A jour­ney to watch po­lar bears in the wild tun­dra of north­ern Canada of­fers Pa­tri­cia Maunder the thrill of a close en­counter but the ter­ri­ble feel­ing such ex­pe­ri­ences may soon be im­pos­si­ble.

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It’s late Oc­to­ber in the Churchill Wildlife Man­age­ment Area. The edge of Hud­son Bay, which takes a mas­sive bite out of north­ern Canada, is freez­ing up, but not enough for the bears to end their months-long fast on land and be­gin the sea-ice seal hunt. As the first of my two days bear-watch­ing ebbs away, I won­der if I’ve trav­elled thou­sands of kilo­me­tres, and spent thou­sands of dol­lars, for noth­ing.

The day be­gan be­fore dawn in Win­nipeg, the cap­i­tal of the prov­ince of Man­i­toba and the gate­way to Churchill – 1000 kilo­me­tres north, by air or rail only. After buzzing nois­ily over a vast stretch of boggy terrain mot­tled with lakes, ponds and pud­dles, our plane reached its des­ti­na­tion at 58º 46' N. To­gether with the few dozen other well-in­su­lated souls of my Fron­tiers North tour group, I hur­ried from chilly Churchill air­port’s tar­mac to a wait­ing bus.

We bounced past the po­lar bear jail, where any Ur­sus mar­itimus that wan­ders into town is held for a short spell, as well as Cold War-era mil­i­tary fa­cil­i­ties, some long aban­doned, some con­verted for Arc­tic re­search. I later dis­cover that the Bri­tish con­sid­ered Churchill for nu­clear weapons test­ing be­fore set­tling on Aus­tralia. I guess they pre­ferred 40 above to 40 be­low.

The bus stopped at a for­mer rocket launch site, now known as “launch” for the Tun­dra Bug­gies that take tourists in search of po­lar bears. Th­ese rudi­men­tary yet spa­cious ve­hi­cles are cus­tom-built for the con­di­tions – mas­sive wheels keep pas­sen­gers be­yond the reach of claws and fangs, even on the open rear deck, and can han­dle the old mil­i­tary tracks that have in­ten­tion­ally been al­lowed to de­te­ri­o­rate in this wildlife zone.

We lum­ber along for hours, the only ex­cite­ment be­ing slow-mo­tion roller-coaster rides when­ever the buggy lurches into, and some­how out of, muddy pot­holes that gape open as au­tumn ice gives way. There’s lit­tle vari­a­tion in the flat land­scape of frozen wa­ter­ways, mea­gre, windswept snow and naked shrubs: oc­ca­sional, tee­ter­ing, ex-mil­i­tary look­outs (which are, from a dis­tance, rem­i­nis­cent of The Em­pire Strikes Back’s me­chan­i­cal walk­ers on the ice planet Hoth); a few mis­er­able spruce trees, whose stunted branches all point south – the Arc­tic winds blast north-fac­ing growth into frigid obliv­ion.

The scenery’s colour and move­ment is more Sa­muel Beck­ett than Star Wars, yet ev­ery eye stays fixed upon it, search­ing for the species deemed vul­ner­a­ble by the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture. Jim the jolly driver and guide scans the hori­zon with a well­prac­tised gaze, while re­veal­ing some po­lar bear lore he’s gath­ered over the years. They are like peo­ple, he says, in that some are mis­an­thropes that avoid the bug­gies, while oth­ers are cu­ri­ous, even so­cia­ble. He re­calls one bear that, sea­son after sea­son, came run­ning like a faith­ful dog when a par­tic­u­lar driver ap­proached.

Joanne, an Amer­i­can zookeeper and Po­lar Bears In­ter­na­tional vol­un­teer, also watches keenly. It’s her penul­ti­mate day in the field, but even­tu­ally she gives up hope or takes pity on the for­lorn eco-tourists and does some show-and-tell. She hands around an ar­ray of po­lar bear items, in­clud­ing fur (some­what coarse), a claw (shorter and sharper than a griz­zly’s shown for com­par­i­son) and a track­ing col­lar, used to plot bears’ wan­der­ings across Hud­son Bay’s sea ice.

But there are no bears out on the bay now – so where are they?

Fi­nally, Jim spies one in the dis­tance. He drives as close as per­mit­ted – about 200 me­tres from the sleep­ing bear. Sev­eral bug­gies gather, and all on board will the crea­ture to wake up and wan­der over, but it re­mains a small white smudge on this grey day.

By the time I check into my ac­com­mo­da­tion, the light has al­most faded away, Churchill’s few shops have closed, and the streets are as de­serted as the tun­dra. A pricey beer is the in­glo­ri­ous crown on a long day short on an­tic­i­pated re­wards, and the forecast for to­mor­row – my last shot – is colder, greyer, with flur­ries. My mood is sim­i­larly bleak.

It bright­ens with an unexpectedly clear dawn, and Jim’s news that bears have been sighted on the tun­dra. He soon parks the buggy, side-on, like a friendly bear, at the edge of a frozen lake where our quarry is sniff­ing about.

I step onto the open deck, obliv­i­ous to the sub­zero tem­per­a­tures, and watch the bear as he noses air and ice. The buggy’s hu­man cargo must smell ap­peal­ing, as he am­bles to­ward us, cast­ing a lanky shadow on the ice. The fur on the other side of his body shines al­most sil­ver in the sun.

Ev­ery­thing else is ut­terly still on the silent tun­dra.

The bear’s fea­tures be­come clearer: prodi­gious paws curl up and in­ward as he walks; long snout, slightly blue around the muz­zle; ab­surdly cute lit­tle ears for such a big, danger­ous beast; black eyes, as in­tense and mys­te­ri­ous as black holes. It’s as if this bear and I are the only crea­tures in the uni­verse when he stops, not two me­tres away, and looks up into my eyes.

Time and breath­ing re­sume when the bear walks off un­der the high-based ve­hi­cle, di­rectly be­neath my feet, then emerges on hind legs to sniff at Jim’s win­dow. He am­bles over to a nearby buggy, which lists sharply to­ward the crowded deck.

The bear wan­ders away, but we en­counter sev­eral more, in­clud­ing one that chews sea­weed on the icy shore out of bore­dom or des­per­a­tion. None, how­ever, come as close as the crea­ture that looked me in the eye, that seemed to stare into my soul but was prob­a­bly just siz­ing me up for break­fast.

I see his face in my mind’s eye while buzzing back to Win­nipeg, where I seek more po­lar bears. In Assini­boine Park Zoo’s trans­par­ent un­der­wa­ter tun­nel, I watch them swim with strength and grace, play­fully spar­ring and wrestling with rub­ber toys. It’s mes­meris­ing, but an ex­pe­ri­ence tem­pered by see­ing them later, bored and dirty, in their en­clo­sure of con­crete and grass.

I’m also en­tranced by the sculp­tures at Win­nipeg Art Gallery, which has the world’s largest col­lec­tion of arts and crafts from the Inuit peo­ples of the far north. Their rep­re­sen­ta­tions of bears in stone, bone and tusk are dy­namic, al­most de­monic, and re­veal some­thing of the vi­o­lence not ap­par­ent in the placid crea­tures I ob­served.

Th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences at zoo and gallery are fas­ci­nat­ing, even joy­ous, but I have a nag­ging sense of sad­ness, too. In less than a cen­tury, such ex­pe­ri­ences, de­fined and con­fined by hu­mans, will prob­a­bly be the limit of po­lar bear en­coun­ters. Dispir­it­ing days on the tun­dra will be­come more com­mon, un­til the world’s po­lar bear cap­i­tal shifts to Dubai, Las Ve­gas or some other place with a knack for ar­ti­fice and spec­ta­cle.

Head­ing home, on a plane con­tribut­ing to the dooms­day sce­nario for wild po­lar bears, I won­der if my Churchill ad­ven­ture will soon be as ex­otic as tales about Tas­ma­nian tigers and Yangtze River dol­phins. Or is there

• an unexpectedly bright, clear dawn ahead?

An in­quis­i­tive po­lar bear ap­proaches a tour ve­hi­cle out­side Churchill, Man­i­toba.

PA­TRI­CIA MAUNDER is a writer, ed­i­tor and broad­caster based in Mon­treal.

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