tag your bbf
Bundle up for a polar-bear safari in northern Manitoba.
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)