I’m learning that safari is about patience. This is my first morning at Churchill Wild’s Nanuk Lodge, a former goose-hunting outpost marooned on the wide, curving edge of the Hudson Bay. It has been nearly two hours since we drove out of the perimeter fencing in search of the world’s largest land carnivore—the polar bear. So far, nada.
That’s not to say that we haven’t repeatedly thought we saw something. There are innumerable boulders lining the shore, each roughly the size and shape of a crouching bear. As we leave tracks in the tar-black mud and splash through river-mouths in custom-built Rhino buggies, the eyes play tricks. A white speck in the distance turns out to be—to our cries of disappointment—a gull. The landscape, a flat and featureless netherworld sandwiched between the lapping grey-green water and a rigid saw-tooth perimeter of black spruce, seems to reflect my dismay.
Yesterday, from the cockpit of the Otter, the last of my four flights to reach this remote location near the 58th parallel (the nearest paved road is 137 miles away), we could see the bears from the air, idling along the mudflats, lingering by streams. In an hour, I counted 19. Where have they gone? I wonder. But Albert “Butch” Saunders—our Cree guide, who has worked at the lodge since 1979—isn’t fazed. He continues to scan the endless horizon, a suggestion that this drought can’t last.
Make no mistake: the shores of the Hudson Bay are the place to find polar bears. Some two-thirds of the world’s roughly 26,000 such bears live in Canada. Experts reckon that the Western Hudson Bay population amounts to around 1,000 of them, roughly a polar bear per kilometre of shoreline. Moreover, the bears like to gather in certain areas, and Cape Churchill, Manitoba, is a bear magnet. In the small pioneer town of Churchill (aka the Polar Bear Capital of the World), these animals are part of everyday life. Nolan Booth, the Churchill-born-and-bred director of operations for Churchill Wild, cheerfully describes how the town had to enclose its tip after it attracted too many bears—and how, at Halloween, local children are forbidden to dress as ghosts.
The Rhino rocks to a stop. Butch confers with curly-haired Andy, the lead guide who drives the other buggy. Binoculars are raised, breaths held. Andy has spotted a distant bear, near the surf. Forays outside of the lodge’s 10-foot-high page wire perimeter fences tend to be scheduled for high tide, in order to push the bears, patrolling the water’s edge for carrion, nearer to shore. The stunningly flat landscape, typical of the glaciated province, means that the four-meter tidal shift on such level terrain can expose flats that run out for up to 10 kilometers. A snowball’s chance in hell comes to mind. The Rhinos begin to move again, heading for the distant breakers.
It’s the roll of the ocean that keeps the polar bears tied to this strip of coast. As the temperatures rise and the sea ice begins to break apart, the bears travel south for the breeding grounds that Nanuk is situated smack in the middle of. They remain there until the bay freezes over once more, around mid-November, and it is time for them to wander north with their young, in search of seal.
This was explained to me last night, over a lavish meal of crusted caribou tenderloin, parmesan cauliflower, and citrus salad with raspberry wine vinaigrette that eclipsed the day’s breakfast of Cheerios and fruit salad. As I gorged, Andy told me the tale of Len Smith, the pioneer of the tundra buggy (a kind of pimped-out school bus on tractor tires), which transformed regional polar bear tourism from a niche concern into a booming industry.
“He made the first one in his garage in Churchill,” Andy said, as a fire blazed in the lodge’s cozy pine-clad dining room. “It was a means to head out onto the tundra, into areas where there are bears, and to drink and party with his buddies in safety. National Geographic photographers were in the area in 1979, saw Len’s tundra buggy, and paid for him to take them out.” The rest, as they say, is history, and Tundra Buggy One, as the original is called, is still in use.
The white bears have always enjoyed a special status among the Cree. “Elders respected them,” Butch says. “If one broke into a cabin, it was chased off and not shot. Other bears would be killed.”
Local hunting laws continue to reflect this special status, as you can buy a license to hunt black bears but the killing of polar bears is the exclusive preserve of the Inuits, with strict parameters. (Canada is the only nation with polar bears that continues to allow them to be hunted.) And, of course, this special status extends to the tourists’ favor.
Over the few days that I’m in the area, I see bald eagles, a black wolf, the snout of a wary moose buried in the brush, and a horde of beluga whales in the Churchill estuary. At Nanuk, black bears vie for foraging rights just beyond the perimeter fence, the lodge’s guests wielding their bullhorn-sized zoom lenses and clicking furiously. But when a polar bear is sighted, the excitement level skyrockets.
The bears don’t disappoint. And seeing them unlocks the initially unengaging landscape. There is an appealing blend of power and fragility about the bears that’s reflected in the vast Hudson Bay, from the huge storms that churn across its cinematic skyline to the delicate grasses populating the shore. And there’s real intelligence in these creatures. We observe a touching maternal protectiveness when we approach well-fed cubs and see their mother warily sniffing the air. These animals are fascinating to watch, and the wait to see them, as we drive around in the Rhinos searching, just sharpens the thrill.
All of this begins on the first morning with that first bear—the drought-breaker. Initially we think it’s just another large stone, that Andy’s trained eyes have failed him. But as we skirt the area, the “stone” raises that unmistakeable long-snouted profile, a brown bear head evolved to snatch seals from their breathing holes in the ice. The lone boar is huge, probably weighing nearly a ton. The safety of the raised, aluminum-clad Rhinos seems less certain now. We wait to confirm that it’s one bear, rather than two piled on each other, before, hearts thumping, we change our hiking boots for rubber ones and crunch down onto the wet sand. Out at sea, a huge storm drags dark curtains of rain across the bay’s surface.
Butch says that two more bears are approaching from the north. Be careful what you wish for, I think. But I’m the only member of the group who seems concerned that the bears might outflank us. They are “ambush hunters,” after all, capable of sprinting 25 miles an hour. We walk slowly towards the animal in a zigzag fashion, playing follow-the-leader with Andy, minimizing our silhouette so as not to challenge the quarry. Our guides are armed with an array of options in the event of an attack: noisy blanks, bear-grade pepper spray, and, as a last resort, the 12-gauge shotgun.
I recall Nolan’s words from the previous night: “Are they dangerous? Absolutely. But polar bears don’t see us as prey. Everything is calculated; they don’t want to get hurt. We don’t smell like seals. But they are curious. Approaching in a big group, like we do, is an important factor. But every bear is different. You can’t take anything for granted with them.”
A chill wind whips up, shivering the amethyst grasses populating the dwindling no-man’s land between us and the animal. The bear seems relaxed, but it’s watching us. Our group takes 20 minutes to reach about 50 feet out, pausing a number of times while Andy reacts to the creature’s sniffs and twitches. We fan out and begin snapping photos. The bear seems unfazed, a still point among the rippling green grass that it’s lying in. We remain there for half an hour, revelling in this first contact.
Afterwards, on the way home, Butch suddenly stops the Rhino. He hops out and begins to collect sweet and juicy wild strawberries from among the scrub. No longer on edge, we readily jump down and join him. Sandhill cranes coast overhead. That night, the Northern Lights waver across a pristine sky. And the beauty of this vast godforsaken place on the edge of the world continues to unfold piece by glorious little piece.
Traveler Report Card
ACCOMMODATIONS (B+): Considering that most of the construction materials have to be flown in on tiny planes, the lodgings are exemplary. Adirondacks line the hallways looking out over the perimeters. Large windows ensure that you won’t miss any curious wildlife. The moose antler handles on the doors and antique-style lighting are nice touches, and hallway fireplaces keep you warm. Simple but comfortable.
CUISINE (A): Many of the recipes at the lodge feature wild, locally harvested game and fish as well as berries foraged from the tundra. Expect dishes like maple-marinated fish for breakfast, curried squash soup for lunch, and crusted caribou tenderloin with mushroom and red wine reduction for dinner. There are numerous courses and there’s plenty to go around.
ACTIVITIES (A+): Viewing polar bears in the wild is an extraordinary experience. It’s augmented by the professionalism and friendliness of the knowledgeable guides.
WHAT IT IS: A polar-bear safari in northeastern Canada’s Hudson Bay area. You stay at a remote lodge and travel in custom-built buggies to locate bears in the wilderness before approaching them on foot.
SAFARI ORGANIZERS: The author’s six-night adventure, including housing and meals at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge and flights from Winnipeg, is available from Churchill Wild (churchillwild.com) for $7,300. Other companies offering similar safaris in the area include Churchill Northern Studies Center (churchillscience.ca), Frontiers North Adventures (frontiersnorth.com), Great White Bear Tours (greatwhitebeartours.com), Lazy Bear Expeditions (lazybearlodge.com), and the Great Canadian Travel Company (greatcanadiantravel.com).
CLIMATE: The weather is highly unpredictable along the shores of the Hudson Bay. Expect highs of 77° F (25° C) in July with lows of around 52° F (11° C). By September the highs drop to 66° F (19° C), and, by November, to 30° F (-1° C).
GETTING THERE: Private jets can fly into Churchill airport, but be aware that its capacity is limited. Onward travel to lodges can mean rough, sandy runways better suited to smaller taildraggers with large wheels. (Churchill Wild charters an Otter bushplane for its transfers from Churchill Airport.)
WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: The main polar bear viewing periods in Manitoba are July/August and October/November. Booking between September and December in the previous year will ensure that you get the best deal. October is the best time to come, when it’s a little colder and the bears are more active.
Chris Allsop, a regular BJT contributor, has written on travel for the Guardian, the Sunday Times [of London], Travel Magazine, and Yahoo!. Churchill Wild and Travel Manitoba covered his expenses for this article.