Woman Meets Big Bears
By Alice Ramirez
Reprinted from the Fall 1997 issue of Radiance
I gazed into the ebony eyes of a polar bear. Had I not already been
warned about these creatures' dangerous charm, I might have been fooled by his playful
Polar bears, called by the Inuit people nanook, are normally solitary
hunters. But during the six to eight weeks of late fall, hunger and the anticipation of
having it soon sated makes them gregarious and frisky. They pass time by hanging out, dozing, and
mock-fighting. Because their natural fasting period has ended, they are hungry - and
therefore, at their most dangerous.
In the Cape Churchill Wildlife Management Area, located about twenty
miles outside the tiny town of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, polar bears gather while they
wait for Hudson Bay to freeze over and their hunting season to begin. Churchill is a tiny
town between Hudson Bay and the Churchill River. It stands not too far south of where
Manitoba province ends and the Keewatin region of Canada's Northwest Territories begins. I
had dreamed and saved for two years to come here and meet the great bears in their own
Polar bears exist all over the Arctic, but here, where the enterprising
people of Churchill have turned what used to be their worst wildlife nightmare into a
world-famous tourist attraction, you don't have to be an athlete or someone rich enough to
outfit an expedition to visit the bears. From mid-October through November, the town and
countryside around Churchill fill with wildlife enthusiasts and camera buffs like me.
Oddly, though, the place never feels crowded.
Up until my bear adventure, the year had been one of my worst ever. In
addition to a job layoff and the death of my favorite cat, a major pain had entered my
life: my new office mate "Jocasta" (whose name has been changed to protect the
guilty), a skinny, chain-smoking, not-quite-recovered alcoholic back from a psychiatric
leave of absence that had started before I began my job at UCLA. She made clear right from
the start that her own sharp-boned slenderness was proof of her superiority over me. My
boss, having nowhere else convenient to put this coworker from hell, dumped her in my
office. By the time I was ready to leave for Canada, I felt emotionally battered and
terrified that I would find myself trapped for a week, the only large woman in a
size-unfriendly crowd of Jocasta clones. I feared that my weight might interfere with what
I wanted to do and see in Alaska, or might invite scorn the way it sometimes does in
anorexic Los Angeles.
I arrived in Churchill via a travel packager called Adventure Canada,
whose office is based in Ontario. On a day in late October, at Los Angeles International
Airport, I boarded an Air Canada jet to Winnipeg, the essential hub of any trip to
Churchill. To save luggage space, I wore my bulky goosedown parka and snowboots. These
made me feel as if I were wearing clown feet. My backpack was stuffed to bursting, and I
carried a canvas tote bag filled with about ten pounds of camera gear and film. Two fanny
packs added another six inches around my waist. Finally, I checked in at the gate a
yard-long duffle bag holding everything else I thought I might need.
The Adventure group gathered at Churchill's tiny airport. As it turned
out, I was not the only large woman in this group. There were three of us: myself, Laura
Jane (Adventure Canada's service representative), and Linda from Oregon (who traveled with
herbrother, a Santa Claus lookalike). The others in our group ranged from elderly Canadian
retirees to a twenty-two-year-old Japanese woman. We also met Mike Beedel, our tour guide,
a man who later regaled us with amazing stories of dogsled trips from Canada to Greenland
and of a three-week solitary photo retreat spent trapped in a Churchill-area tower under
which patrolled a large, male polar bear who made numerous creative and alarming attempts
to get at the large meal (Mike) he could see and smell, but not quite reach.
After counting heads, we were taken by bus straight to The Visitors'
Centre in town, where we were given the standard orientation lecture on polar bear safety.
Because bears often wander into town, we needed to know how to handle ourselves: Always
travel in groups, particularly after dark. If you find yourself on foot, face-to-face with
a bear, never look it straight in the eye, because the animal's brain is hard-wired to
interpret direct eye contact as aggression. Definitely do not turn tail and run: doing so
arouses a bear's instinct to chase prey. Instead, back away with deliberate speed (not too
slowly, not too fast), talking softly. The town even staffs a special emergency phone. In
Churchill, if you sight a bear wandering down the street, dial B-E-A-R. Mike explained
that bears sleeping on the beach often resemble boulders. If you step onto a rounded,
snow-covered shape, thinking you are climbing over a rock, but instead wake up a polar
bear, you could be in for a very unpleasant encounter. Bears dislike being startled.
The next morning, we rode out to the tundra buggies, parked at the edge
of the wildlife management area. These vehicles are modified buses mounted onto giant
underinflated tractor tires, built to roll across the fragile land. They come in two
sizes. The small ones are basically little yellow schoolbuses. The large ones started
their existence as Mark IV-type tour buses. All have observation platforms built onto the
rear, where people can stand outdoors and really feel the tundra's cold, smell its
freshness, and maybe get really close to, while remaining safely separated from, any
marauding bears. They also have protective outer gates, made of steel bars, fastened to
the door and locked.
Adventure Canada always chooses the smaller vehicles because the
organizers feel that the large buggies keep their guests too far away from the bears (a
policy I especially like). The company also underbooks its tours in order to avoid
overcrowding. That is, they allow only about sixteen people to sign up for each polar bear
trip, even though their vehicles can hold up to twenty-four. This gives extra space to
generously proportioned people and for those lugging along bulky camera gear. Both applied
A polar bear safari is no vacation choice for someone with a bad back or
prone to motion sickness. As we churned forward, our buggy's giant underinflated tires
would dive into one ditch, flinging us all about forty-five degrees to the right. A few
seconds later, we'd be sinking into another rut, tossed about forty five degrees to the
left. Sometimes it felt as if we were about to land on our side. And so on and so on, back
and forth, while we all clung to the seat in front of us. This intensely rough ride proved
oddly exhilarating, at least to me.
Finally, we drew up close to our first bears. Our driver cut the engine.
The crowd pouring out onto the back observation deck made it rough for me to grab any good
photos at first. I am only five feet three inches, and many taller people were in my way.
Finally, as others lost interest or got cold and went back inside, I grabbed a spot
located at the right angle formed by two of the buggy's chest-high plywood protection
I took some photos of a sleeping bear. He was lying in a shallow coating
of snow, at the side of the road a few feet below, about six feet away. To my delight, he
opened his eyes and stretched. He raised the front half of his body to peer at us, his
forepaws resting one on top of the other on his stomach, an oddly demure gesture for a
creature reputed to be a bloodthirsty predator. His black eyes moved from one of us to the
other, studying each in turn. Clearly, we were not worth the effort for him to get up and
walk closer or run away. Certainly, he was never afraid of us.
The first time I met the gaze of one of these great animals, I expected
to feel a thrill of fear. To my amazement, when the bear's eyes actually met mine and held
them for a second or two, I saw not threat, but what seemed to be mild, almost amused,
curiosity. And what have we here? his expression seemed to be saying. Wanna come rub my
tummy? His body language suggested a huge, lazy dog awakened from a nap and half wanting
to play. I laughingly commented to a companion that, as adorably inviting as he appeared,
he was probably really thinking, Snack food! Finally, the bear got up and shambled off, in
the polar bear's typical pigeon-toed gait.
We prepared to head for another bear grouping, sighted about a
quarter-mile further on. Everyone went back inside, except for me. As the driver started
up the engine, I hung on tight. I stood in the corner of the observation deck, my upper
arms clinging hard to the plywood side, my camera dangling from a strap down my back, as
the buggy lurched forward. Once again, we pitched and rolled through the still unfrozen,
very muddy tundra trail. (The vehicles stay on trails in order to avoid damaging other
parts of the terrain.) I could feel the impact on the undersides of my upper arms and
airborne ice crystals stung my cheeks, but I didn't care. I loved standing outside,
experiencing the violent movement and the incredible view.
It is always interesting to see how a situation gets handled when
something goes dangerously wrong. One afternoon, as two huge males fought just about
twenty feet away from us, the battery in our tundra buggy died. We needed to be
jump-started. Mike had already told us a wonderfully awful story about the broken-down
buggy that had to be abandoned and its passengers rescued. When the owners returned the
next day, they found that bears had broken in and had eaten the seat covers. As we watched
the two large, aggressive bears, we considered what we were in for. For safety's sake, all
the buggy drivers keep in radio contact with one another. Ours alerted his colleagues to
the problem. Eventually, about six other tundra buggies showed up, and all but one
encircled ours, just as in olden times, covered wagons formed circles to ward off attack
in the night. The remaining buggy pulled up to ours, motor to motor, to initiate the
It was too dangerous for our driver to climb down and walk to the motor
and dead battery at the back of the bus. The bears were too close. Instead, he climbed
onto the roof and walked over our heads. A few minutes after the jumper cables had been
attached, our engine roared to life. The other tundra buggies broke rank and rode off to
continue on their own explorations.
One day, we toured the region by ordinary bus, driving as far as the
area's one paved and many gravel back roads would safely take us. We stopped first at Cape
Merry, once a fort and now a public park. Then we all climbed down a rocky hillside path
to a spectacular beach. For the first time ever, my hands touched the icy water of Hudson
Bay. While exploring, I found a half-fossilized bone that our driver later identified as a
vertebra, probably belonging to a walrus. I could have spent the entire day combing that
Arctic beach, but Mike - clearly nervous at the possibility of bear encounters - called us
After heading back to town for a hearty lunch, we experienced what was
for me the day's highlight. The local citizens run polar bear patrols and maintain traps
to catch animals that wander into town. Problem bears, once captured, are taken to
"the polar bear prison," a giant Quonset-hut-type building where they are
incarcerated until the ice freezes on Hudson Bay or until twenty-two days have passed,
whichever arrives sooner. It is hoped that these animals will come to associate visits to
town with an unpleasant confinement.
Our arrival turned out to be a case of perfect timing. Two bears had
served their full sentence, but because Hudson Bay remained liquid, they were to be
airlifted and then released approximately forty miles north. While we watched, animal
technicians pulled both heavily sedated beasts out on a flatbed wagon. Once outside, the
men laid both upon what looked like huge black fishnets. Their black eyes were open,
coated in petroleum jelly for protection. They stared uncomprehendingly at us, through us,
past us. Unlike my first eye-to-eye encounter and a few others that followed, I sensed no
animation, no curiosity, no spirit. The tranquilizers had worked. But it was okay, because
I knew they were heading to a better life far away from polar bear jails built by humans.
I moved close enough that I could have touched the nearest bear. I would
have, too, but a stern man, whom I believed to be a Mountie (and later found out was the
helicopter pilot), stood guard. He looked like a real no-nonsense type of guy who would
have been less than amused by a sappy American tourist yearning to scratch a polar bear
between the ears. I hoped he'd walk away or turn his back, but to my disappointment, he
maintained his vigil. I contented myself with taking pictures. I photographed the bears
being closed up in their netting and attached to the helicopter. I watched and listened
and clicked my shutter repeatedly while the 'copter's powerful engine burst into a roar
and the blades began to churn the air.
Underneath, the netting tightened. One by one, the dozinground, until
both bodies hung by netting in the sky directly over my head. The craft shot forward,
gaining altitude while flying in a direct line north, until it and its dangling living
cargo finally disappeared into slate-gray clouds, darkened with their promise of snow.
As the cloud-hidden sun set, our group headed back to town. Here, some
freshened up in their rooms while I squeezed in a half-hour's shopping spree. At 6 p.m. we
all met at Trader's Table for our first of two dinners in Churchill's fanciest restaurant.
That evening, I enjoyed my first taste of Arctic char. This fish, a close relative of
salmon, is difficult to find outside the far north. After dinner, we headed across town
I had been very active that day. Suddenly, exhaustion overwhelmed me. I
wanted to crawl into my nightgown and stretch out in bed. To accomplish this worthy end, I
broke one of the basic rules of polar bear safety.
Around 8:45 p.m. I walked by myself, alone, back to the hotel, taking
side streets and shortcuts between buildings. I started to have a really funny feeling.
What would I do if. . . ? I made it to the hotel safely and slept well. But the following
morning, I learned that around 9:15 p.m., two 1,200-pound male polar bears had been
captured right in the middle of town, brought down by a tranquilizer gun on a residential
side street just above the main part of Kelsey Avenue. That was more or less where I had
been. I gulped as I realized that had I left slightly later, or had I taken a different
route, I might have had a real up-close-and-personal polar bear encounter. Had I looked
into the eyes of one of those bears that night, I know I might not have survived.
As it happened, I was very much alive and eager for more bear-spotting
expeditions. The next two days - eight full hours each - were spent in our tundra buggy.
When lunch time came, our driver would stop. Mike and Laura Jane would pass around our
pack-in meal of really mediocre chili, dinner roll, cookies, and white wine. Although the
food was far less than inspiring, it served a valuable purpose. The smell of it attracted
more bears, all males. But male bears were plentiful and frisky, their fights playful
rather than ferocious. We watched one wallowing in what must have been a very cold mud
puddle. By the time we passed by him again a few hours later, he was still wallowing and
had taken on the coloration of a grizzly bear.
Soon I discovered that the outer protective gate that locks into place
outside the regular bus-style door exists not only as an additional safety barrier, but to
permit some thrilling entertainment. The door's steel bars, which criss-cross horizontally
and vertically, form openings of about twelve inches square. After that smelly chili
lunch, a curious and fearless male approached. To my delight, our driver opened the inside
The bear stuck his head in through one of the openings in the safety
gate. He glanced up at all of us. His shiny black eyes met mine. He gazed at others, too,
but I noticed only my own close-in eye contact with this beautiful, alien, and oddly
I was sitting right near him. By exerting the slightest effort, I could
have reached down and scratched that massive skull. The temptation was strong because the
bear's gaze seemed playful, curious, wistful, and friendly all at once.
Had Mike not told us the horror story of one visitor who had returned
often to Churchill, become careless, and paid for his overconfidence with a severely
skinned forearm, I would have reached down. Because of Mike's warning, I knew that the
bear was probably really thinking something along the lines of"Lunch! Hamburger meat!
Din-dins! And salivating at the sight and smell of us.
On the way back at day's end, our driver stopped in the middle of
nowhere and we got out to lie and dance in the snow. The quality of the light was
incredible. Snow on the ground had merged with a white sky just beginning to turn rosy
pink. I wanted to capture my fellow travelers as moving figures floating against this
backdrop of white on white. I lay on my stomach and began snapping picture after picture,
stopping only when my bare hands turned too numb to press down the shutter button.
I hated the thought that I was soon to leave this beautiful place. Out
on the tundra, my boring office job and all its annoyances had dropped out of my mind. I
had been bitten hard by the tundra. To this day, I still daydream about finding a way to
settle down there among the polar bears, snow, and wild, wild wind. ©
ALICE RAMIREZ loves to photograph large carnivores in their native
habitat (especially polar bears). She lives in Los Angeles with eight small carnivores
(cats). She will probably be back in Churchill again, on another polar bear photo shoot,
by the time you read this article.
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