You know you are heading to the remote north when snow comes in through the airplane vents. We were skimming along the coast north of Churchill in a de Havilland DHC-3 Otter heading towards Seal River and by the time we bounced along the dirt runway I had a fine white coating.
This remote upgraded old hunting lodge was to be home for the next couple of nights. Our guides Tara and Andy met us at the strip and said once you get out please keep close the aircraft, you are in prime polar bear territory now.
It was a short walk to the lodge where we settled in before lunch. Andy said to me with a knowing smile, I’m pretty sure you will see a bear before you leave. The dining area was down a short corridor which opened up into a large windowed area overlooking the mouth of the Seal River; “if you look out there you will see your first bear”. Sure enough there was a pale rock amongst the other slightly greyer looking ones. ‘’That’s your bear’’ said Andy just 70 metres away from us.
After lunch we went out into the compound, a small area just outside the back door which is fenced so you can safely exit the lodge. Andy was giving us our briefing about travelling in polar bear country and showing us all his tricks to “discourage” an over interested bear. “Knocking rocks together is a really good option, keep an eye on the bear as he will probably lift his head as I do this” said Andy, cracking two rocks together. Not a flinch from the bear, as Andy carried on showing us the fire crackers, starting pistol and for worst case scenario a shot gun.
Mr bear did everything he could to upstage Andy, having been an immobile blob he decided to roll onto his back, waving his legs in the air. Not content with this he then picked up a caribou antler tossing it between his paws while lying on his back. We decided to name this bear backyard Bob as he was so close to the lodge. Occasionally, he opened his eyes but was completely unfazed by us, we skirted back round him and continued on our walk. We saw lots of birdlife, a beautiful arctic hare who let us get remarkably close and a short tailed weasel which had caught a lemming.
The next day we were told that our polar friend Bob had wondered off late yesterday evening towards the south, however, from the observation tower a bear could be seen a way off in the distance. The wind had picked up and it felt distinctly cooler than the previous day but the ice we had walked over was now a pool. As we head out towards where Bob was spotted, we caught sight of a bear. He took some interest in us, but as we were downwind he couldn’t smell us, so was pretty unconcerned. We stopped around 50m from him; Andy & Tara told us to stick together in group and be quiet. Andy spoke very gently and confirmed it was indeed Bob. After 20 minutes curiosity got the better of him, he stretched and picked himself up walking across the ice towards us, stopping, he then turned sideways and gave us that perfect polar bear pose that everyone will recognise. We soon learnt this was the pre defecation pose, a clear sign of what he thought of our presence. He slowly continued to walk towards us along the edge of the shore, stopping to sniff the air. We were stood slightly up the bank and we assumed he wanted to walk past us and back towards the lodge, which he did but when he was level with us he stopped less than 10m away and watched us. Andy and Tara stepped forward of the group with rocks in hand and suggested to the bear that he ought to keep moving, with a crack of the rocks he seemed to get the message and moved off at an amble, not even bothering to look back at us, but retracing our steps to the lodge. From our stunned silence we broke into an excited babble, most of regretting having a telephoto lens.
We continued our walk and soon came across another bear; this was a naughty bear, one with a green spot on his back. He had been caught in Churchill too close to the community so he had been tranquilised and spent a little time in the jail before being flown north and released. He had obviously had a bad interaction with humans so was not so keen to see us and disappeared into the willow and we left him alone.
On returning to the lodge we found Bob just 20m from the compound. Looking relaxed he put on a show of yawning and stretching, rolling on his back, relaxing in the noon sun.
Bob had certainly become a favourite for the group and none of us tired from having the opportunity to see him revel in the attention.