Woman Meets Big Bears
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 expression.
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 habitat.
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 to me.
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 barriers.
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 jump-start.
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 back.
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 for entertainment.
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 door.
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 charming creature.
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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