tag your bbf

Bun­dle up for a po­lar-bear sa­fari in north­ern Man­i­toba.

ELLE (Canada) - - #Storyboard - BY CHRISTINA REYNOLDS

A Hall­mark “bear-y best friends” mo­ment cap­tured by exec editor Christina on a po­lar-bear sa­fari

edie Bid­dle was scan­ning for po­lar­bear tracks out the win­dow of the slow-mov­ing Tun­dra Buggy when she saw some­thing scam­per through the wil­low bushes. “Stop! What’s that?” she called out to fel­low vis­i­tors. Buggy driver Jim Bald­win hit the brakes, and two dozen Fron­tiers North Ad­ven­tures guests, cam­eras in hand, scram­bled to the right side of the mas­sive ve­hi­cle to try to catch a glimpse of the crea­ture. “Where is it?” “I see it!” peo­ple cried out. But Bid­dle’s ea­gle eye hadn’t spot­ted a 1,000-pound bear; it was a 10-cen­time­tre-long furry ro­dent. “Now let’s find the match­ing fox to go with it!” wise­cracked Bald­win.

Like Bid­dle, we had all come to the frozen land­scape around Churchill, Man., to see the great white bears. But the un­ex­pected shrieks of our “great lem­ming mo­ment,” as our group in­stantly chris­tened it, tem­po­rar­ily eclipsed the bears. The tiny sight­ing even in­spired a hash­tag: Af­ter much de­bate, con­sul­ta­tion with a guide­book and laugh­ter, we con­cluded that the crea­ture was ac­tu­ally a vole (be­cause of its long tail), not a lem­ming. #it­sno­talem­ming was born (Google it!), and a dis­parate group of vis­i­tors from as far away as Hong Kong and Aus­tralia and as close as Air­drie, Alta., and Toronto had of­fi­cially bonded. What I think pre­pared us for such over-the-top ex­cite­ment about some­thing so seem­ingly in­signif­i­cant was that we were al­ready giddy from see­ing a whole bunch of bears. Ac­cord­ing to care­ful track­ing by Frank Paca, a savvy and spry 92-year-old from Alexan­dria, Va., who was, by far, the old­est mem­ber of our group, we saw 57 po­lar bears dur­ing our two and a half days out on the chilly tun­dra (al­though his to­tal likely in­cludes some du­pli­cate sight­ings).

But by any count, it was an ice-bear ex­trav­a­ganza—our early-Novem­ber tim­ing had been per­fect. The nearby Hud­son Bay was start­ing to re­sem­ble “the tex­ture of a mar­garita,” as our guide, Hay­ley Shep­hard, put it, and was about a week away from form­ing a sta­ble layer of ice. (As soon as the full freeze sets in, the bears head out to vo­ra­ciously hunt ringed seals—their ac­cess to this pri­mary food source is cut off when there is no ice.) So the usu­ally soli­tary an­i­mals gather by this part of the seashore, one of the first places the ice forms, un­til their hunt­ing grounds so­lid­ify. Th­ese are the con­di­tions that have se­cured Churchill fame as the po­lar-bear cap­i­tal of the world for a few weeks ev­ery fall. h

It’s pretty fun to watch po­lar bears “hang out.” They don’t just sit around with their bums to the wind and their noses tucked un­der their mas­sive paws (al­though they do look pretty cute do­ing just that); they spar—and I ac­tu­ally saw fur fly­ing! Here’s how it went down: The Tun­dra Buggy, which looks kind of like a gi­ant Mars rover, pulls up to the bears. The buggy win­dows (safely set a good three me­tres off the ground) go down. Puffy jack­ets are quickly zipped up. Cam­eras are po­si­tioned. The play-by-play is in full swing. Two young males are nose to nose. Their heavy ex­ha­la­tions hang in the air as they suss each other out. Soon, they’re up on their hind legs, jostling back and forth, kick­ing up snow. A plat­ter-size paw lands a whack across the face. “Nice move,” some­one calls out as the rest of us “Ooh” and “Ah” and the shut­ter-but­ton click­ing reaches a crescendo. Now it looks like they’re do­ing the tango—but it’s hard to tell who has the lead. “It’s a great bear hug!” says Steven Am­strup, chief sci­en­tist at Po­lar Bears In­ter­na­tional (PBI), who has joined our ex­cur­sion.

A few min­utes later, the bears are again nose to nose, but this time they are curled up to­gether in the snow preen­ing and “floss­ing” fur from their mouths. “They need to cool down af­ter work­ing up such a sweat,” says Am­strup. This might seem like cu­ri­ous be­hav­iour, but the bears were not ac­tu­ally in a life-and-death bat­tle. Spar­ring is their way of get­ting to know each other—to fig­ure out who is dom­i­nant, he ex­plains. That way, when they are out on the sea ice, they al­ready know if it’s worth en­gag­ing in a high-stakes fight for food or a mate.

Af­ter eye­balling matches for al­most three hours one day, we thought we had all the moves down. But the next day, a whole new kind of “com­bat” emerged. “It’s like pil­low fight­ing,” said Shep­hard, as a fe­male pair lit­er­ally nuz­zled and kissed each other through­out their spar­ring dance. “It doesn’t look like the boys’ club,” she said with a chuckle. That said, don’t un­der­es­ti­mate the fe­males—they will fiercely fight off larger males to pro­tect their cubs.

A bear ap­proaches the Fron­tiers North Ad­ven­tures Tun­dra Buggy Lodge; ice along the shore of Hud­son Bay; a tiny vole; an Arc­tic fox

A mother bear with her “COYs” (cubs of the year) in Novem­ber

A beau­ti­ful morn­ing out on the tun­dra (left); the aurora bo­re­alis near Churchill (below)

The bears check out a Tun­dra Buggy and (below) put up their dukes.

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