Paul, our guide, had just immobilized our minibus on the shores of Hudson Bay, the starting point of our hike.
Binoculars in hand and with the hint of a smile, he replied, “Look! There's one right in front of us.”
In a split second, my seven companions and I were looking out the windows. Indeed, a polar bear was resting on top of the rocks less than 50 meters away.
Our instructions were simple: walk in tight ranks behind Paul and, whatever happened, stay calm, do not scream, jump or run. With the wind coming from the northwest, the bear could see us but couldn’t smell us. Paul's strategy was therefore to go around him, making sure that we kept a safe distance and a constant eye on him. Once on the other side, the bear would detect our scent.
We started moving quietly and slowly ensuring that we carefully observed the bear. It continued to lay on the rocks and barely lifted his head once in awhile to check on our progress. At this time of year, the priority for polar bears is to conserve energy. They’ve been fasting for a few months already and they’re doing their best to find ways of keeping cool. This one had found a nice spot on a cool rock.
Once the bear was bypassed, we turned around and were astonished to notice a young researcher from the Churchill Northern Studies Center (CNSC) walking nonchalantly between us and the bear. He had a rifle on his shoulder but he was walking head down scanning the ground, stopping, kneeling down, his back turned on the bear.
Paul’s initial thought was that the researcher may attempt to have the bear moved in order to work. It quickly became clear though that he had not noticed the animal within 25 meters of him. Paul gave him a shout. The researcher raised his head and looked at us. “Did you see the bear?” asked Paul. The answer was not long in coming: “What bear?” Oh boy! This remark gave us the shivers! Paul pointed in the direction of the bear. The researcher had a look and replied that he had noticed a white spot but, since our group was here, he had assumed we had raked the area and that there was no danger. This white spot therefore had to be a simple rock and he had not examined it more closely! The researcher wisely decided it was safer for him to return to the CNSC. He’d come back at some other point to do his work. He waved at us and headed towards his vehicle, this time, regularly checking if there was any activity behind him. We set off again and we all took very good note of the lesson.
The Hudson Bay coast with its bedrock ridges was such an attractive area to hike along, but as we became more aware of our surroundings, we could easily recognize the many opportunities it offered bears to hide and keep cool. As we approached an area of tall grasses, it was a possibility that a bear could be resting in there. Good thing Paul was the lead because we did end up walking right into a bear’s day bed. Luckily, he wasn’t home at that precise moment.
Paul entertained us with many stories about his various encounters and adventures with polar bears. Guiding and protecting tourists, scientists and film crews for over 38 years, he’s met countless numbers of bears during the course of his duties but, they are also frequent visitors in his own backyard, with his house being located outside the town of Churchill, near the old dump. Electric wires protect his windows. He has installed a metal “cage” around his backdoor to ensure that he is safe while he scans the area for potential bear activity. This protected area holds a ladder giving him access to a chair installed on his roof. Security is definitely a high priority. We’re not talking raccoons or skunks scavenging in the garbage bins!!
I could really understand the need for electric wires. During my first visit to Churchill in the fall 2010, two nights in a row a female polar bear and her two cubs climbed on the roof of the CNSC’s building and forced the staff to initiate the process to chase them away. My most thrilling encounter with a polar bear occurred at 12:10 the night of November 2, 2010. I was sleeping in the top bunk when I heard a weird nose from the outside. I just lifted and turned my head to look out the window. I came face to face with the female polar bear standing on her back legs and her front paws shaking the metal bars of the window. Her nose was less than a meter from mine!! Instinctively I screamed “polar bear” and Leonora, one of my roommates, woke up and ran to inform the staff member on duty. What a thrill!!
A control zone has been defined all around Churchill. Any bear that finds itself within the zone is “encouraged” to leave area by conservation officers. If their efforts are in vain, the bear is usually captured and held in the specially designed "polar bear holding facility" until it can be evacuated by helicopter.
That said, polar bears do not always bear the main responsibility for the consequences, sometimes fatal, of their encounters with humans. One component of the Polar Bear Alert program aims to change human behavior. All along the control zone, there are signs telling people not to venture beyond these limits. Unfortunately, some people still ignore these signs and head into off limit areas without adequate protection. During my stay, three businessmen from Winnipeg learned their lesson. On a beautiful evening, they decided to take a leisure walk on the beach. Luckily for them, that evening Paul was accompanying a group of students for a hike at low tide to the ship wreck of the Ithaca. Paul noticed the trio and yelled at them to join his group immediately. The men were unaware of the polar bear following them. What is considered to be a simple stroll on the beach down south can become a game of Russian roulette in Churchill.
In one of the buildings of the CNSC complex, there was a poster by the door reminding us that before leaving the building, one should look to the right, look to the left and look above! Yes! Polar bears climb on roofs. Michael Goodyear, director of the CNSC, remembered the day he returned from picking up a group of tourists at the airport and a woman remarked how pretty the polar bear sign was on the roof. "What sign?" Michael wondered. Surprise! A real bear was patiently awaiting his next snack!
In Churchill, one must be constantly on alert, in any place and at any time of day. Winter is the only time of the year when one can actually not worry about bears as they are busy hunting seals on the ice of Hudson Bay. But as soon as the ice melts, they are back on the land.
Experiencing Churchill at a time other than during the fall migration of the polar bears turned out to be a most rewarding experience. All of our hikes were memorable whether we walked along the bedrock ridges of the Hudson Bay coast, on the beach looking for 1.8 billion year old fossils, in the tundra to reach viewpoints overlooking the bed of the post-glacial Tyrrell Sea or from Sloop Cove to the Fort Prince-of-Wales reliving the fur trade era.
We got a totally different perspective of the polar bears, as this time, we were not high up in the safety of a Tundra Buggy but we shared the land with them. Summer in Churchill is also the time when thousands of beluga whales migrate to the estuary of the Churchill River and a large variety of birds nest in the area. As a bonus, we got to witness the spectacular aurora borealis at several occasions.
Please, do not let the presence of polar bears deter you from discovering this fascinating region in the summer time. All you have to do is to make sure that your excursions occur in a safe environment. Oh! One tip: do not forget your mosquito net. At times, they can be quite large in subarctic and a lot more bothersome than the polar bears.