Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
For photographer Susan Portnoy, the opportunity to shoot polar bears—with her camera, of course—was an experience not to be missed. And so, lens at the ready, she ventured into Manitoba’s Hudson Bay.
My fingers have gone numb. Again.
I pull my mittens over my gloves and wait for the familiar prickly sensation that means my digits have started to thaw. At minus 34 degrees Celsius—and that’s without wind chill—the metal on my camera has become an adversary, and I can’t photograph too long without a break.
Radio Bear however, sporting heavy fur and several inches of fat, is content to lie on the ice. Tucking her nose into the bend of her elbow, she curls herself into a fetal position and closes her eyes. She may be the world’s largest land carnivore, but she looks more like a slumbering house cat than a polar bear.
We first saw Radio Bear (so named after the tiny research antennae attached to her right ear) this morning at sunrise, standing on a frozen slab in a sea of slabs on Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba. She stood motionless, staring at a spot on the ice. She was hunting. Or at least, she thought she was.
“Poor girl,” said Rob, one of our guides. “She thinks there’s a seal under there.”
At two or three years of age, Radio Bear is old enough to be on her own, but, it seems she hadn’t learned that seals don’t swim that close to the coast. She was in for a long wait.
Eventually, she gave up and began to meander through the maze of broken ice shuffled by the tides and then frozen again. We followed on foot for nearly 45 minutes—making sure to keep the mandatory 100 meters between us—to where she sleeps in the distance, seemingly oblivious to the 11 photographers capturing her every twitch.
The howling stops as we reach a lake and in the sapphire light of the blue hour, we spy a wolf racing across the ice. Then another, and another.
Despite the cold, I’m glad to be outside. A tundra buggy is the standard fare for travelers who want to see polar bears. That didn’t appeal to me; I wanted to be outdoors, not inside a vehicle. So, I’ve come to Churchill Wild, the only company in Canada that offers walking safaris where guests can hike the tundra twice a day for five days in search of bears and other wildlife. This week is specifically for photographers which means we’re up early for sunrise and stay out in the field longer.
Home base is Seal River Heritage Lodge, a half-hour bush plane flight north of Churchill. On the western shore of Hudson Bay, the lodge is built along the bears’ migration route. In summer and fall, the polar bears roam the shore, waiting for the ice to form so they can hunt seals. This year, the freeze came early and though it’s only the beginning of November, many of the bears have already gone onto the ice. We’re lucky we’ve seen Radio Bear and a couple other stragglers at all.
Our good fortune hasn’t only been with the polar bears; we’ve seen plenty of other wildlife. Fluffy white Arctic foxes are never far from sight, speed-trotting as if they’re late for an appointment, their noses skimming the ground as they sniff for lemmings under the snow.
There are also ptarmigan and Arctic hares. The hares are larger than their southern counterparts with longer back legs and are perfectly camouflaged—I rarely see them unless they move. I’ve come to think of them as the clowns of the tundra, little slapstick characters that roll in the snow and hop in every direction on their goofy oversized feet.
Wolves are less common, though one evening we hear a pack howling like something from a Dracula flick. Following their cries, we find a lone caribou standing on the crest of a hill. “Where there’s caribou, there’s wolves,” says Rob, grinning. The howling stops as we reach a lake and in the sapphire light of the blue hour, we spy a wolf racing across the ice. Then another, and another. We only see them for a few seconds before they vanished into the night, but I am downright giddy.
Another day, and we’re on the trail of Radio Bear again. On previous excursions, she’d barely acknowledged our presence, but this time she’s walking straight towards us. Andy, our head guide, tells us not to move. We watch, shoulder to shoulder in silence as she approaches, head up, nose sniffing. Thankfully, a non-aggressive posture.
As the last glimpse of her disappears from view, I’m reminded that these incredible creatures, as a whole, are in jeopardy.
“Where are you going?” Andy asks her gently. Here, the bears are not used to the sound of a human voice and will often flee. Instead, she ignores him.
She’s in front of me now, about 20 meters ahead. My heart is pounding, but until Andy says otherwise, I’m clicking away on my camera. He grabs two rocks to bang together, another tactic in an escalating strategy to warn her off. Some 30 feet away, she stops, sniffs the air then walks away to my right. We watch gobsmacked as she crashes through a clump of willows and disappears.
As the last glimpse of her disappears from view, I’m reminded that these incredible creatures, as a whole, are in jeopardy. According to Polar Bears International, the rise in global warming has been responsible for a 30 per cent reduction in Arctic sea ice since 1979. As a result, PBI says, “scientists predict that as the Arctic continues to warm, two-thirds of the world’s polar bears could disappear within this century.”
On Hudson Bay, it’s likely the populations will disappear much sooner. Dr. Andrew Derocher from the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta has been studying polar bears for 35 years and is an expert on the Hudson Bay area. He says recent research shows that the rate of sea ice loss is impacting the local bears. In the 1980s, the population was around 1200; today it’s 800.
Shorter intervals of ice means less time feeding and more time on land without food. “Bears are coming off the ice with lower overall body condition. They no longer come ashore with enough fat reserves,” he says. Females are having a harder time rearing their cubs to the point at which they can be weaned and if this cycle continues, Dr. Derocher estimates they could “blink out” in the coming decades.
Back at the lodge, we’re in the lounge and still pumped from our encounter with Radio Bear. Behind us, large picture windows frame a desolate but stunning landscape. A fire rages in the large stone hearth. This is where we gather. We read, edit photos, chat over glasses of wine and cups of hot cocoa. It’s a cozy escape after hours of trudging across the tundra. I plop myself on a comfy leather couch and do nothing, happily.
By 9pm, I’m in bed, exhausted but eager for another day of adventure. I close my eyes, curl myself into a fetal position and dream of bears.