Polar Bear Safari
By Candyce H. Stapen
Dancer jumps up, pressing his long black nose against the glass window that separates us so that we’re eye-ball to eye-ball. His luminous brown eyes look kind and curious as he raises his snout ever so slightly back and forth-- the better to sniff us.
Although Dancer’s playful as a puppy, he’s no house dog. Instead, he’s a 1300-pound, 10-foot tall polar bear, North America’s largest carnivore and he’s on the prowl in the Canadian subarctic. Dancer along with about 1200 white giants roam the frozen terrain of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, from late-September to early November. They gather along the west shore of Hudson Bay, waiting for the water to freeze into thick ice blocks. The bears use these as platforms from which to hunt for seals. When the bay turns nearly solid, the bears depart.
But not quite yet. Although an air of anticipation fills Dancer’s daylight prowls, tonight the big bear prances. Dancer, standing on his hind legs, executes the two-legged hop for which he was named. Upright, Dancer peers at us through the window. With his huge front paws he rocks the massive tundra buggy we’re in as if it’s as light as a baby’s cradle.
That’s because Dancer sniffs Dennis, the engineer operating the Web Cam for Polar Bears International. Each winter Dancer seeks him out, curling asleep near the wheels of the monster truck with the computers, and coming to life when Dennis enters the buggy.
“I’ve made a real connection with Dancer,” says Dennis. “I open the window a bit for him since he loves the smells in here. He’s good to have around. He hangs out here until the ice freezes.” Dennis, who likes educating people about these creatures, notes “I have a lot of respect for the bears. It’s important to get the message out that there are still wild areas out there where wild animals roam that are accessible.”
That’s part of what makes our three-day polar bear safari in late October so special. In this untamed territory, polar bears surround us. We sleep, dine and explore the frozen turf from a train-like chain of tundra buggies constructed from reconditioned, extra wide tractor bodies.
Through the windows we often see a bear snoozing, nestled against the snowdrifts, or another rolling on his back, juggling a frozen ball of kelp with the finesse of a pro basketball player. Each morning after breakfast, we board a moveable buggy to roll through the landscape in search of critters.
When the bears amble towards us, we stand outside on our vehicle’s viewing platform to get close to these majestic creatures. Some press their huge paws against our tundra buggy’s sides. We’re so near to these giants that we can see their breath turn to silky frost. Up-close the bears with their round bellies, purple tongues and pigeon-toed gaits, remind us more of overgrown stuffed toys than vicious predators.
One night a blizzard engulfs us. Roaring gales of nearly 70 mph violently shake the vehicle, making it difficult to sleep. The next night, however, the sky turns so clear that the northern lights, the Aurora Borealis, glow like godly fireworks. Undulating ribbons of green and white dance across the heavens, alternating with thick swaths of neon blue splashed against the inky black sky. We feel blessed just to be here.
Outfitters include the Tundra Buggy Adventure, www.tundrabuggy.com