Why go see Polar Bears in November one might ask? My reply, I am proud to be a Canadian and yet I have failed to see some of our proud animals in their own environment.
Parry Sound Councillor Bonnie Keith took a trip to Churchill, Manitoba where she got up close to polar bears in their natural environment. An experience she says was life-changing.
Bonnie Keith photo
I’ve seen the large animals in Africa and South America and I’ve observed penguins in Antarctica and yet I have not seen polar bears in my own country. In an effort to become a well-rounded person I needed to see these animals firsthand.
The thought of tracking them on foot with only the assistance of two guides was exciting to me. Therefore I found a company to provide me with this opportunity and after signing a five-page liability release form I packed my 28 kg of necessary articles - at least from my point of view - and was ready to go.
These necessities, at least to me included: water, power bars, sardines, rechargeable batteries, spare winter boots, a wool blanket, scarf and winter apparel and hand and foot warmers and a camera.
I flew from Toronto to Winnipeg then onto Churchill, Manitoba. Then I boarded a small plane that seated 10 people and flew off to Dymond Lake (a very small lake 25 km northwest of Churchill) adjacent to Hudson Bay. When the plane landed on the snow packed tundra one knew that isolation, not technology was the King. The group was met by two guides armed with small stones, pepper spray and their last resort was a shotgun. The 10-minute walk from the barren landing strip involved being escorted on foot to the compound area.
Eight foot fencing surrounded the small and very basic compound where (propane/generator) heat was monitored as all items, including fuel, had to be flown in.
The fencing served merely as a polite deterrent to the bears and made us feel psychologically safe, as there is no doubt that one serious push by a bear would instantly shatter our secure feelings.
Inside the locked compound were three buildings - a kitchen, accommodations and a gathering room. In the afternoon I experienced seeing my first polar bear who wanted to peek at the humans in the “zoo,” so to speak.
It was amazing to watch the guides take control of the situation through the knowledge of manipulating the animals by tone of voice so they would not topple the fencing.
I learned that the polar bear is a very curious animal and when you are about two feet from this massive animal (the thin wire fence between) you can certainly appreciate the importance of trusting your guides’ instructions.
Trust, listening, walking slowly and being silent are imperative to the experience as well as hoping that this unpredictable animal will accept or at least tolerate you if it does not feel threatened.
This was a wondrous opportunity, but I wanted more as I was very anxious to be allowed to leave the compound.
We left the compound and we walked along the uneven tundra, and experienced the rough surfaces around Hudson Bay and circled the clumps of ice as a result of the tide ebbing and flowing. We walked through the snow drifts and experienced the minus-23 Celsius weather with the strong howling winds ripping at one’s face and body and the quick freezing of one’s fingers when trying to take a photo is still embedded in my mind.
Meanwhile these very comfortable polar bears were dressed in creamy porcupine attire comfortable as can be, with their bodies burrowed into the snow banks along the Hudson Bay or on the little lake. They were just waiting until the Hudson Bay was frozen solid and they could go seal hunting. I saw black, red and cross-colored foxes, white weasels and ptarmigans dressed in their beautiful white foliage.
I saw a photo of a wolverine that had been visiting the area the day before I arrived, but I didn’t get the chance to see it myself. However I did see polar bears free in such a pristine environment, and that was the purpose of my trip.
On one occasion, our excited and very cold group saw one burrowed in the snow bank and approached it in a slow methodical zigzag pattern in order not to upset it or to be confrontational. The bear awoke and rolled over and stretched in the snow as if it was putting on a show for us and indeed he was the main star.
Then he slowly came to his feet and at that moment the sun came out. It was wondrous and he slowly walked on the small lake, analyzing the situation while he approached us. We stood quiet and in a tight circle with the smallest person in the center.
He took his leisurely time at approaching us in his own somewhat zigzag pattern and slowly circled the group stopping and looking at use before he finally sauntered off.
I had the opportunity to be approximately 20 feet (maximum) from the polar bear. Silence, a little prayer and faith that I was meant to have this experience were paramount thoughts in my head.
I then snapped some photographs having silenced the ringer on my camera in order to not distract him. This was a breathtaking opportunity to appreciate the majestic beauty of this huge animal, the vastness of this country and the reminder that I am but a small and insignificant person in the big scheme of things. It was a most humbling experience to which I am grateful.
This experience made me admire the pioneers and explorers who travelled the North and to better appreciate the challenges they faced.
To experience these bears in such a pristine environment cannot be fully explained, but I found it to be a very spiritual experience. I am very grateful to good health and good feet in order to enable me to have this Canadian experience.
However to some degree the elements of the North won out and we were forced to stay an extra day, because the winds were 90 kms per hour and the small plane could not rescue us.
One day later when the plane still could not land, three helicopters from the Great Slave Lake area came to the rescue and flew us to Churchill!
These blue birds were like angels coming to save us and I had the opportunity to take photos from the co-pilot’s seat. In Churchill I rode on a Tundra Buggy, which is a large, four wheel drive enclosed vehicle (about 10-feet by 24-feet equipped with a propane stove) sitting on numerous wide tires and I photographed more polar bears. ] I learned that the Churchill Airport has an airstrip that can accommodate the space shuttle if need be (given it was once an army base to a population of 7,500 but the community is now closer to 800 in population).
The customer service in the community was wonderful and we were made to feel welcome even though our stay now was short, due to the weather conditions. I know that I was a lucky person and I will definitely look at polar bears in a different light and appreciate these beautiful animals. I may even try this tracking experience in the summer in order to observe these animals walking through the fields of pink wildfire. Perhaps I have been bitten by the polar bear bug as I am now certain that these animals reign in their kingdom. What a great country we live in!
(Bonnie Keith is a councillor in the Town of Parry Sound)