance of nature in our industrialized, globalized society has gone completely out of whack.
I left Churchill extremely thankful that there remains a place in the world where polar bears still roam free, and that I was fortunate enough to spend some time in their world, captive and captivated by their fearsome charms.
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