The excitement begins to grow even before our propjet’s wheels touch the runway tarmac of Churchill, Manitoba’s tiny airport.
It is late October and a gentle snowfall greets us as we disembark and walk the short distance to the terminal. Our Big Five group of 26 assembled in Winnipeg the day before from all over the United States with one goal - to observe the magnificent polar bear in its natural habitat.
Churchill is a frontier town of only about 1,000 residents carved out of the rough coast of western Hudson Bay in northern Canada. The community is the jumping off point for visitors who arrive to witness the annual gathering of the world’s largest land carnivores.
After a summer spent farther inland resting and eating berries, these normally solitary animals congregate for about six weeks in the Cape Churchill area, about 30 to 40 miles outside of town, where they wait for sea ice to form once again.
It is a quirk of nature that this small town is so close to one of the three largest denning areas for pregnant polar bears on the planet - a fact only discovered in 1969. The other two areas are in Russia and in Svalbard.
Polar bears mate on pack ice in April and May. In October and November, females build maternity dens to protect themselves and their coming offspring.
A den may start out as a shallow bed in the shelter of a bank, but drifting snow soon covers it, forming a chamber within the snowdrift. The oval room may be 20 feet long and five feet wide with an entrance tunnel about six feet long and two feet in diameter. The combination of the insulating properties of the snow and the body temperature of the pregnant female help maintain the temperature within the den well above freezing, even as high as 40 degrees F, despite outside temperatures.
The young are born during December and January, the coldest and darkest time of the year. They are blind, helpless and very small. The female usually stays in den from November to March. Both she and the newborns survive off her stored fat.
But once pack ice forms and the bay freezes, all other bears head out onto ice floes in search of their primary food - seals.
During this short season of transition, visitors have an unparalleled window of opportunity to observe these majestic creatures close up.
On our ride from the airport into town along hard-knock roads, we stop at polar bear "jail," one of the corrugated metal buildings used to contain bears that annually wander uninvited into town. Last year, that amounted to more than 200 animals. They are kept there until they can be safely released away from town.
We are given a brief tour of the community and drive to Cape Merry on the edge of town. Across the straits, we get a glimpse of Prince of Wales Fort that took the Hudson’s Bay Company about 40 years to build during the mid-18th Century.
After checking into our accommodations, we have the afternoon to browse around town, which is slightly reminiscent of frontier towns pictured in old American westerns.
The main street, Kelsey Boulevard, is a few blocks long and sprinkled with shops, restaurants, and a few hotels and lodges. The port and its five-million-bushel grain facility dominate the view of downtown. Built in the 1920s, the facility can load grain at the rate of 60,000 bushels per hour. Churchill is Canada’s only sub-arctic seaport and is 1,000 miles closer to Europe than Montreal.
Shortly after dawn and an early breakfast, the group gathers with others to travel by bus to the launch site about 20 miles east of town, where we board our tundra buggy. The vehicle is nearly the size of a small house, with seating for up to 50 people and over-inflated tires taller than most of us. The seats are arranged in rows of four, two on either side of a wide center aisle. Lots of windows offer panoramic views, and each buggy is equipped with an open-air viewing platform on the back.
Our driver, Mark, and guide, Kelly, introduce us to the rules of the ride such as staying seated when the vehicle is in motion. Mark emphasizes that there is no hooting or yelling to get the bears’ attention, and absolutely no feeding.
"The bears do not eat much of anything during this time of year and if anyone is caught trying to feed them, the tour is over," states Mark.
Simple and to the point.
He chides us to be on the lookout and we are as the buggy sets out across stark landscapes of rounded boulders and thousand-year-old lichen. The blue-gray water of the Hudson Bay is calm and as flat as the land.
The temperature is warmer than normal for this time of year, and what snow there is forms a patchwork quilt across the dark, rocky terrain.
Someone spots the first bear but it’s far off. We pause and hold our breath but the animal disappears into the scrub.
We continue and before too long see a distant group of three -- a mother and two cubs. We stop along with two other buggies to admire this tranquil scene.
"I have not seen this family in several days, and I am glad to see that they are all right," Mark notes with satisfaction. The previous week, an adult male killed a cub in the same area. He explains that the smaller bears are second-season cubs, meaning that they will soon have to venture out on their own. In all likelihood, the female will abandon them sometime in the next six months or so.
After a time, curiosity draws one of the youngsters in our direction. The only sound within the buggy is the clicking of cameras as the cub, weighing a couple of hundred pounds, meanders toward the vehicles, followed by the other cub and, reluctantly, the mother.
The animals’ fur is more yellow than expected.
The bears are almost as curious about us as we are anxious to see them. The bolder cub sidles up to the vehicle and sniffs a tire, then turns his expressive face up toward ours, stands up on his hind legs, and leans against the tire.
This is what we had hoped for - face-to-face, eye-to-eye contact.
For some of us, the temptation to reach out is strong, but we have been sternly warned. In the face of this innocence, it’s essential to remember that even this cub is capable of mutilating an arm in an instant with one swipe from its powerful forepaws. When this cub is grown, one paw may measure up to 12 inches in diameter.
Adult females average about 500 pounds while males weigh in the range of 1,100 to 1,300 pounds. They have partially webbed toes and long, strong claws that enable them to swim rapidly and dig easily in snow. In spite of size, polar bears are amazingly agile and can attain remarkable bursts of speed over short distances across rough ice terrain. They can swim silently under water or on the surface with only noses showing, and then emerge from the water at a full charge. They are well equipped to kill 500-pound seals and occasionally walruses and even whales.
All this seems remote when staring into soft, curious brown eyes.
Mother and cubs linger for half an hour or more. At one point, as if posing for a post card, the mother lies down about 20 yards away from our buggy and the cubs join her, snuggling close and resting their heads on her back.
Finally, the family moves off, and so do we.
Throughout the day, a five-passenger helicopter periodically meets up with our buggy to pick up members of the group for half-hour flights over the tundra. The pilot, Jim, has been flying for more than 30 years and is adept at scouting bears. We fly above a research compound and he points to a small red shed resting on its side.
"The bears often knock over anything not nailed down," Jim says.
This rare bird’s-eye view of the arctic tundra dramatizes the interplay of land and water so vital to the bears’ survival. But the tundra is home to other species including tundra swan, greater snow goose, moose, caribou, wolf, red fox, lemming, and snowy owl.
Mostly treeless, the terrain supports a few small spindly pine trees, each with one side completely stripped. One way to read direction up here is the trees, according to Mark. Harsh north winds have shaped these stunted trees, shearing off north-facing branches.
Towards afternoon, we stop to enjoy a boxed lunch of sandwiches and hot soup.
On the move again, we find two large males several yards apart in scrubby bushes. One of them suddenly stands erect on hind legs, flushing out a handful of nearby ptarmigans, members of the grouse family. Several times, he brings himself fully upright, an impressive sight. He is not only visually scouting the area, but also sniffing the air. Polar bears have a keen sense of smell that is said to detect scents up to 10 miles away.
The bears eye each other but move off in different directions, no confrontation this time.
Later, we are privileged to witness the antics of an arctic fox as it digs in a patch of snow at the edge of a pond, probably looking for lemmings, one of its main foods. It moves towards us sniffing and pawing the ground. The sleek animal comes within a few feet of our buggy as he makes a flying leap and tackles some leftover bird feathers caught in a nearby bush. He tumbles head over tail and seems to be having a great time as he moves unhurriedly away.
By the end of the afternoon, we have seen about 17 polar bears.
In the evening, the group discusses the adventure of the day over a hearty dinner at a nearby restaurant, and we anticipate the next day’s journey back on the tundra.
During the night, a small snowstorm moves into the area and it continues as we board the bus in the predawn to drive to the buggy site.
Once aboard the vehicle, everyone settles in. We roll through the blowing snow but the storm makes spotting bears or anything else difficult. The terrain, which was mostly made up of dark tones the day before, begins to take to dawn its winter fashion.
By late morning, the snow stops and the now white tundra sparkles in the occasional streamers of sunlight.
Throughout the afternoon we meet up with individual bears, mostly resting. A couple shy away but we encounter one large male that seems to enjoy the attention of people abroad the buggies. He rolls over on his back and stretches out full length, then swats at low branches of a nearby bush. He carries on, stretching with feet up, yawning, batting branches, turning his head this way and that, and generally mugging for the cameras.
We come across about eight or ten more bears during the afternoon, some bolder than others. While we observe one large fellow, he strides up our buggy, stands to his full height, and uses his forepaws to push against the side of the buggy several times as though trying to knock it over as others had turned over the red shed.
During the return to town in the fading afternoon light, conversation is at a minimum - everyone seems lost in thought, reflecting on the encounters of the past two days.
We have time on our last day in Churchill to shop or walk about town before our flight back to Winnipeg. But it is the days on Canada’s arctic tundra and the images of our close encounters with majestic polar bears that will linger longest.