Polar bears are our planet’s largest land predators.
Sometimes they are also part of one of those life experiences which make you stop and think about the journey. In this case, the journey north.
“We will sleep in the tundra huts,” said George, our Cree guide in a pre-trip planning text. “It will protect us from the polar bears.”
At the time we didn’t really realize the foreshadowing of these profound words.
The trip was the final push to the most northern point in Ontario. The centre of the province and the other three cardinal extremes were surprisingly attained earlier this year. The north boundary with Nunavit and Manitoba was to be crème de la crème of logistics. More details on this, next week.
Getting to Washaho First Nation (wash-a-hoe)-Fort Severn the most northern settlement in the province was easy enough flying out of the transportation hub of Sioux Lookout.
The mini expedition is not named after Shackleton or Perry but the planning is almost as detailed as those expeditions.
With Brian Emblin from Timmins, we have to travel another150 km up the Hudson Bay coast where the consumer-grade satellite imagery and topographic maps are poor. There are countless rills to ford and at least four larger rivers with tidal estuaries and mud flats, and we are in polar bear country. In anticipation, we hope to see at least one.
We find George through Brian’s contact and school friend Bruce Achneepinsskum, Chief of Marten Falls First Nation. George agrees to be the expedition guide. George Kakekaspan (Kah-kee-kas-span) has “traditional land knowledge.” George is 6’3”, has size 13 winter boots and basketball hands. He is a gentle giant.
George has lived in Fort Severn for most of his life, has five children and his wife, Dora, is a teacher at the community school. He is a Canadian Ranger and has served as Chief of the First Nation for two terms. You have to listen carefully to George he is a soft-spoken man. His few words are like photos - you apply the interpretation.
I know a little bit about polar bears, partly from the Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat which opened in 2004. Prior to its opening, we also did a series of consultation studies. Through the Canadian Ecology Centre and with the Toronto zoo we conducted a tourism/operational feasibility study during the project’s planning stages.
The Mayor at the time was the late Don Génier and the recently retired Jean-Pierre Ouellette was the CMO. The project went forward with government funding, the rest is history. I did go and see the polar bear exhibit and filed a story including the bears and yoga.
Like humans, polar bears sleep an average of seven to eight hours a day. They also frequently nap to conserve energy. En route we saw many pits dug by the bears in the deeper beach heads so they could sleep with their backs to the wind.
During the return to the community within the blizzard, we saw bears again and were able to see the size of their tracks. The overall length of polar bears is around 2.4-3 meters (7 ft. 10 – 9 ft. 10 in) and has a shoulder height of 122-160 cm. A large male polar bear may weigh up to 1,500 pounds.
Polar bears do not hibernate they roam and are capable of travelling 30 km (19 mi.) or more per day for several days before resting. We did in fact see 21 bears, through 19 sightings including a mother and two cubs. George says there are many bears and that they are “hanging around” the coast before it freezes.
The population of polar bears in the province is not known with no recent aerial surveys. Follow the link to read a report on progress made towards the protection of habitat range and recovery of the polar bear classified as a species at risk since 2004.
Looking at the clarity of the polar bear photos during some of the photo ops I was close enough, about 40m in some cases. The ATVs were always running and headed in a retreat direction…away.
George was close at hand with the loaded rifle. One time, I was gradually creeping up to the lip of the sandy beach ridge for a vantage point of a den, camera ready, asking George, “Closer?” Clear response, “That’s good.” There is that respect even when there are storylines of “humankind versus nature.”
It was the #15 bear that will be most worth remembering.
On the third night out, we utilized community hunting (caribou) and fishing (brook trout) camps. This one was at the Pepowatin River close enough to see Hudson Bay with expansive tidal mud flats on the horizon.
Earlier in the day, George had shot 24 ptarmigan. The birds are laid neatly laid on the ground to “cool down” as they cannot be in the cabin because they will spoil quickly.
It is a 12’ x16’ plywood hut with two wooden bunks, a small steel homemade box stove and a utility shelf. It is a cold and windy night with clear skies.
From the camera properties, I know the incident happened after 3 a.m. The first startling “BANG” that awoke me was the thought that Brian had either fallen out of the top bunk above me or had given the wall a good kick from within a dream state.
The second sound was as intensive but then I knew I was in the realilty state of being wide awake. I could feel the cabin shake. There were a few more poignant bangs on the side of the cabin.
Brian recalled later, “My 3 a.m. brain tells me, someone must have gone out for a pee and not shut the door correctly and the wind had its way.”
“There’s something out there,” were the words that won’t be forgotten. At the same time, George was reaching for the 0.308, bolt action; “you always sleep with a loaded gun,” close by. There was no clip so it is a single bullet per shot only.
We dress quickly. George wants to scare the bear away.
Brian was holding a light for George as we open the door outward. I was doing the same but standing on the door frame highlighting the pair. It all happened so quickly, three to five seconds at best. Later George said he was not sure if it had its head down and ears pinned back indicative of an attack. The bear was four metres away.
As it turned out, the bear was in a blind spot behind and close to the quads (ATVs) munching on the birds. The bear immediately wheeled around the ATVs and turned towards George.
Instantly the shot rang out and it was the loudest and clearest of all of our conversations, it was an unforgettable, “OH SHIT!"
The doors of tundra huts always swing out to open so as to not let a bear push the door inwards. Bear. It was a “big bear” and George would later say, it recoiled.
Because there was only one shot in the chamber we instantly retreated inside as the bullet sound resonated. We slammed the door as George reloaded.
At the time we didn’t know what we would encounter venturing out again.
As the definitive bolt action-click reload is complete George exclaimed, “My heart is racing!” He had not been that close to a live polar bear, ever. This was the first encounter he has had like this
Hunters in this Cree community do not shoot polar bears. This is a very small quota but as George explains, “The meat is not so tasty,” and taxidermist rug mounting is cost-prohibitive. So, it is one reason we see many bears over a 100 km stretch.
The plan is to check the immediate perimeter of the cabin for our unwanted visitor. There was no bear to be found. George was glad he had only frightened it away with the one-shot 'bear banger.' He says he had probably ruptured the bear’s eardrum.
It was cold. The Northern Lights were out so we took a few photos with our eyes on the immediate landscape. Then we went inside to talk about “what just happened!”
Daylight was 8 a.m. and the blizzard is approaching. We checked the immediate area again and headed off to see another day of polar bear sightings, especially tracks in the snow while dealing with the white outs and windchill.
Churchill, Manitoba is touted to be one of the best polar bear-watching locations in the world.
“While Churchill is legendarily the Polar Bear Capital of the World, it is also the Polar Bear Tourism Capital of the World," says a Canadian Geographic article published on Nov. 20, 2012. "There are 19 polar bear populations on the planet — 13 of them in Canada — and none is as accessible as in Churchill, which draws an estimated 10,000 visitors every year.
"If you’d like to scratch your itch for bear sighting in Baffin Bay or Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., you’ll probably need float planes, ski-touring gear and a solid knowledge of igloo architecture.
"But in Churchill, all it takes is a whole lot of disposable income. With hotels, ranger stations and perky multilingual guides, the town is entirely geared toward the modern ecotourist…you can have the 'Ultimate Polar Bear Experience': 10 days in the Tundra Buggy Lodge, essentially an oversized RV parked at the water’s edge.”
For some time the town had a problem with their landfill site and the iconic animals.
“Tourism officials in Churchill hope the closure of the dump will improve the image of the town and its bears," said John Gunter, who takes tourists to see the bears for Tundra Buggy Adventure
No longer will tourists see the bears at the dump, surrounded by burning piles of trash.
"There are going to be fewer images and video of polar bears with flames in the background, or a polar bear chewing on a couch in the garbage or eating a tin can, for example, which were actually featured in National Geographic magazine," said Gunter in a CBC article.
Our expedition was different and so was the destination and the habitat.
It is cheaper to go to Cuba or Mexico for a two-week inclusive package. It is either the swim-up bar or polar bears. We chose bears.
Will Fort Severn become a more natural destination for polar bear viewing?
I have been fortunate to see big game animals in Botswana and Kenya and see muskox and reindeer on a 100-mile (161 km), navigation only, hiking trek in Greenland. Seeing polar bears up close and very close is another significant remembrance.
Whether there are back roads or not there is always some wisdom that comes from the experience. From George, “That’s why we don’t sleep in tents.”