The sun had disappeared a while back and my Calm Air plane was landing in Churchill, an isolated village on the shore of the Hudson Bay, in the great north. It was -12 degrees and the ground was covered with snow: the city would sleep, a fox turned at the corner of the seven blocks that make up the town, alone, the lights would reflect the black night.
My heart was beating faster than normal, my mind would glide in the age of the explorers, of skin commerce and the cold would freeze my mind in adventures like the ones of Cook or Hudson.
I slept a bit, I would hear silent noises that would slide through the snow, unknown to my soul, intriguing, and I would imagine the adventures that would await me.
It was 8 am, barely dawn, the sky would paint itself a reddish purple in the horizon. We were at the south of the main street, next to the train route that reaches Winnipeg.
After an excellent breakfast at the Gypsy’s, which was going to be our meeting point and meals, we got on a helicopter from Hudson bay Helicopters and we took off with Chuck, mi pilot.
Towards the polar adventure
The sky was still painted red, dying the flat tundra; the sea would still be unfrozen yet, reason for which the bears would wait until the banquisa would from in order to walk under that solidified sea and catch the seals, which are the base of its diet and fat source.
During this season they would get close to the littoral, ready to hunt, after having lived on little meat from land animals and fruit. The ice banks were their salvation since in these, the seals go to rest and it is then when the bear may catch them.
The views were unsurpassable, a white desert lighten by a soft light that came fro the south and suddenly I spotted my first bear, who walked among a group of short pines and bushes, a gigantic animal with his half yellowish fur that would fly with the air.
We got close enough to see him well without scaring him off, he would stare at us with distrust, and his eyes would glitter. What a beautiful and amazing encounter! I’ll never forget that impression and we spent the morning touring the tundra in the helicopter, discovering a stranded and rusty ship in the icy waters of the Hudson Bay.
The ice banks would set on some parts, we watched 10 bears that would walk towards the ocean most likely to find out the condition of the water, so if soon the moment would come to go out hunting and find their delicacy.
On our way back and watching the movement at the bear ¨jail¨, Pat, my guide, worthy enough to be a National Geographic specialist for its great knowledge of the area and of polar bears, took me to see how they were packing in big nets on a helicopter a female bear with her big off springs.
It was impressive to see them suspended in the air and taken to a certain spot in the tundra, like merchandise bags, half asleep but aware of their new experience.
These three bears had been captured in the streets of Churchill, where they would be searching for food and had terrified the people for being authentic, wild and aggressive animals, even though they don’t seem it. Now, they were returning them to where they belonged, where from the helicopter we had seen their partners run.
On a sleigh ride
After lunch, we headed directly for a dog sleigh ride with Wapusk Adventures. We were given the necessary instructions and took us through a tundra ride, among the short pines that don’t grow taller because of the heather and the lack of light.
The branches grow long on the south side, and on the north side they stay short because the wind stops them, since the freezing air accompanies that side.
The dogs were eager to go out, they would bark, pull like devils and I would let them lead me, driving the sleigh skillfully, until enjoying that sports ride in -10 degrees.
The sun was setting, it was 3 pm and the horizon was painting in orange colors even though the cape of clouds was still covering the sky.
Snowflakes would fall very slowly and we reached the tundra Buggy Roover base, with huge trucks and with tires bigger taller than me, and we integrated into the tundra that had sunk in the darkness of the long night.
We saw some rabbits (Mountain Hare o Lepus Arcticus), quite large and perfectly white, and finally we arrived at a hotel on wheels within several trucks, where a three day stay can cost you 7 thousand dollars, with the trip included.
Here they were, the bears, surrounding the strange machine, knowing that they would always find something strange to pry about. They were beautiful, huge and sometimes they would stop to do some research to out truck; their faces would strongly invite you to want to pet them.
By 8 pm we were back and the lights on our vehicles would interrupt the black moonless night and that’s when we saw a fleeting green color aurora borealis that for a brief moment lit up the sky.
The next two days were a dream come true, a real adventure that unites with a kids´ imagination, of close encounters with polar bears.
I think we say more than 50 in total and very up close; some would approach the truck so much that they would stand up and lean on the bodywork to see who we were.
We spent those days touring around the frozen tundra and in each encounter we would stop and watch. Some were lying in the snow and would not mind us, barely glazing at us to see if we were doing something interesting, and they would go back to sleep or at least shutting their eyes, ignoring us, abandoning their almost white fur to blend in with the snow or in the middle of the leafless bushes.
Sometimes we would find a mother with her cub or two, asleep, and also some walking with their newly born from that year or the last one, they would come up to discover us, investigate us and snoop all the mud the huge tires had lifted.
Some of the bears would get so close that I would have to change my telephoto because I couldn’t focus due to the proximity or sometimes only the tip of the snout would be in the shot, with their huge black eyes in the background.
The cold was intense but I would go out anyway in the back platform so I could take all the photos I could and watch the great animal, the magnificent king of the tundra.
Without realizing, the strap of my camera would linger, they had to warn me since it was within the rage of the males paw who was sniffing me, trying to discover if inside all the wrapping layers, my five coats of clothing, I was eatable.
Truly, we are, a man is good food for them since they eat meat during the winter, when the seals are within reach. In the summer, with the sea unfrozen, the seals swim far away from the littoral and the bear cannot swim for so long. So it’s weird they eat meat or if not a dead animal in the tundra, a sick rabbit or dead fish.
They don’t fish like the grizzlies and they spend the summer eating wild fruits, resting, sleeping more or looking after the babies.
An interesting fact is when the female gets pregnant in June more or less, but the embryo doesn’t develop until after, until it knows the conditions will be favorable food related, and if they are not, it won’t develop.
We saw some huge bears fighting or playing around: they would stand one in front of the other and would hug, nibbling the cheeks, intimidating with their size and funny postures, rolling around in the snow, like a small wrestling match.
A mother walked towards us and her image would reflect on the ice of a frozen lake she dared not cross and went around to reach the truck, the baby would follow her close by, but always protected by the her mother’s huge backside.
Other beards would stand underneath the platform made out of grille and we could feel their breath without the fear of being bitten. Meeting my eyes with theirs, watching how they would stare and my own reflection would enter their pupil. They were marvelous encounters, an adventure near the North Pole, where the bear is the ruler.
We watched how they would come over and lean on the truck next door causing a ridiculous amount of huge glasses to stare through the windows, others would pry in the trucks interior and we would find ourselves feeling their breath to such a degree that we would have to withdraw even though we knew we were safe because the distance had been calculated.
There were two days of joy, of adventure, where the heart would jump with each emotion. We watched a few white birds that looked like pigeons, and we got close to the beach to discover some strange formations, a mix of snow and rocks. The ice didn’t look like enough for the bears yet and we discovered the remains of the ship we had spotted up in the air.
I couldn’t believe my eyes, the closeness of this encounters with its wild bears, the beauty of the animals, the tenderness of those black eyes that would stare so deeply into my pupils, the skill of their moves and the grace of their behavior.
I was fascinated, happy and immerse in a frozen paradise, but warm on the inside with excitement. I had spend sometime up close with the polar bears, feeling their breath and exchanging looks, looks filled with tenderness.
I headed back to Winnipeg, with a renewed soul, filled with impressions and magnificent images, rich in encounters and exceptional moments.
Towards the Winnipeg encounter
When I arrived at Winnipeg, I discovered a quite and small big city in the middle of the plains, the meeting point of the train tracks, the centric spot of the continent where the west bumps into the east; an immigration city where the races mix up and the languages sing a one anthem of one union, where they speak French, English, mandarin, Yemeni, Iranian, etc.
Downtown is known as the Exchange District, center of the city’s commerce and art, famous for its end of the XIX century early XX architecture, unique in America for its surroundings and perfect conservation condition.
On these days, Winnipeg was referred to as the Chicago of the north and its architectural ambience has been chosen for many movies of the age.
It’s a very pleasant place to walk in, visit antique shops, extraordinary modern art galleries, and a great variety of small cafés and high cuisine restaurants.
I loved strolling around The Forks, located where the two rivers meet, the Red and the Assiniboine Rivers, one of the most historic spots of Canada where we can learn about the life of the First Nation People, that is to say, the original populations of the region.
The Forks is one of the richest archeological sites in North America which has been very well preserved and we can visit these historic placements while we visit the delightful market, eat in one of its restaurants like The Current, discover the local products and traditional handcrafts.
Crossing the river through the Esplanade Riel bridge, we arrive at the French district, one of the oldest Winnipeg areas, which welcomed the biggest colony of French-Canadians at the west of the big lakes.
We visited the impressive remains of the Basilica- Cathedral St.Boniface, with its extraordinary and original neoclassic-baroque façade, and we discovered the Saint Boniface museum, the oldest construction of trunk oaks in Winnipeg, which is home to a collection of objects related to the life of Louis Riel.
Finally, after visiting the exquisite Gabrielle Roy house, French tongue famous writer which was born and lived part of her life in this house, I watched at 4pm one of the incredible sun sets over the Assiniboine river, at the same time the temperature drops terribly.
The next few days I visited the Manitoba Museum on Rupert’s avenue, where I discovered the entire history of the region including a fabulous exhibition over Hudson’s Bay Company that talked about all the fur commerce; the Nonsuch ship replica, whose journey in 1668 led to the creation of the Hudson’s Bay Company, an impressive wooden ship placed forever in a setting that recreates a port of the time.
I ended up visiting the Urban Gallery, which shows us what was the city like in the 20´s, when the train would invite its passengers to rest in this important commercial concentrate.
The museum is a real marvel, which allows you to learn about everything related to the Manitoba history, geology and fauna-flora.
After visiting the magnificent Manitoba Legislative Building, an impressive building that reigns over the city and where the architect has included in its embellishment and architectural details a series of mysterious codes worth of the Da Vinci Code, I discovered the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
Its original architecture welcomes the great Inuit art collection where the sculptures of that Eskimo art are the most original and impressive, with stylized designs, and the WAG calls you to discover its permanent and temporary collections.
Finally, to say farewell to this delightful city where one feels so comfortable, I visited the beautiful Assiniboine Park where the Conservatory is found, the sculpture Leo Mol garden, the zoo and several gardens.
Here I tasted the exquisite gourmet food of the Terrace 55 restaurant, where the original Winnie, The Pooh painting is found, the charming children’s book bear invented by A.A. Milne.
Time to part
It was time to go from this cozy city and leave behind my adventure with polar bears. With my head filled with images of those encounters and a good welcome from the big small city with its rich past, I was departing sadly.
My eyes inside my soul would relive these pleasant moments, unforgettable, magnificent, an experience that left me marveled and fascinated. All my close encounters with the bears were printed in my memory like a movie, an intrepid adventure where I could feel the breath of the bears, where each scene would fill my soul and make my heart pound.
I wish we could stop global warming in our planet so the ice can be formed each year and the polar bears may continue to hunt seals to eat; I wish I can come back to meet other bears, or their offspring that had approached me. I wish this show of nature will exist forever.
Text: Patrick Monney ± Photo: Patrick Monney, Destination Winnipeg, Travel Manitoba.