a  magazine  of  travel  and  discovery

by George Oxford Miller

The polar bear walking across the frozen tundra doesn’t alter his path or slow his steady pace. He raises his nose to test the wind and sample our smells. Each bow-legged step brings him closer to our Polar Buggy vehicle. He reaches us and stops, then rears up and jams his nose against the wire grate floor of the back deck. We each kneel, as though in supplication to this sublime Lord of the Arctic, and let him sniff our hands.

The polar bears of Churchill, Manitoba, justly know as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World,” haven’t eaten in five months. When the sea ice on the Hudson Bay melts in June, they come ashore. Their primary food, seals, remains far at sea. With global warming, the ice is melting earlier and freezing later than it did 20 years ago, so the bears go without food for three or more weeks longer. These carnivores crave meat and the one sniffing our hands has found a tundra buggy full of fleshy odors.

I stoop and place my face near the grate a fraction of an inch from its powerful canines. He exhales heavily, a warning sign, and fogs my glasses. We kiss, Eskimo style, nose to nose, then he licks my hand. His chocolate drop eyes stare unflinchingly into mine. I can tell exactly what he’s thinking. No fear, just curiosity about a potential meal.

The bear circles, checking us from every angle. He rears up—he’s at least 10 feet tall—and places his immense front paws against the vehicle. Polar bears can shatter three feet of ice and snatch a 200-pound seal from its lair with these paws. Last year I saw one crack the windshield of a similar buggy. We don’t need reminding that we’re eye to eye with the largest land predator on the planet.

After 15 years of leading polar bear tours, I still thrill at the sight of these majestic creatures so at home in the frozen vastness of the tundra. Yet, in less than two decades, I have seen their environment change dramatically. In one recent year the tundra in Churchill was bare of snow until January. With the delayed freeze-up, the bear viewing season now extends until mid-November.

Polar bears are the physical representation of snow and ice, of howling wind and subzero temperatures. For 200,000 years, the harshest weather on earth and the elusive seals they hunt have shaped them like a master sculptor. Their whiteness, their size, every aspect of their body and behavior has been honed for survival in an unforgiving environment.

Today’s climate warming makes that environment even more unforgiving for all the creatures of the Arctic. With 80 percent of the Churchill polar bears tagged, this population of about 900 individuals represents the longest continuously

studied mammal population on the planet. Like the canary in the mine shaft, trends in the polar bear population are broadcasting a clarion cry of alarm. Since 1987, the Churchill population has dropped 22 percent. In the last five years, the Alaska population suffered a 15 percent decline.

The bear we’re watching wanders off a dozen yards and lies down, his head resting on its paws, and gazes at us. Hungry bears know how to be  patient, they wait for hours at a breathing hole in the ice for a seal to emerge. He waits; we burn film through our cameras like polar bear paparazzis.

While he investigated us, we whispered in excitement, now we break into an adrenaline-fueled chatter about touching the bear. “It  was electrifying, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” a woman from Ohio, says. “His nose was warm and dry and his tongue fleshy, not rough like a cat’s.”

The Great White Bear company’s Polar Buggies have five-foot diameter wheels that elevate viewers above the tundra and bears, so such personal encounters are safe. “Getting that close to a hungry bear gave me a buzz worth a 100 cups of coffee,” one man says. “It’s like being in a shark cage with great whites circling, except they’re bears, not sharks.”

Our group of bear watchers gets lucky. Before our two-day odyssey is over, we find a mother with two cubs born last year. Cubs suffer the most from starvation as the sea ice recedes from the Arctic. Annual population surveys show that since 1967 the survival of first-year cubs has dropped from 61 per 100 females to 25.

Mom leads her cubs 50 yards away along the edge of a shallow, ice-covered lake. The six-month-old bundles of fur cavort with each other like a pair of frisky puppies. She rests, they pounce on each other and roll around in the snow. The whir of camera shutters sounds like an approaching storm.

The cubs finally tire of each other and amble over to investigate these strange, four-wheeled creatures on their tundra. Protective mom follows close behind. The trio walk past our buggy and pause. One cub stands and stretches trying to see into the windows. The other joins him. Together they stand and sniff and stare, then all three rear up against the vehicle. Once again, the bears show no fear of the human intruders.

Watching bears living out their lives controlled solely by the forces of nature thrills us. We discover that we feel most a part of the majesty and mystery of nature when we exert the least influence on it.

“I’ve taken a lot of trips and the only thing that compares with this is the wildlife in Africa,” one man says as he reloads his camera. “This is an experience I’ll never forget.”

We all agree. You can see polar bears on the Discovery Channel, or you can go to the zoo. But until you’ve seen the unflinching wildness in a polar bear’s eyes, knowing that he’s sizing you up for a meal, you haven’t really seen a polar bear.

Global warming extends polar bear viewing season, but also has significantly decreased bear populations.

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