by Aaron Spitzer -- Just outside Churchill, Manitoba, the Polar Bear Capital of the World, my tundra buggy is ringside at the big show. Brian, our driver, has spotted a bear-fight brewing, the first of the season. A hulking male the colour of buttermilk is staring down another male, rawboned and dirtier. As they converge on a nearby patch of tundra, we – breathless bear-watchers from three continents – arm our cameras. Barely 10 paces from us, so near I’m sure I smell them, the bears begin a prizefighter’s waltz. The spiral tightens, their heads bob. Then the big one stands and the other stands too. Fangs flash as their bulks clap together. We squeak with glee and fire photos rat-a-tat. The bears shudder, step back, spring again and grapple some more.
Then we get a plot twist. The dirty bear, clearly out-bullied, gives up. Tongue dangling, he flops on his back in flamboyant submission. The big bear doesn’t gloat. Rather, he too collapses to the tundra. I’m taking pictures at a frantic staccato. In a moment the bruins are lolling with their legs splayed, pawing each other playfully.
During this display, of course, other buggies have raced over. Now seven of them are arrayed around us, an amphitheatre of monster-trucks. From their windows, dozens of zoom-lenses bristle. I can hear the passengers gasp and murmur. That’s when the chilly air kills my camera. Desperately I eject the battery, cradle it in my palms and blow on it: the breath of life. When I glance up, the bears are nuzzling one another. “Oh look,” says the woman beside me, “they’re making out.” I jam the battery in, squeeze off another image, then eject again, repeating this exercise over and over. Meanwhile, oblivious to all of us, the polar bears do their polar-bear thing – the thing that, for six short weeks each autumn, brings the whole bear-mad world to Churchill.
Here are some of the things you can buy in the shops lining Kelsey Boulevard, Churchill’s main (and just about only) street. There are azure “bear bum” boxer shorts and “bear minimum” mini-Ts. There are innumerable white teddy bears. There are wooden “bear paw” salad tongs and $7 packs of polar bear golf balls. There are polar bear Christmas ornaments, shot glasses and playing cards. There’s bottled water “for when you can’t bear to be thirsty,” and “bear hands” mittens – paw-shaped, but lacking eviscerating claws.
In this legendary little Arctic town – a ragged village of roughly a thousand locals, mostly Crees and whites, tucked up in Manitoba’s unlikely oceanfront corner – everything is polar bears. You can sleep at the Bear Country Inn or the Bear’s Den B & B, eat at the Lazy Bear Café, and shop at Great White Bear Gifts.
Bear statues and bear pelts and mounted bears abound, and in the town’s recreation complex there’s a giant wooden bear, four metres high, that permits children to slide down a chute emerging, tracheotomy fashion, from its throat.
Canada’s preeminent Arctic destination, during bear season some 8,000 tourists come here, many on package tours costing up to $5,700 per week. Beginning in mid-October they arrive in droves, by train and jet plane. Disgorged into the clammy Hudson Bay fog, they jostle for their luggage – usually a small fortune in photo gear – and peer around, enthralled or maybe aghast to have arrived at what must look like the end of the world. Then they’re driven into town by a menagerie of shuttles – seemingly any vehicle that could be pressed into service, including a school bus with a rifle mounted above the driver, who grins and says, “Welcome to Churchill.”
In town, on their “non-bear days,” the tourists throng the rough streets. They parade in the sort of Arctic costumes one might assemble in Atlanta or Rome: faux-fur mukluks, rhinestoned windbreakers, leather driving gloves. They besiege the shops, meander through the Eskimo Museum, and sit in on lectures at the Parks Canada interpretive centre, where, on a single page of the visitors’ log, 10 different nationalities are represented. In the evenings, they swell Churchill’s few eateries for musk-ox sirloin and speckled trout and too much wine. At night, they crowd all six hotels. If you don’t have reservations, locals warn, “you won’t sleep for love nor money.”
On their appointed “bear days,” it’s totally different. On those days, the tourists do what many have been dreaming of their whole lives. They go out on the Arctic tundra, to see polar bears.
Here’s the thing about polar bears: We adore them, yet they want to kill us. I can’t help contemplating this strange duality during my first morning on the tundra buggy, as my buggy-mates interrogate our guide, JP McCarthy of Frontiers North Adventures, about safety. No, says JP, no tourist has ever been killed by a polar bear. No, a bear has never gotten into a buggy. No, you can’t ride on the buggy’s back deck – I don’t care what the other company allows. Yes, you can open the window, but no, don’t dangle your camera strap or scarf, or a bear might yank you out. Tourists in tundra buggies are meals on wheels.
During this briefing, a half-hour outside of Churchill, acres of brown flatness shudder past. We’re grinding eastward toward Polar Bear Point, through the bear-littered Cape Churchill Wildlife Management Area. At the front of the lurching buggy, JP stands swaying like a sailor in mean seas. He’s athletic, bright-eyed and twentysomething, spends most of his time as a mountain guide in the Rockies, but is back for his second bear season. Beside him is Brian, the driver, a ski instructor from Jasper who’s here for his first year. The two of them are among about 150 seasonal employees who come each fall, staffing Churchill’s buggies, inns, restaurants and stores, partly to make a little cash but mainly because they find the lure of polar bears irresistible.
At first we – the two dozen bear-watchers squinting out the buggy’s windows – don’t share their zeal. It’s sunny and hot today, weirdly so, and the bears seem to be lying low. Has anyone, I wonder, been skunked in Churchill? JP, the consummate guide, tries to distract us with learning. He gives us the science lecture, which I feel I know by heart: Polar bears split from grizzlies 200,000 years ago; unlike tourists, they’ve been visiting Churchill for eons. Their bones turn up in prehistoric aboriginal middens, and in 1619, when Jens Munck became the first European to explore this area, his crew killed and ate one.
Polar bears can appear in Churchill any time of year – around 1,000 of them patrol western Hudson Bay – but it’s for six weeks starting in mid-October that they gather here en masse, waiting for the bay to re-freeze. The freshwater outflow of the Churchill River, just to the west, is the first place on the coast to turn solid. When it does, the bears march onto the ice to hunt seals. And it’s hardly a fair fight. Save for Alaskan brown bears, polar bears are the world’s biggest land predators, with males weighing up to 700 kilos and .... Vrrrooom! Brian has spotted a bear and the lesson ends. He accelerates to full-throttle – maybe jogging speed. Everyone is on their feet, gripping the seatback in front of them.
The bear – JP keeps pointing to a white fleck in the distance – is receding from view at an oblique angle; to reach it, we must do an end-run around a tidewater lake.
It’s a chase out of a maddening dream, with the buggy wobbling and groaning and trundling at a laughable pace. The tension is almost too much to stand. Finally, the bear – a moderate-sized sow – lies down beside the lake, stretched in the sun like flotsam. We pull up to within a few dozen metres; three other buggies do the same. A gazillion photos are taken. The bear dozes off.
We sit there 15 minutes longer, but the bear is so immobile that, spectacular as it is, we become – I am ashamed to say – bored. No matter. Over the radio we hear that other buggies have spotted bears. We lurch off in search of them. By days end, our grin-muscles hurt. We’ve been face-to-muzzle with at least a dozen bears.
When you live in Churchill, you learn to watch out for bears. The signs are everywhere, Polar Bear Alert and Never Approach a Polar Bear. There was a time when nasty encounters weren’t uncommon. Between 1966 and 1969 bears gravely wounded three people near town and killed a fourth. Then, Churchill started cleaning up its act. It began educating locals and visitors about bear awareness and launched a radical effort to eliminate bear attractants (the town dump was closed; garbage is now shipped south by train). The last fatal mauling was in 1983. Rumour has it the victim was attacked after he’d looted a store and filled his pockets with meat.
Shaun Bobier won’t confirm or deny that story. But Churchill’s youthful, moonfaced conservation supervisor will tell you bears and people don’t mix. The T-shirt hanging on his office wall underscores that point: On it, grinning bears stir tourists in a bubbling cauldron. Also underscoring that point is what Shaun loads into his extended-cab pickup before we depart on his morning bear patrol: A shotgun, cracker shells and tranquilizer darts.
As we motor along the outskirts of town, scanning the rocks and willows for nanuq, I get the lowdown on Churchill bear etiquette. Avoid the waterfront, where bears are prone to travel, and don’t cut blind corners while walking through town. Leave your car unlocked – someone might need to leap into it. And if you spot a bear, call the round-the-clock hotline: 675-BEAR. Just last night, Shaun says, they got a call about a polar bear traipsing through town with a garbage bag in its jaws; three of his officers hustled it back to the coast.
Such measures go a long way, but there are still close calls. Two years ago in the middle of the night a bear knocked down a local man’s front door and ransacked his kitchen. The man slept until the bear somehow flicked on the propane stove, burned itself and vaulted through the windowpane. Scarier still are when bears meet tourists – walking snacks, Shaun calls them. Earlier in the year, he says, “there was a bear behind the town complex, and this guy with a walker just started walking toward it, and the bear was ducking behind rocks and sneaking up on him. When I got there I go, ‘You know that bear will kill you, right?’ And he says, ‘Yeah, if he gets me he gets me.’”
During our two hour patrol – through the dilapidated “flats,” along the beach, past the weatherworn crosses of the cemetery, and to six culvert-shaped bear-traps baited with seal meat – we see plenty of “walking snacks.” One of them even stops Shaun and asks him if he’s seen any bears. But we haven’t, and we don’t. On this morning, Churchill is safe from bears.
My final “bear day” turns out to be the capstone of my week in Churchill. Out in the Wildlife Management Area, under lugubrious, spitting skies, we observe polar bears in all their guises: big boar bears, bear sows with cubs, sleeping bears, frisky bears, bold bears chasing scared bears, bears dining on kelp at the seashore, and of course the bear-fight, sans functional camera, right in front of our buggy.
The buggies are, it has become clear to me, the ultimate way to get personal with bears. Like shark cages on tractor tires, 18 of them roam the tundra near Churchill, and riding them has been half the fun of coming here. Weighing 10,000 kilos, towering four-and-a-half metres high and costing a half-million bucks, they’re every boy’s rumbling fantasy. Plus, they’ve got amenities: propane heaters, no-fog windows, and a honeybucket for a bathroom. “Please don’t use the bathroom when the buggy is in motion,” says JP. “I don’t need to tell you what could happen.”
Since the buggies don’t travel on roads, Brian doesn’t technically need a licence – though Frontiers North requires he carry a Class 2 permit and air-brake certification. “After that, you wing it,” he says, and I assume he’s joking until he lets me take the wheel. It turns out he’s right: The thing crawls along practically on cruise-control, easier to drive than a go-cart. The challenge is to avoid getting distracted and leaving the wheel. I motor to the crest of an incline, gesture wildly out the windscreen and shout, “Bear making love to a wolf!” A few passengers reach for their cameras.
Of course, buggy-driving requires more than just thinking you’re funny – there’s a strict etiquette to operating near bears. Turning on the engine spooks them, and you shouldn’t surround or chase them. And the big no-no is letting tourists slip them food. I’m told that, the year previous, a tourist drizzled grape soda-pop on the tundra and bears raced over to lap it up. The driver demanded to know who did it and when no one fessed up he aborted the tour and drove them all back to town.
That’s a dramatic change from the days of yore. Twenty-nine years ago, when a Churchill mechanic named Len Smith mated a gravel-truck, snowplow and crop-sprayer to create the first tundra buggy, there was no such thing as ecotourism. Into the 1980s, buggy drivers lured bears by lobbing “meat bombs” to them and otherwise chumming the tundra. Thanks to that, it’s said, at least one bear choked to death.
Even today, the bear-viewing experience isn’t totally natural. At one point, down near the shore, we watch a bear become seemingly infatuated with an empty cardboard box, swatting it and toting it in his mouth. And later, at the Tundra Buggy Lodge – a sort of mobile hotel parked out near Polar Bear Point – a bear spends 10 minutes licking the pipe that drains greywater from the lodge down into the tundra.
Still, the industry has made dramatic improvements. Nowadays, the world’s top bear experts – people like Andrew Derocher and Steven Amstrup and Don Moore – frequently come to Churchill in the fall to use the buggies as a platform for research. They also keep an eye on the industry. A recent study by scientists from the University of Central Florida indicated the polar bears’ behaviour seems little affected by the presence of tundra buggies.
On top of that, the buggy tours serve an outreach function that almost certainly benefits the bears. Aboard my buggy today is a zoo-keeper from Ohio, Alicia Shelley. She gawks at bears like the rest of us, and then gives an educational presentation, part of which requires Brian to drop to his hands and knees and pretend he’s a seal. Alicia holds a toothy bear-skull over his head. “When Brian comes out of the water,” she says, “the bear takes its sickle-shaped claws, grabs him by the neck and has two options. He can break Brian’s neck or crush his skull. What do you think?” With exuberant enthusiasm, the buggy riders vote for crushing. Clearly, these are people who’ve come to powerfully sympathize with bears. Brian looks amused as the fangs clamp down on his cranium. Cameras out, everyone documents his death.
Back in town it’s near closing time at the Seaport Lounge, Churchill’s primo drinkery. I’m at a table full of Brits and Americans and Italians, toasting our luck today with bears. Then a guide walks in and announces that out in the cool night, the Northern Lights are going pyrotechnic. My barmates stampede for the door, some with beers in tow. I shamble after, nodding to the waitress. “In this town,” she says with a shrug, “that’s how you clear a room.”
Outside, Kelsey Boulevard is spangled with tourists. Their necks are craned backwards, and many, me included, are tipsy. For a moment I wonder what would happen if a bear showed up: we’re such easy pickings. But geez if the lights tonight aren’t mesmerizing. They shimmy and flap and wash the sky in pastels. My fellow revellers, already giddy from a day on the tundra, sway along with the lights and murmur their wonderment in a dozen tongues. “It’s like the disco ball of the gods,” says one, agape. And at that moment, I decide I’m not worried about bears. If they get me, they get me. At least I’ve been to Churchill.