The Troubling Incident
It is our second and last day on the tundra in the huge Tundra Buggies. Marcus is our driver once again. He says he and the other drivers have noticed increased activity in the polar bears the past couple days.
The weather is colder and slush ice is forming in the more protected places along the shoreline of Hudson Bay. More bears have moved into the area, anticipating the long-awaited freeze-up.
They have not eaten for several months, other than berries and grasses that do not make a satisfying meal. The bears have used up their stores of fat. Their energy levels are low and they become over-heated quickly.
We spot our first bear shortly after leaving the Tundra Buggy loading site, and several more along the way to the remote Tundra Buggy Lodge. Marcus takes us by a different route on the WWII military roads into the Wapusk National Park, a few miles south of Churchill, and we approach the remote camp from its far side.
|That's unfrozen Hudson Bay behind the bear.|
A polar bear is walking towards the stationary buggies that make up the camp.
We reach the gravel pad and Marcus backs the buggy into position. I feel the rear end of the buggy drop a couple inches on the uneven pad as he backs up. By this time, the bear is underneath one of the camp cars, sniffing at moisture dripping from the gray water tank fastened beneath the sleeping unit.
It paws at the wet ice below the tank and sniffs the liquid. It turns and walks directly towards our buggy, then walks beneath the two front wheels. I take one last picture before it disappears and then I head for the rear viewing deck.
Just as I exit onto the rear deck, I hear a sound like a sledge hammer hitting the side corner of the deck. I know what caused it, but my mind refuses to believe a bear can make that noise.
A moment later, I hear the same loud bang from the far corner of the deck. There are many people on the deck crowding the rail. Just as I make my way to the rail, Marcus bursts through the door. He is highly agitated and commands everyone not to lean over the rail.
“No scarves, no camera straps, no elbows!” he demands, moving through the group and checking that all are obeying. “No lens caps,” he says as he points to mine. I briefly think this is erring on the side of extreme caution, but I grab the dangling lens cap and hold it.
|Another bear, another time, but posted here to show the bears' interest in the buggies.|
I am still trying to wrap my head around those two noises as I watch the bear lying on its belly behind the buggy. I’ve seen these bears looking up at the people in the buggies, and I’ve seen pictures of them standing on their hind legs and leaning against the buggy side.
I always thought it was done out of curiosity. Now as I watch the bear, I see it isn’t lying down at all. It is crouched with those massive and powerful hind quarters ready to leap if it spots an opportunity. I think about how fast it must be able to move to catch a seal that pops its head above water through a breathing hole in the ice.
The bear appears to be completely uninterested in us, but then I see it roll its eyes upward without moving its huge head. It’s waiting, waiting for someone to make the wrong move, judging the distance.
|Notice the nose is turned towards the side. It is sniffing and watching, waiting for the right moment.|
“It’s crouched there, ready to pounce,” I whisper to whomever is standing beside me.
I think about those two loud bangs and what a powerful lunge the bear must have made. I consider how patient the bears must be to crouch before a seal's breathing hole in the ice, and I begin to feel like prey.
At my feet, just two yards away, is the largest land-dwelling carnivore, the only predator mammal known to stalk humans.
With that, my perception of these bears and of my place in their world changes. It is a very uncomfortable change.
(to be continued--The Aftermath)
(To enlarge any photo: Click on the photo. That will bring up the photo above a line of thumbnails. RIGHT click on the photo you want to enlarge and select VIEW IMAGE. When it appears by itself, left click to enlarge to full screen. Then look at the bear's eyes and tell me it isn't stalking us.)