Ed. Note: Melynda Harrison was a 2015 Oboz ambassador who’s had amazing adventures. We’re running this story on polar bears now because November is the prime month to visit Churchill, Manitoba, and see the bears. All images by Melynda Harrison
We were supposed to be quiet while opening the windows so that we wouldn’t startle the bears, but the excitement inside the Tundra Buggy was too much to be contained.
Tundra Buggy Life
Everyone on my buggy—polar bear scientists, conservationists, and media—had seen polar bears in the wild before. Some of the people on this tour had been studying bears for decades; they had climbed into maternal dens for research and taken blood samples from tranquilized bears.
But there we were, slamming our school bus-style windows down so we could train our cameras on a mom and cub. For me, this was my fist cub siting and the little bruin did not disappoint. It cuddled with mom before rambling off a short distance to jump up and down on a frozen pond. After breaking through the ice, the cub grabbed a shard and sucked on it as if it was a lollipop. Then it was back to mom for a reassuring snuggle.
Polar Bear Capital of the World
I’ve traveled to the tundra near Churchill, Manitoba the “Polar Bear Capital of the World” several times. As the social media manager for Polar Bears International I look forward to getting into the Great White North during “bear season.”
Every November, hundreds of polar bears gather along the shores of the Western Hudson Bay to wait for sea ice to form. After months of fasting, these bears are anxious to get out on the ice to hunt seals, the mainstay of their diet.
When the ice melts in the summer, they are forced ashore to spend the next few months in a state known as walking hibernation. They live off their fat reserves until the sea ice forms again.
November also sees the tourist migration. Like the bears, camera-toting folks gather in Churchill hoping to commune with the Ice Bear before it heads to its seal-hunting ground on the sea ice. Each day, Frontiers North Adventures fills their Tundra Buggies with polar bear enthusiasts hoping to look into the eyes of a bear, or at least get a great photo to show their friends and family back home.
Eye to Eye with Polar Bears
The first time I saw a polar bear, I was glad to be about 12 feet off the ground in the Tundra Buggy; that put me a little higher than a bear can reach, even if it’s standing up on its back legs. Behind us, the sun was setting in bright reds, pinks, and oranges, lighting up the tundra.
It was October and the willows and lichens glowed gold, red, and umber. Someone spotted a single bear hanging out in a kelp bed up ahead. Slowly, it stood up and insouciantly walked over to us, curious to see what we were up to.
The bear circled the buggy; we followed the bear, sticking our cameras out whichever window it was nearest. Then, as we gathered on the back deck, the bear stood up and sniffed us. Just a couple feet of air between me and a polar bear.
Tundra Buggy Lodge
That night, and for the next three nights, I stayed at the Tundra Buggy Lodge, a train car-style lodge in the middle of the tundra. From the dining room, I watched polar bears chomping kelp and sleeping. One young bear kept walking over to the lodge to check us out.
Most days, I hopped on a Tundra Buggy and explored the subarctic, spotting bears, arctic foxes, arctic hares, ptarmigan, and even a seal out in the bay. The buggy drivers are all naturalists whose knowledge of natural and cultural history brought deeper meaning to my trip.
I thought about my flight into Churchill from Winnipeg—there aren’t any roads to the 900-person town—so flying or taking the train are the only ways to get there. From the air, the gray and white tundra looks deceptively flat.
The boreal forest appears as lichens on a rock and the partially frozen Churchill River winds across the landscape like a white snake. It’s not until you’re on the ground that this place has any dimension, that you realize the trees and hummocks and pockmarked landscape is the perfect place for polar bears.
Or at least it used to be.
While the migration to the shores of the Hudson Bay is part of an age-old pattern, the time on land has increased for polar bears by about a day per year for the last thirty years due to climate change. This most southern population of polar bears is now spending an extra month on shore.
For polar bears, shore leave means fasting. The bears we saw this year were skinnier than in the past, and while twins used to be the norm for polar bears, more and more moms only have the reserves for a single cub these days.
As the sun starts to set, the cubs we had been watching all day start to hunker down with their moms. Curled up together, it’s was hard to pick two bears out of the pile of yellowish white fur.
We began the slow drive back to Churchill, already reminiscing about what an amazing day we had and how lucky we were to be some of the few to see wild polar bears.
Melynda Harrison is a Livingston, Montana, based writer. Melynda is also the social media manager for Polar Bears International, and author of Ski Trails of Southwest Montana, Twenty Family-Friendly Hikes in Yellowstone, andYellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks First Time Trip Guide for Families. Follow her adventures atTravelingMel.com.