MINUS 14 degrees outside and overnight sleet and snow has transformed the Arctic tundra into part skating rink, part slushy machine.
A 400kg male bear, estimated to be about nine years old, glides across the landscape with the unexpected grace of a prima ballerina. It’s more tundra tutu than SwanLake but it’s not a bad performance either.
In fact, if I didn’t know any better, I’d suspect the bear was staging this show just for me.
I’m on a walking safari with Churchill Wild along the shores of Hudson Bay, 60km from the frontier town of Churchill. And I’m sharing the elegant Seal River Lodge with several other humans on the inside of the compound, and several curious bears on the outside.
In contrast to the bear, and despite being several hundred kilograms lighter, it’s slow going across this slippery earth upon which I find myself.
I envy the bear with its massive padded feet allowing terrific traction and the ability to travel much faster, and farther, than you might expect.
There are 25,000 polar bears in the world, of which Canada lays claim to two-thirds of the population. In the wider Hudson Bay area, there is estimated to be a stable and healthy population of 1000 polar bears.
Polar bears can have a home range of 50,000 to 60,000 kilometres but travel as far as 350,000 square kilometres. And one of the best places in the world to view them is in this very spot in which I find myself.
Churchill Wild tour guide Derek Kyostia instructs us on bear etiquette when walking in the wild.
“Move slowly, bears don’t like surprises. We just sit patiently and wait. It is up to the bear whether we make the news tomorrow or not,” he says.
“When we are out in the yard we are going to approach very slowly. There is no distracting the bears or baiting the bears. We are here to observe and witness, not distract and disturb.”
Within hours of our arrival we spot our first bear. Derek instructs us to approach in single file so we look as one.
“We can’t manage what the bear is going to do but we can modify our behaviour,” he says. “You are something new in their environment and they are curious. Every bear coming in isn’t coming in with the intent to eat you.
“We are your first line of defense. If we ask you to move, this means now. Bears are opportunistic. They will do everything to avoid conflict with each other and also us. Collectively we are much larger.”
Over the next few days we spot several bears and learn more about their behaviour as well as how we should react.
Derek says half the bears will remain a dot on the horizon, a quarter will come within 200 metres and the rest will come close enough to prompt “negotiations”.
“First we’ll talk to it and say something like ‘hey handsome, how’s it going today? I love what you’ve done with your coat.’ Then we’d pick up two rocks and click them together. Then we’d throw a rock at the bear to startle it. Then we’d use capsicum spray from about eight to 10 metres.
“The gun is a last resort. That bear has to be eating someone before we take it out and fire a shot. We have two slugs and three shells – that gun has never been fired even in a warning shot.
“Believe me, it is much less paperwork if we shoot one of you.”
Several days later, the 400kg bear we spotted earlier comes within 10 metres of us and negotiations begin. As predicted, the bear is far more curious than dangerous, and with a few complimentary words in his direction, he keeps on walking.
Prima ballerinas and polar bears can be such divas sometimes.
* The writer travelled to Canada as a guest of Destination Canada and Churchill Wild.
If you go...
A REASONABLE level of fitness is required to join a Churchill Wild walking safari. Participants should be able to walk at least five kilometres over uneven terrain.
While the walks are not strenuous, bulky cold weather gear (available for hire) and changing conditions such as ice, snow, sleet, rocks and spongy tundra grass, can make mobility a little challenging in parts.
Tour guides stop regularly to allow walkers to take photos of polar bears and to assist walkers – www.churchillwild.com