We associate polar bears with long stretches of endless white, but in the summer the sleepy giants chow down on the shores of Hudson Bay. Amy Rosen gets almost close enough to cuddle the half–ton beasts.
© Daniel J. Cox/NaturalExposures.com
We spot at least six of them before our low–flying prop plane even lands. During the short charter we pass over the Northern Taiga forest, the roaring Nelson River, the Hudson Bay's coastal plains and tidal flats, and even York Factory, the 300 year–old fur–trading site where Canadian commerce began. Some of the bears we see are snoozing by the Hudson, while others are swimming in it. One is running inland, and some cubs are climbing on their mothers' backs to get a better view of our six–seater coming in for a landing on an ancient beachhead in front of Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.
Located on the edge of Cape Tatnam, just a few hundred meters from the coastline, the lodge, an hour's flight north of Gillam (about two from Winnipeg, Manitoba), started out as a commercial geese–hunting destination in 1977. The First Nations peoples and local government put the venture together and it went well for a while, Nanuk owner Stewart Webber tells me, but then the lodge lay dormant for years. Webber bought the property and he and his close–knit family have been running it for a dozen years. The camp sleeps just 12 visitors at a time during the short summertime polar bear season.
"When we moved in here it was all about hunting," explains Webber. "I knew the polar bears were here but that's not where I saw the business going because we were too busy with the hunting program. But the polar bears just came to me." Literally. Which is the reason for the 500 meters of high tensile wire fence surrounding the lodge. "First thing in the morning is a good time to see them," offers Webber. It seems that's when they like to lumber up and down the coastline like sleepy giants in terrycloth robes, shuffling off to the kitchen for their first cup of coffee.
So that the following photos of polar bears snacking and napping on verdant grasses do not alarm you, let me explain that this is a completely normal state of affairs. They're here because, as the iced–over Hudson Bay melts during summer, the ice spins in a clockwise motion and the bears are forced off of it and onto the nearby shore. "The ice finally broke up two weeks ago," says Webber (it's August 18th today.) He tells me some of the bears they've spotted this season are so fat from feeding on seals all winter that they weigh 1,000 pounds. "Six of them were feeding on something really big yesterday," he says. "We think it may have been a beluga."
Nanuk of the North…with Mosquitoes
After breakfast we leave the camp, which is composed of the main, warm and woodsy lodge where we eat, shower and play cards and darts by the fireplace, along with five small cabins with simple furnishings and a woman's touch. But first we pile on the mosquito gear (full bug jackets and hats, a good dose of DEET—Webber had warned us they're the worst mosquitoes he's seen in a decade because of the wet summer.) Hopping aboard three ATVs with attached buggies, all workmanlike and pimped out with giant tires and vintage vinyl van seating, we head east to the Mistikokan River.
Unlike neighboring Churchill, with its big tourist groups loaded into the comfort and safely of Tundra Buggies—gigantic elevated busses with viewing platforms situated above the white beasties—the Nanuk experience is more like an African–style safari. Just replace elegant white cotton and linen outfits with waterproof, bug–proof, and windproof camouflage gear, and then replace the African Big Five with the Big Canadian Five: Caribou, moose, arctic fox, whales, and the crème de la crème, polar bears.
Butch, one of our four guides and the designated leader, spots our first polar bear with his trusty binoculars, dozing by the shore. He ATVs ahead to secure the perimeter (polar bear recon), while we ooh and ahh from a safe distance. "He's a big one," Butch reports back, "and he gets even bigger the closer you get." He gives the other guides the "Let's go" nod, and the hunt is on.
We get within 70 meters before our snaking convoy spooks the bear and he bolts. But not before putting on a bit of a show by jogging towards the Bay and going for a dunk. It's like poetry in motion, watching the beast gliding through the water like a chorus swimmer in an Esther Williams film. Continuing on through rivers and over beachheads, we see many so–called bear day beds. Butch bends down and picks something up from one. "Polar bear hair," he shows me.
Late morning al fresco refreshments mean coffee from thermoses and sugar-coated gingersnaps that sparkle in the sun like the crystalline river beside us. Almost all of the flowers are in bloom. Wee wild strawberries are ripening, and there's burgundy colored foxtails blowing in the breeze. The purple "Indian's Paintbrush" is especially beautiful, (though there's talk of renaming it so as to be more politically correct.) During our hours out roaming the Canadian Shield, the light changes constantly, softening with the afternoons: Rocks take on a golden hue, the arctic willows become even more willowy, the green grasses, more intense.
After lunch we head west. Mars–like rocks and mudflats stretch end–to–end as the tide is out. We come across a caribou skeleton. Mike, who I'm saddled behind on the ATV, points out another dozen polar bear day beds in the sand. "Could be from today, could be from a year ago," he offers.