Next pit stop is at an above–ground shipwreck, which Webber pegs at the 1700s. They've found lots of wooden slats and iron railings. "We've found femur bones, pelvises and skulls all along the coastline," says Webber. "And millions and millions of shells," adds Butch as we walk the alternatively sandy and muddy flats, the tiny shells crunching underfoot. With the sun beginning to dip we circle our wagons like a caravan, seeing giant bear prints everywhere we roam. But alas, no polar bears: "I don't know why we haven't seen any more," says Mike shaking his head as we motor back to the lodge.
The Largest Terrestrial Carnivore
We're a little late out of the gate after breakfast (who can resist second helpings of fresh–baked bread, scrambled eggs, bacon, Welsh cakes, and fruit?), so the tide from the Hudson is too high to cross by the time we arrive near our prime polar bear spotting grounds. Instead, we relax by the Bay as we wait for it to recede. The August sun is bright and warm as we scurry about, some visitors taking photos of the area flora and fauna, some swatting mosquitoes, others picking wee wild strawberries and popping them into their mouths. Which is to say, one opportunity lost is another gained. "It'll take another half–hour for the tide to come in, then another for it to go out," Butch estimates, all the while keeping a vigilant eye out for polar bears.
Our mudflats playtime ends when Butch returns from more recon and then waves the group back to the vehicles. "There are bears all up and down the coast," he grins. Someone hands me a pair of binoculars. I instantly spot five.
The tide has receded just enough so that we can cross the flats and head to the ancient beach ridge where Butch had spotted the first bear. We cut the engines, abandon the ATVs, and walk towards the water to watch a bear swim. He's fast moving but still far away. After he finishes his dip we'll track him down. But for now we set up lunch over a beach fire: farm sausages cooked on whittled sticks, and then another campfire delicacy for dessert: We all guide the Brit though his first–ever s'mores experience: "That was lovely," he sighs.
Just after lunch, Butch spots a bear. And then another. And then another. And more still. We park about 400 meters away from the closest one and walk single file; our guides armed with rifles (just in case—only used for warning shots, we're told.) Silent and smiling, we draw closer and are then told to sit in a line and wait. The wind is strong and in our favor so the napping bears can't pick up our scent, and hidden behind the beach ridge, they can't see us either. "So this is where all the bears are," says Mike.
After a half hour of sitting and snapping photographs, we're called, two at a time, to inch closer. "Don't be scared," coax our guides, even though our hearts can't stop from leaping into our throats. It's just that it's almost too exciting, being out here in the vast Canadian wilderness, practically surrounded by the largest terrestrial carnivore in the world. And, I mean, really, who's in charge here: Them or us? "You're going to get close enough so that you can hear them snort the mosquitoes off of their noses," encourages Butch. And so we do, those of us who dare, getting within 50 meters of the beautiful dozing creatures. The pictures I take here are all snap–and–shoot. No zoom lens.
Next, we drive to where Butch has spied another two bears, and then he points to where he can now see a sow and her cubs near the shore. We giddily kneel in gooseberry bushes over yet another ancient beach ridge as we watch the mother lead her two cubs along at a speedy clip.
Suddenly, they turn our way, bounding across the clearing, unaware that we're just 30 meters in front of them. Butch and the gang dive for their rifles. And then the sow spots us, rising on her hinds to her full 1,000–pound, nine–foot height.
We all gasp.
IF YOU GO:
Photos by Amy Rosen except where indicated.
Amy Rosen is a food and travel writer who pens and illustrates the weekly "Dish" column in the National Post and is a contributing editor for enRoute magazine, for which she ate her away across Canada twice. A James Beard nominee, and regular contributor to Chatelaine and Food & Wine among others, a story she wrote about cooking with Daniel Boulud is featured in the Best Food Writing 2008. Visit her at www.thenationalnosh.blogspot.com.