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Walking With Polar Bears

By Richard Bangs

December 3, 2013 | 8:16 am

You can't drive here; you can't boat here; you can't even walk here... you'd be eaten. We're somewhere in the back end of nowhere, some 300 kilometers from the closest paved road; 1500 kilometers from the nearest Whole Foods. If you cry wolf here, everyone believes you.

 

It's the third day of a week-long safari. Not in Tanzania, Botswana, Zambia or anywhere in Africa. We're in the sub-Arctic, on Cape Tatnum, Hudson Bay, Manitoba, 57 degrees North Latitude. We're on foot, in knee-high Wellies, sloshing single-file behind our guide, Andy MacPherson, towards a big mother polar bear. The general rule is to halt 50 or more meters from a polar bear. They're master predators, largest land carnivores on the planet, top of the food chain, and are hungry this time of year. They feast on ice-breeding seals in the winter months, hunting from floating bergs on Hudson Bay, "The Cold Ocean." But when the ice breaks in July, sleuths of bears come ashore and wait. There are some berries and birds, and the occasional whale carcass that washes up onto the sand. But mostly the bears live off stored fat reserves and wait for the ice to come back mid-November. It is the longest period of food deprivation of any mammal on earth. Now it's September, when the sun describes a horseshoe around the margins of the sky, and life is beginning to drain from the land. The beasts are, at this time, justifiably famished.

 

 

Not many get to see polar bears in the wild. Most who do take a Tundra Buggy tour in Churchill, riding in giant tank-like buses that allow looking down at the melancholy wandering of Ursus maritimus without any chance of attack. Others see the bears from the decks of cruise ships plowing through the Arctic Oceans. But very few ever actually walk among the bears.

Some call Andy "The Polar Bear Whisperer." He doesn't disavow the title, but admits he can't really Dolittle with the bears; rather he has come up with techniques to "keep them off balance." Polar bears are intelligent, curious, and socially complex, he says, though there are several instinctive responses to humans approaching, and each bear has his own contextual personality and reaction. If she deems approaching vehicles, or a walking group, threatening, she might turn and run. Or she might charge. But once a response kicks-in, it is near impossible to stop. So, if kept disoriented, Andy postulates, she won't decide on an action, but will wait for more information.

 


"Each time we interact with a bear we have the opportunity to add either positive or negative experiences to her toolbox," he softly explains. "And that accumulation of knowledge affects the bear's decision-making process."

We have slowly walked around a long sandbar, being careful to stay downwind of "Pihoqahiaq,"(the ever-wandering one), as the Inuit call her. Her eyesight is supposedly similar to ours, but the ears are much better. And it's very quiet here. The few sounds the polar bear knows include the crack of ice, the whoosh of wind, and the claver of geese. So, the human voice is unfamiliar, and can potentially trigger the wrong behavior.

So, Andy signals us to be quiet. The white giant, though, stands up, and begins to amble in our direction on large, silent feet. Her face is inscrutable, though the eyes say someone is home. She taps the air with her Roman nose, which has, Andy says, a better sense of smell than a bloodhound. I imagine everyone is thinking the same as me...if she attacks, who will be the slowest runner. The bear keeps stepping towards us. The Arctic air suddenly seems hot from the flame of risk. I expect Andy to back up, but instead he steps towards the bear....a face off. Andy has two small rocks in his hand, which he clicks, a sound meant to keep the bear a little off-balance. And Andy speaks to her, a note of mysticism in his voice. "Hi Beautiful. We're just here to say hello. How is your day?" He speaks in a low monotone, which he says sounds like Charlie Brown's teacher to the bear. It is meant to be non-threatening, and mildly confusing. The bear and Andy keep moving closer, and we obediently stay behind, and formally still. I look around to scope an escape route, but there is nothing. We're a kilometer from the taiga forest, which doesn't have a tree worth climbing anyway. On the other side, the second largest bay in the world, named for doomed explorer Henry Hudson, with water deadly cold, and bears are faster swimmers anyway. Behind is a loamy coastline, desolate as the mare on the moon, and polar bears can out run a race horse from a standing start. I recall a bit of advice I heard from a guide years ago on the Seal River: "Most polar bears are left-pawed, so if the beast charges, leap to her right." But I used to be a guide, and know the adage true: "How do you tell if a guide is lying? His lips are moving."

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