Bear Necessities

We were up very early again this morning and, after another hot, substantial breakfast we assembled outside the Lazy Bear. It was still dark and there was a hard frost, coating everything in a frozen glitter.

After a ride of about 20 minutes we arrived at the edge of the tundra.  We could see a couple of the so-called “Tundra Buggies”, large all-terrain vehicles with big tractor-like wheels.  The purpose of the wheels was two-fold; first of all they provided good grip on the irregular, rocky and icy terrain, and secondly they allowed the vehicle to be high off the ground and out of the reach of polar bears!  A male polar bear, standing on his back legs, can be over 10′ tall.  🙂

Our Tundra Buggy

But first a paragraph to describe what a tundra is.  Tundras are large areas in colder climates where the soil is permanently frozen and no trees can grow.  There are three types; the Arctic tundra, Antarctic tundra and alpine tundra.  Tundras are vast frozen landscapes, consisting of ice, rocks and low-growing scrubby plants and bushes and not much else.  A strong, cold wind is one constant feature of a tundra.

The subarctic tundra in Churchill is on the edge of the Hudson Bay, and each autumn polar bears gather to wait for the Hudson Bay to freeze over, so that they can return to their hunting grounds and hunt ringed seals.  During the summer months in Churchill the stranded polar bears fast for about four months, living on their fat reserves.  Polar bears are covered in a 4″ layer of blubber for this purpose.

But anyway… we arrived where the Tundra Buggy was parked up, waiting for us to board.  It looked like a very large bus, with lots of room inside to move around and plenty of windows for everyone to have a vantage point.  It was lovely and warm inside the buggy and there was a toilet and sink and  ‘kitchenette’ area.  At the back of the buggy was a viewing platform (outside) so that you could endure the bitter cold for an unimpeded view.

Once we were all on board, the buggy started up and off we went.  It only travelled at about 10 miles per hour over the uneven surface.  All we could see around us was rocks, frozen-over pools of water, a few wind-blown scrubby bushes and the Hudson Bay in the distance.  We kept our eyes peeled for a flash of off-white which could indicate a polar bear!  They are not pure white, more of a cream colour.  In fact, a polar bear’s skin is black to enable it to retain body heat, and the fur itself is transparent; it’s only because the coat is so dense, to provide insulation, that it tends to look off-white.

After about half an hour or so, a shout of “bear” went up; someone had spotted a polar bear swimming in the bay!  Everyone was going “where? where?” and trying to see.  I didn’t manage to see it but the buggy driver decided he would try to anticipate where it would come ashore, and go on ahead to that point and wait.

We headed off up over the rocks, the tundra buggy creaking and rocking and sloshing through water.  We spotted another  sleek white head breaking the surface of the water, only for a moment before disappearing from view.  Eventually the buggy came to a halt near a large crop of rocks, the driver switched off the engine and we waited.  The suspense was killing me!  🙂

Not long afterwards, our patience was rewarded in the best way possible;  a pair of white ears popped up from behind a rock, followed by a white face with a black nose – a polar bear!  I looked on, entranced, as the rest of the bear appeared and, sniffing the air, slowly walked in our direction.

I was utterly mesmerised; I could hardly breathe.  A real, live polar bear in the wild.  I could only whisper “oh WOW” over the massive lump in my throat.  What a beautiful, powerful, majestic animal.  This really was SO worth waiting for, and worth our long journey all the way to Canada.  How many times in a lifetime could anyone see this?

The bear came closer and closer, pausing and looking around as we all watched in silent awe.  We learnt that it was a female, approximately 6-7 years of age.  She came right up to the tundra buggy and stood on her hind legs, looking in the window!  We were able to get some fantastic photos, literally from arm’s length away.  You cannot believe just how big these bears are (they are the largest land carnivore) until you see them up close.  The paws are immense.

The polar bear was really curious and she walked all around the buggy, occasionally standing up and peering right at us.  Someone expressed it just perfectly when they said that the bears were free and had come to look at us in a cage.  Very true; this was their territory and we were the uninvited guests.

Eventually the polar bear got bored and went away.  We watched her until she was just a white speck in the distance, then they decided it was time for a hot drink and some cookies.  We opted for a mug of hot chocolate which is just what we needed; even just a few minutes outside in the wind and bitter cold was enough to make you run for cover in the warmth of the buggy.

After our break the driver started up the buggy and we set off once more, to try to find some more bears or other wildlife, for example Arctic foxes.  We rode around slowly and then once again came the cry of “bear!”  This time one was spotted on the right hand side of the buggy.  We parked up and waited, and once again we had the superb privilege of being able to see her (yes, it was another female) up close… very close.

She slowly walked around the buggy and along to the back, where Trevor was outside on the viewing platform.  The bear was directly below him and he angled the camera towards her, ready to get a good photo.  Just then she looked straight at him and reared up on her hind legs, almost into the camera lens!  Trevor had to recoil, quickly.  The bear was probably around 8′ tall; if it had been a male it would have been another couple of feet taller and would have been nose to nose with Trevor!  🙂  How close could anyone get to a wild polar bear without being eaten by one?!  Totally awesome.

Close encounter with a female polar bear

The bear also went underneath the metal mesh flooring of the viewing platform, which allowed her to be viewed close up through the mesh.  At one point I knelt down to apply my camera lens to the mesh but the polar bear looked straight at me and bared her big yellow teeth at me!  These animals may look all white and furry and cuddly, but they are really ferocious.  But still, another unforgettable close encounter.

How close could anyone get to a polar bear in the wild without being eaten by one? Totally awesome!

It was, by this time, lunchtime aboard the tundra buggy.  The Lazy Bear Lodge had done us proud with an amazing packed lunch; there was delicious hot beef soup, chunky sandwiches, crisps, hot tea or coffee or soft drinks, as well as more cookies if you wanted them.  Everyone also used the time to look back over the photos and video footage they had taken, not quite believing that we had seen actual polar bears in the wild.  🙂

After lunch we continued to ride about on the tundra.  We did see another couple of polar bears (or they might have been the same ones; after all, they all look the same!) but not close up.  We saw one in the distance (through our binoculars) that walked over a frozen stretch of water.  It walked for quite a long distance before finding a nice cosy patch of snow in which to have a nap.  We got a great photo of it lying with its backside in the air and its head resting on the ice.  🙂

As dusk came to the tundra the buggy made its way back to where the Lazy Bear bus was waiting for us.  What a day it had been – we were all on a high.  We got back to the lodge and rested before dinner, then got washed and changed and went to the restaurant for dinner.  This time we went in prepared though, and sneaked our half-bottle of vodka in to liven up the diet Cokes we bought. 😉

Then after dinner we went once again to the Seaport Hotel for a couple of drinks.  There was already a very hard frost and the road was quite slippy.

We slept well that night and knew we had another full day to spend on the tundra again tomorrow.

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