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(2014 - Winter/Spring Issue)


The 200-kilogram female polar bear eased herself onto the snow, looking more like an oversized dog than a deadly predator. Sniffing the –55 C wind ripping through Wapusk National Park, 60 kilometres south of Churchill, she lowered her head and inspected one of her two cubs.

Lifting her massive paw, she gently scooped him closer, urging him to nurse. He seemed to be having a problem—we couldn’t tell whatbut she held him close to her belly with infinite tenderness. With every delicate movement she made, our throats thickened; our cameras clicked and whirred.

The Arctic is like that—harsh, surreal and yet emotionally surprising. It’s challenging at the best of times, but moments like this also have a funny way of putting the extreme weather, the difficult conditions and the hardship into context.

Eventually, the mother bear got to her feet and, with her young cubs following close at her side, she headed back toward the den. The sun was setting; the frigid temperatures seemed to be dropping.

Suddenly, she stopped and swung her face back toward us, facing into the shifting, drifting snow. She lifted and lowered her head once, then turned her back and set off again. All 18 of us, plus our guides, collectively held our breath in amazement and awe as she headed off, her cubs marching along beside her.

A Frigid Terrain

That was just one of six days we spent last March at Wat’chee Lodge, owned and operated by brothers Michael and Morris Spence. I’ve been to the Arctic as a photographer (and sometimes expedition leader) 28 times in the past five years and it always leaves me gasping in wonderment at its profound beauty, colour and life. And yet, if I had to name just one place that touches me more than any other, it would be those magical trips to northern Manitoba, to see the new families emerging from their dens over five short weeks in late winter and early spring.

For one thing, the region is the world’s largest polar bear breeding ground and the only spot on the planet where humans can safely visit otherwise inaccessible and dangerous areas. Part of the reason is the location, far inland from Hudson Bay. Another factor is the unique and rare Parks Canada operating permit granted to the Spence brothers’ award-winning Wat’chee Expeditions, which allows visitors to get as close as 100 metres from the bears.

The Arctic Kingdom trip begins by VIA train at Churchill, Manitoba, and ends 60 kilometres later at Chesnaye. It’s a slow, two-hour ride through the boreal forest, which ends, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere on the frozen tundra, with no station or platform in sight.

Waiting for us were specially-designed Arctic vehicles, adapted for the terrain with tank tracks. After 30 minutes, we were at the full-service, non-consumptive ecolodge, located at a beautifully refurbished naval communications base adjacent to Wapusk National Park. Despite the frigid temperatures outside, our spirits were high. The lodge, set 100 metres atop an old beach ridge, was spacious and comfortable. Every meal prepared by their executive chef was delicious and satisfying.

But good food and a comfortable bed were not the reasons we’d travelled from all over the globe to Wapusk. Never mind the five-star grub, the astonishing environment or exquisite terrain. We were there to bear watch.

Heart-warming Memories

The first time visitors see a tiny cub emerge from his den and blink at the sunlight illuminating the frozen world he’s been born into is surreal. The babies hesitate, keep close to their mother and slowly start to take it all in. If the mother stops to sniff the air, they do, too; if she lies down to sleep, they follow suit, or sometimes they just play with each other while mother bear tries to rest.

After that initial foray, their days develop quickly into a routine of exiting the den, feeding, playing and sleeping. Watched over by the mother, who wouldn’t have eaten in four months and would move slowly to conserve all her energy to do her job, they frolic with each other. The babies grapple onto her fur, nipping and biting, tumble off and attempt to root around underneath her, searching for warmth and food. Nourished by her, they grow and grow and grow. As days, then weeks pass, they also become braver and eventually wander further than a paw’s length from the safety she represents. By then, it’s almost time for the family to leave for the polar ice to feed.

Despite the obvious threat that being close to the world’s largest predator represented, we rarely felt uneasy. Once, a mother ambled over to us, equally curious and hungry, until she stood within 30 metres. Slowly, she drew closer. As wildlife photographers, our group was thrilled by her proximity; our expert guides less so. Armed with rifles to startle the bears (they have never had to fire a gun at the Wat’chee operation), they merely revved up the noisy snowmobiles and manoeuvred them between us and the mother bear. Soon after, she lost interest in these strange interlopers and returned to her babies.

Of course, not every day is like a Hollywood movie set, because neither the North nor the animals are predictable. Besides, between the inhospitable weather, the wild landscape, the exquisite delicacy of the bonding bear families and the magnificence of the aurora borealis, the North doesn’t need its story told: it’s writing its own script.

Travel Planner

A number of tour operators offer polar bear safaris out of Churchill, Manitoba. For more information, visit Wat’chee Expeditions at watchee.com.

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