by Dennis Dalman
Polar bears are cute but it’s best not to pet one. Those who try would likely lose a hand – or maybe even another appendage, like a head.
Debi Pack ought to know. She spent a week among polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba and learned up close how cute but dangerous the big bears can be. Pack gave a talk and slide-show presentation to the Sartell Senior Connection Jan. 13. Appropriately enough, her audience chomped on Yukon Polar Bear ice-cream bars during Pack’s entertaining talk.
Pack is a former first-grade teacher who lives in St. Cloud. Ever since she was a girl, she had a fascination with polar bears and had a longing to see them up-close in their environment. As she grew older, her wish ended up at the top of her Bucket List.
One day, about two years ago, her husband presented her with a gift envelope with a picture of a polar bear on the front of it. Inside was a certificate for a Polar Bear tour in Churchill, on the southwest edge of Hudson Bay. The ticket was just for her. But when she told a friend, Marge, she was so excited she, too, decided to buy a ticket for the tour.
In November 2014, the two friends drove to Winnipeg. From there, they took a 2.5-hour flight to the airport just outside of Churchill, a small village of only 800 people that swells to 3,000 in the tourist seasons, the names of which are dubbed Polar Bear, Northern Lights and Beluga Whale.
The town can have a middle-of-nowhere feeling because it’s only accessible by air or a twice-weekly train, Pack noted. There is only one main road – the 18-mile one leading from the airport to the town. As their plane landed, the two women spotted three polar bears ambling near the landing strip, a good omen for more bear-sightings.
There were 16 people from various states in Pack’s Polar Bear Tour, some from as far away as South Carolina. Pack was appointed the official bear spotter and had to be on the alert at all times for bears that would appear. The group toured across the tundra daily in a reinforced giant bus (Bear Rover) with large wheels, bear-proof.
Pack learned quickly it was sometimes hard to spot bears, partly because the many boulders and rocks in the snowy terrain can often resemble polar bears. Other times they cannot be seen because of snows driven by raging winds – so cold a person can freeze in a matter of minutes.
Bears own it
In a very real sense, polar bears “own” Churchill during the months when there is no ice on Hudson Bay, forcing the bears to roam the edges of the lake in search of scraps of food. And food is scarce, consisting only of rotting kelp, some crustaceans or insects, occasional berries and now and then a fox or some other wintry creature.
Bears often take long hibernation-type sleeps to conserve energy. For thousands of years, generations of bears have come to wander the shore long before any human settlements. To the bears, humans are curious nuisances who get in their way.
Bears, most of them males either alone or in groups of up to five, wander right into town. People are known to carry firecrackers to scare them away. In some cases plastic darts have to be fired at the creatures or in more serious cases tranquilizer darts. When it becomes necessary to tranquilize one, it’s hauled off to the Polar Bear Jail in town where it stays with other jail “inmates” until they can be released when Hudson Bay, once again, freezes up. In the jail, the bears are not fed but stay there lounging or sleeping. Feeding bears is a bad idea because they learn quickly to return again where there is a food supply.
Each year, there are about 300 bears who roam in the area in and near Churchill, which is dubbed the Polar Bear Capital of the World.
The town has a squad of Polar Bear Police ready to answer the polar-bear alert number and rush off to help keep the bears and the people separated. It’s required all residents not lock their house doors. That is because if a bear is spotted, people can and do rush into homes even of strangers to avoid the big beasts. And “big” is no exaggeration. A polar bear can weigh as much as 1,500 pounds and stand on hind legs as tall as 13 feet. Although their faces and actions are “cute,” they are anything but cuddly for human beings. They must be avoided at all costs.
Dangerous as the bears are, however, purposeful attacks against humans are very rare. In Churchill, there have been only a few people killed because of polar-bear encounters in the past 300 years, according to Polar Bears International. However, potentially lethal bear and human contacts are likely to increase because of climate-change factors, according to polar-bear experts.
The ice on Hudson Bay generally melts at the end of July, and the lake does not freeze solid until sometime in December, which means the bears, forced to stay on land, must go very hungry for at least four months.
Though it was unexpected, Pack had a face-to-face encounter with a bear.
The group was in their stopped Polar Rover when Pack saw a bear slowly approach the vehicle by the window of the driver’s seat. She rolled down the window to get a better photo. She was distracted for a few seconds. When she looked back, holding her camera, the bear – as if ready for his close-up – had stuck its face right up to the window as it made a snuffling sound. She quickly snapped a photo.
Just then, the skilled driver of the rover dashed over to Pack’s seat and scolded her loudly, slamming the window and telling her never, ever to open a window like that again.
She told him the bear had made a snuffling sound.
That sound, he told her, is the sound of aggression.
Pack had learned her lesson, but she is still happy the close encounter produced a wonderful close-up photo of a “cute” polar bear’s curious face.
Wish come true
Pack’s visit to the polar bears was a long-delayed wish come true, something that would probably never have happened without her husband’s surprise gift.
She still gets shivering thrills when she sees her photos of the magnificent creatures she finally had a chance to experience in the wild and, in one stunning instance, with a close-up.