This photo above by Natural Habitat guide Colby Brokvist clearly illustrates how well polar bears insulate and regulate their body heat. Cold temperatures in Churchill during polar bear season are often still pretty warm for bears. This polar bear is cooling off in snow while resting and conserving energy. Summer allows bears to cool off in the Hudson Bay and they can more often be seen swimming or trying to prey on seals lounging on remnant ice floes or tidal flats.
I saw my first polar bear through a window. No, not at a zoo exhibit or aquarium or anywhere in captivity. My very first visit to Churchill, MB I saw the bear through the rear observation window in the town complex that looks down over the “beach”, a word used loosely in the north, and out across the Hudson Bay. With all the polar bears meandering wildly throughout the area you wouldn’t think seeing a bear from the comfort and warmth of the building would be too thrilling. It was.
I was reading a report from Natural Habitat guide Karen Walker recently and she was explaining what her group was up to in the throes of some snow squalls, again words used loosely in the north, when they finally ended up at that same window viewing point in the complex. Here’s that account:
“Cape Merry was open, so we headed out there. Ranger Marcandre gave us some background on the fur trade then most of the guests ventured up to the “view point”. We could barely make out the icy river and definitely couldn’t see the Fort Prince of Wales. My intrepid guests headed out to the cannon battery for a brief visit and really got to experience the weather. It’s hard to imagine that the early explorers were able to survive in weather like this. Then we warmed up in the Town Complex. While we were up by the big window, by the Pioneer Gallery, a guest spotted a bear walking out on the ice, in the blowing snow. Then another bear appeared. They were heading toward each other. They veered away from each other and went their separate ways. Then one decided to head toward town, right toward the Enterprise (the wooden ship up in the beach-grass. The blowing snow cleared for a moment and we were able to see Bear Patrol parked by the inukshuk. The bear came closer, then they moved over by the Enterprise and fire- crackered it. It took off running, south along the shore. The other bear stayed out on the ice and headed south as well. It was really interesting to see it walking on the ice, but rolling up and down with the wind-driven swells. We never saw the bear close to shore again, but not too much later a bear was spotted in town, or near the castle. It might have been our bear.”
My experience wasn’t as dramatic though it was an incredible moment etched in my memory forever. As I gazed out across the ice -strewn bay, I saw the tell-tale yellow spot shifting over chunks of ice. Polar bears do not appear white when observed from such a distance and this one was quite small as I peered through the telescope mounted on the small ledge by the window. After some time, I was able to focus in quite nicely on the tiny bear maneuvering over the floes. Periodically the animal would step from solid ice to slushy leads and have to swim to the next floe. Watching this scene unfold touched the most primal instincts inside of me. In many ways it was more exhilarating then many of the hundreds of polar bear sightings I have witnessed since. Other than this being my first sighting, it was special because it was mine and only mine. From my mind to the polar bear across the expanse of ice I connected through my eyes only to a biological existence so unexplainable, how an animal could survive in this climate, that I felt this once in a lifetime experience deeper than most others.
Polar bear out on the isolation of the Hudson Bay ice enjoying a seal feast. Colby Brokvist photo.
I’ve since seen bears all over the tundra, boreal forest, in nets high above, in the compound, and in town. Yes they were exciting but in comparison up-close is not always better. The isolation of that lone bear surviving on the ice and in the frigid water will be frozen in my mind forever. It was and still is “my bear”.