Bearing winters

Bearing winters

White wonder

Preeti verma lal braves the Winnipeg winter in her quest to spot the snow-white animal in Churchill, Canada, the polar bear capital of the world.

Polar express Hounds searching for polar bears in Churchill; (below) polar bears playing in the snow. Photos by author

Circa: Early 1900s. City: Winnipeg, Manitoba (Canada). Venue: Winnipeg Hunt Club. Men in pink coats with whips in hand shouting a joyous “Hallooo”, riding through the bushes. The short-legged basset hounds chasing the frightened hares. A well-kept kennel packed with rapacious hounds. A well-appointed club house where dinners were served on glossy damask, set with heavy English silver and crystal, the dining hall echoing with the guttural guffaws of hunters boasting of the day’s kill. 

Hunters? Hounds? Why was I thinking of marauding hounds and handsome, heartless hunters? No, no, I had not gone bonkers after a nearly 20-hour flight into Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba. No, I was not in Manitoba for a hunt; I had signed up with Frontiers North Adventures and packed bales of woollens for a polar bear expedition in Churchill, the polar bear capital of the world. But that night, I was sleepless and trapped in a time warp. Wide awake, I picked a book. Within the pages lay the heartless hunters and the fescue greens of the oldest 18-hole golf course in Manitoba. But why talk of hunters?
Where did the polar bears vanish?

Wait! The plot is thickening. Once upon a time, there were hunters. And then there were the polar bears, the largest predators on earth, who come to the Hudson Bay in early winter in search of seals — their favourite lunch. Churchill is a polar bear neighbourhood — at last count, there were 937 polar bears. There are more polar bears than there are humans — there were only 700 human heads in Churchill.

This town with a skewed human to bear ratio has other eccentricities too — there are no roads in and out of Churchill (there’s a 4x4 road which is rarely used); there’s a prison for rogue bears (yes, bears!), and the town’s big attraction is a certain Miss Piggy. No, she is no leggy lass, she is a crash-landed C46 aircraft (she once carried a cargo of pigs, hence the name) that has been lazing on a rocky cliff since November 1979; and a famous dog musher named Dave Daley who calls him ‘a big dog’. Since time immemorial, the shores of Hudson Bay had been home to polar bears and to Inuit nomads.

Polar pull

Much before Churchill could borrow fame as the polar bear capital of the world, it was known for its fur trade: for three centuries, Churchill was at the heart of North American fur trade. It all began in 1619 when a Danish expedition led by Jens Munk wintered where Churchill stands now. Churchill was born, so did the legends around fur trade by Hudson Bay Company and York Factory. In early 1900s, a silver fox fur sold for $300 at a time when you could buy a lavish steak meal for 35 cents, a loaf of bread for a nickel and an average American made less than $15 a week.

For ages, the polar bear habitat remained inaccessible until Merv Gunter rustled up an incredible plan to get up and close with the colossal bears. The dream began when Gunter moved to Churchill on a World Bank tenure and lost his heart to the white bears with translucent skin. He, along with wife Lynda, founded Frontiers North Adventures to get tourists to watch the bears so closely. The year: 1987. Almost 25 years later, Gunter’s dream brings 8,000 tourists annually into the squat sleepy town.

A bumpy ride on a monstrous 240 horsepower Tundra Buggy later, I found my bunk in the Tundra Buggy Lodge which sits in the middle of nowhere, a stark white landscape burdened with layers of snow. My neatly printed name was stuck by a lower bunk with a green soft blanket, a tiny lamp, a square window with snowdrops peeping through the tidy pane. A wilted willow stood outside like a sentinel and the kitchen was redolent with the aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, cheesy lasagna and five-grain porridge. The lounge bustled with the banter in countless languages of the 40-odd adventure enthusiasts who had trooped in from across the world.

Night had already settled in when I reached the Polar Bear Point. My phone was dead, there was no Internet connection and I could not step out of the Buggy which resembles bogies of a well-appointed train. For the next three days, I knew the drill. I would wake up with the sun, wriggle into Arctic gear, grab a scrumptious breakfast and hop into the 25-tonne monstrous Tundra Buggy for a day out in search of the polar bears. 

That first day when the frosty wind was cutting into my bones, I stepped into the Tundra Buggy and squinted hard to see the polar bears. The terrain was rugged, the landscape desolate, the wind icy, and anticipation edgy. Brian James Nicolle, the driver, pulled out a tiny binocular and peered through the large window. “Hush,” he whispered. “Look at a 3 o’ clock position. There’s a bear”, he muttered, his large eyes gleaming. I peered hard. In the snowy sheath, white was the only hue. I peered hard. Harder. Then, I saw him. The 800-pound bear curled on a bed of brown kelp, waiting longingly for the bay to freeze and the seals to pop their heads.

That moment, I forgot all about the hunters and their pink coats. In the polar bear capital of the world, I forgave the arctic winds and the no-road spiel. I would have waded through hell to see the polar bears. I am sure there is a road into that one!