Zero degrees: another balmy November day up in Churchill, Manitoba. I gaze across the subarctic tundra and over the smooth granite slopes that lead down to the Hudson Bay. Thickets of willow and thin pine dot an otherwise snow-white landscape which, mere weeks before, was void of ice and snow. Winter is approaching quickly this year.
The tiny frontier town of Churchill lies a few miles away, along the banks of the Churchill River. Freshwater that flows into the Bay creates an area of brackish water, which allows it to freeze at a higher temperature than pure saltwater. This, plus prevailing Arctic winds and ocean currents coming down from the North, allows this part of the Hudson Bay to freeze first.
One can almost smell the ice starting to form.
My day begins fairly eventfully. The sun has just barely broken the horizon, and I catch a dash of gray-white as an Arctic fox slips through my peripheral vision. I watch him stealthily float across the snow under one of the densest fur coats in the animal kingdom. To my right, an Arctic hare lays perfectly still with her ears pinned back; her brilliant white coat almost indistinguishable from the surrounding snow. The fox doesn’t pay her any mind and continues on his merry way. I’m on the lookout for polar bears, but there don’t seem to be any in this area, so I move onward.
Up in the silent subarctic tundra, bird calls and the whisper of the wind are all one hears. Pure silence is only broken by the crunching of snow underfoot until the murmurings of a few voices cut through the fall air. As they grow louder, I become curious—curious enough to follow them to their source.
Clearing a thicket of willow and pine, I’m met with gasps, muted shrieks of excitement and the musings of childhood dreams. I sniff the air and stand up on my hind legs to get a better look at the large vehicle that carried these voices across my frozen tundra. At 10 feet tall, I can be intimidating to some, but these folks don’t seem to mind one bit. Quite the contrary, actually.
For them, seeing me is the emotional experience of a lifetime. For me, it’s just another Tuesday. As a 3-year-old polar bear, I don’t think much of it—I’m the King of the Arctic and I know it.
I amble beneath a steel grate on the vehicle, stopping to inspect the eyes staring back at me through the metal. A child’s voice asks why I’m sniffing around so much, to which an adult answers: “A polar bear’s sense of smell is so good that they can actually smell the ice forming out on the Hudson Bay!” They’re right; if I were to rank my senses, smell is certainly a top asset. After a few minutes exchanging glances with the eyes aboard the large vehicle, I carry on with my day and take note of my surroundings.
In a clearing on the other side of the vehicle, I notice a few other young bears rolling around in the snow and “sparring.” They’re play-fighting, and learning how to position themselves should they ever get into a real tussle. The visitors absolutely love it and look on with undying excitement as the young bears play like no one’s watching. It looks like a bit of fun, but I need to conserve as much energy as I can, so I just look in amazement at the graceful power of our species.
Getting drowsy, I lay down in a fresh patch of snow to cool off. I must have dozed off for an hour or two, because around dusk, I stir to the noise of snow crunching beneath large tires. The vehicle has turned around and is taking its passengers inland for the night. Upon leaving, I hear hollers of joy, and hopes to see more of us bears tomorrow.
The lights of the vehicle fade into the distance, and I’m left with the pure sounds of my Arctic tundra once again. In a few weeks time, I’ll be stepping out onto the ice to hunt seals for months on end. For now, however, I wait patiently with a congregation of my own kind for the Bay to lock up as winter settles in.
As for the visitors on the large vehicle, I hope they go home knowing that they’ve seen something very special. I am not the polar bear from their zoos and aquariums, but rather the largest land carnivore on the planet in its wildest form. I am a charismatic and magnificent animal that thrives in the cold of the North. I am the King of the Arctic and I live in Churchill, Manitoba.
By Davis English, Voyage Manager & Adventure Concierge at Natural Habitat Adventures.