I can still feel the Arctic air, sharp and clean. I can see the late-afternoon sunset, a glowing band of gold, then scarlet, then deep rose, lingering on the horizon. I can hear the yip of the sled dogs, avid to dash across the snow. But what remains most vivid in my memories of the past week is the image of my daughter’s face, nose to nose with an enormous polar bear.
Granted, a pane of glass lay between them. But it was no hindrance to this powerful exchange of mutual curiosity. The giant male bear had approached our ‘polar rover,’ a specialized vehicle custom-designed for polar bear viewing on the tundra. He sauntered up and sat before us, as we craned to gaze at him through the huge front windows. Then, he rose up on his back legs and stood nearly 10 feet tall, placing his paws like pieces of furry carpet onto the perfectly clear windshield. As Bryn, 11, watched at eye-level, he leaned closer, touching his big black nose to her small pale one, staring at her for a few enchanted seconds.
Immersion into the wild
Though this was the most moving encounter, it was one among many with these remarkable animals during our three excursions onto the tundra. Our family of four (including my husband and our 15-year-old son) went to northern Manitoba on Natural Habitat’s Classic Polar Bear Expedition, where we saw not only polar bears, but also fluffy white Arctic hares and foxes and ptarmigan, which we detected despite their wintry camouflage.
We were fortunate to have exceptionally good bear viewing, as the animals were congregating on the shores of Hudson Bay awaiting freeze-up and the start of their seal-hunting season. This most southerly polar bear population must fast for four to five months after the ice melts, and it was clear that they were plenty hungry. We watched ice form on the shore, tantalizing the bears, then break up in the action of the tide or a south wind. The region’s warm fall weather has delayed the ice, and the bears must continue to wait till they can venture hundreds of miles out onto the solid frozen expanse.
At one point near the shoreline, we could see 10 bears at close range and more in the distance. Two pairs of sparring young males rose up on their hind legs swatting at one another like boxers, then crashing to the snow to wrestle and play like puppies. Our seasoned driver Bill, who formerly managed the remote Tundra Lodge and has spent years among the bears, assured us we had one of the two best days he’d seen in his career, with the bears both play-fighting and climbing up on our vehicle.
We felt blessed.
In a world where children are increasingly insulated from nature, and wildlife encounters happen primarily at zoos if at all, an experience like ours is rare and profound. One of our trip companions echoed my own feeling that our time among the bears felt spiritual. It’s hard to convey the delight of such proximity to these gorgeous beasts (who looked downright cuddly, despite their status as King Carnivore of the North), the sense of wonder at their adaptation to this harsh ecosystem, and the restorative power of several days’ immersion in the Arctic wilds.
Treasuring the natural world
As we returned to Churchill from our night drive on the tundra, looking up at the northern lights against a black sky full of glittering stars, my daughter hugged me and said, “Thanks, Mom, for taking us here.”
I have been musing on how my own view of the world has been transformed by spending time with wild polar bears. But I am even more grateful for what such an opportunity means for my kids. They have a sense now, far more palpable than they could glean through news stories, of how crucial our human actions are for the polar bears’ future. They know what it means for the bears’ health when the ice freezes later and melts earlier than it used to, shortening their hunting season. They are starting to recognize that leaving lights on at home or driving when we could walk actually makes an impact on the polar bear cubs they loved watching in Canada.
My hope is that as a result of our travels, my children will come to treasure the natural world in a far deeper way than if they are merely watching Arctic Tale or the movie Earth, excellent as those are.
Like me, you may see the value in driving a 10-year-old Subaru and looking for bargains at classy consignment shops, if it means saving money for a chance to come nose to nose with a polar bear, or, as we were lucky enough to do last winter, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos. What better gift can we give our children than a communion with its wonderful wild creatures? The only answer I have is this: a commitment to protecting our planet so that such opportunities will be there for our grandchildren’s children and beyond.