Who did that?’ The driver barked at the few passengers. A polar bear had just reached up the side of the vehicle – a tundra buggy – sniffing and searching for food.
‘Who did that?’ He glared at us. ‘Someone tossed a sandwich out of the window. That’s why the bear is here, looking for more’.
Not a word was said, although we were delighted that a polar bear had come so close.
‘If anyone had so much as a hand out of the window’, he explained, ‘or even a dangling scarf, that bear would have hauled you out’. We were somewhat less delighted, but no one owned up to the sandwich. I had my suspicions: later, it would turn out that my younger son was the culprit. Although he was now six, he was still in the midst of the terrible twos – and would be there for the next couple of decades …
We were out on the tundra on the shore of Hudson Bay, Canada. It was late October, when the polar bears come out of hibernation and await the freezing up of the bay so they can hunt seal. Meanwhile, they are ravenously hungry, seeking out whatever food is available – kelp, the town garbage tip, any stray human being who might be out on their own.
How did we get here, in the frozen north of Canada? ‘We’ were three small children (aged 8, 6 and 1) and two parents, and we had wanted to see the bears. Easier said than done. To do so, we had to overcome the great temptation of buying a house, two cars, squabbling about money and ceasing all travel – an assumed condition once one has children. Actually, that vision of ‘familial bliss’ was no temptation at all, so we spent our last cent on a long rail journey.
Six days it took us, from Montreal (our home at the time in 1989) to Churchill and back. The Canadian Pacific (now Via Rail) from Montreal to Winnipeg may have been a sleek affair, with modern cabins (we needed two) and a panoramic viewing car, but not so the old locomotive from Winnipeg to Churchill. This ancient machine takes two days to cover the 1700 kilometre route north to Churchill. In fact, this is the only overland way to travel to Churchill, for no road has been laid. When we first left Winnipeg, I watched the lights of the city fade as I tucked the boys in bed. The train was travelling at a good clip, so I thought it had some life in it yet. But within a day it slowed and began to rock significantly. Was there something wrong? Would we soon be stranded in the frozen north? Looking out, I noticed that the telegraph posts had begun to change. No longer were they single poles driven into the ground, for now they were tripods, resting upon permafrost in which is it is dicey to dig a deep hole. Looking down, I also noticed that the rails lay lower the ground. They too had been laid on permafrost, which is below the surface and a relic from the most recent ice age. Disturb the permafrost by digging and you encourage it to melt, disturbing the landscape for kilometres around. Track ballast can sink or even be washed away during the artificially produced thaw. Laying tracks on permafrost is a time consuming and intricate task (just ask the builders of the Trans-Siberian Railway). No matter how carefully you do it, the tracks are always uneven. No wonder the train was rocking so much.
What do you do with three small children for days on end in a small train? Did they drive us crazy? Not at all. We would go for walks in the train, occupy a whole table in the dining car, play games, read stories, go for walks at stations where we stopped for a while, watch for wild animals (outside as well), and the boys would fill in their diaries (for school). On the Churchill train, the two sleeping cabins opened out to become a room during the day, so we had a little more space to move – or at least we didn’t have to sit quite so much on top of one another.
Churchill at last – where the outside world felt very roomy indeed. Here, the early winter of October was as cold as Montreal in deep winter (about minus 25 degrees). Here, the buildings of the town centre were all part of one complex, to maximise heating efficiency – a couple of shops and eateries, a hospital, police station, library, municipal offices, and what not. Here, we met locals who had grown up in town, with parents working at the port facilities, or posted to Churchill by the government, only to stay on. Here, I was mistaken for the new priest at the Anglican Church that faced an icy bay. Why else would I ask to see the various places in town, meet the hospital administrator, attend worship, and seem just a little too inquisitive? And here, we took that tundra buggy ride to see the polar bears.
Bears we saw, including a mother with two cubs in tow and a couple of males wrestling. We also saw a ptarmigan and arctic fox. But we did not need to take one of these massively wheeled machines to trundle and smash its way over the tundra (this act is described as ‘environmentally friendly’). We need not have done so, for the bears were much closer to town. In fact, they were in town. I mean not the night of Halloween, when our children joined the others in town, driven from door to door in a minibus to prevent a bear attack. I mean the bear we met at the front door of our hotel room.
The day after our arrival, I had taken the boys for a walk and a play by the river, where we tossed ice out as far as we could. Up on the rise was a strange cylindrical structure, which I realised only later was a polar bear trap. Afterwards, my oldest son had spent some time playing amongst the riverside boulders, for they were covered in a layer of ice. Harmless fun, really … until I stepped out of the hotel door, about to lead the rest of us into town, which was couple of kilometres away.
I did not get far, for a polar bear came lumbering around the corner. Immediately I stepped back inside and locked the flimsy door – the whole hotel felt as though it was made of plywood and would fall down in a mild breeze. The bear stopped to consider matters more closely. It rose up on the railing outside the panoramic window of our room and surveyed the delectable morsels inside. We were transfixed and could not help returning his gaze. He could easily have knocked down the door or smashed the window. As he pondered such matters, I concocted crazy plans, such as herding everyone into the bathroom and smashing our way through to the next room. I realised in a flash why the bear trap was nearby, and later I was to learn that the bears particularly love the boulders by the river, where they sleep. We had been there, by the trap and amongst the boulders, oblivious to the bears thereabouts – until now.
After the proverbial eternity captured in a minute or two, the bear thought the better of his various plans and lumbered off to amuse himself elsewhere.
Somewhat anxiously, I soon phoned the polar bear alert line. The woman on the line was understanding and helpful, although I detected a slightly suppressed amusement. And the taxi driver of the only taxi in town laughed when he met us.
‘I hear you met a bear’, he said.
‘How do you know?’ I said.
‘My wife’s sister took your call earlier’, he said, smiling. ‘Now the whole town knows’.
I guess when you experience polar bears as part of everyday life, meeting one is of little consequence.