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Travel and You

Shooting at the Polar Bears That Hunt for Seals

December 06, 1987|TONI TAYLOR | Taylor, an authority on the travel industry, lives in Los Angeles.

One of the more distinctive experiences on an adventure-nature tour are the photo safaris to witness the annual polar bear migration in the Churchill area of northern Canada. Visitors go out on tundra buggies to see the huge animals.

The bears come to this sub-Arctic area on the shores of Hudson Bay while waiting for the water to freeze so they can go out on the thick ice and hunt for seals.

Like many other adventure outings, travelers should take care to make sure that they are fully prepared for these trips.

"Some travelers underestimate the cold," says Randy Green of Victor Emmanuel Photo Safaris, one of the companies operating polar bear package tours. "And some people don't want to invest in clothing they figure they'll only use once, and they wind up being cold."

Temperatures drop below freezing during October and early November when the tours take place. Because of the limited season, bookings should be made now for the 1988 season.

Boots, parka, gloves, sweater and a warm hat are needed. Thermal underwear, a scarf and face mask also may come in handy. Pack enough clothing so you can dress with a layered effect.

Close-Up View

Travelers should also understand the tundra buggies. From the safety of these buggies, equipped with five-foot tractor tires and standing 12 feet tall, you can glance down at the bears from very close.

Attracted to the buggies by scents of open sardine cans and other alimentary allures (the bears aren't supposed to be fed), the bears may amble right up to the buggy and even stand and lean against the vehicle. Picture-taking possibilities are usually excellent.

The heated buggies have windows that can be opened, but it's not advisable to put your hands and camera outside while taking pictures. Despite their ponderous size, the bears can move with amazing speed.

Take plenty of film. Binoculars also are useful. And patience is required.

"Travelers should realize there's no guarantee of sighting bears," says Len Smith, head of Tundra Buggy Tours.

"The weather has a lot to do with the number of bears seen. If the bay freezes over early, many bears may already be gone. And if the weather isn't too cold, there may be fewer of them."

Smith also emphasized the importance of understanding local conditions. "Things can break down and not be repaired as quickly as elsewhere, due to the weather and terrain."

Safety is, of course, another factor. "Some independent travelers want to know where to camp, which isn't allowed because of the bears," says Raymond Girardin of the Parks Canadian office in Churchill, which offers exhibits as well as free films about polar bears.

"They haven't done their homework. And some visitors rent cars and then leave the cars to follow bear tracks. They don't realize the danger. Some people also ignore the signs posted about not walking in some risky areas."

Don't Feed the Bears

Girardin also stressed the need to follow the rule against feeding bears. "The bears that are fed expect to be fed again. If they don't get fed they get angry, and this can set up confrontations where the bears may be shot."

Accommodations also represent some questions for many travelers. "Visitors expect to find conditions on the primitive side, and most are pleasantly surprised by the modern facilities," says Bob Penwarden, owner of the Tundra Inn. "Many guests also bring too much clothing and stuff they never wear."

The more adventurous, as part of some packages, also may choose to sleep out on the tundra (at an extra cost) on a bunkhouse-on-wheels at the shore of the icy-looking water of the bay. This tundra-based domicile is a combined train-like sleeper attached by a walk-through, open-air caboose to a diner-like eating area.

Be prepared for less comfort than at a standard hotel, if you spend a night or more out on the tundra. There you're more or less a captive while the bears come by, encouraged by the scent of food.

In their search for scraps, the bears may lean against the bunkhouse.

Feral scenes, on the buggies or at the bunkhouse, can unfurl at any time. We watched a bear next to the bunkhouse chase away an Arctic fox. Moments later a great snowy owl fluttered directly overhead, with the fox obviously in his sights. Shortly afterward, from a greater distance, the same bear struck down the owl, which swooped too low.

You also can capture sights of the bears snoozing, their immense heads beneath their paws, rolling their stomachs against the ground in a scratching effort and foraging along the shoreline, with kelp hanging from their mouths like dark tooth floss.

The stark but not sunless tundra has other attractions besides its wildlife. Sights include snow-dappled granite boulders also marked by blotches of orange lichen; ponds with patches of ice and semi-frozen diaphanous areas showing moss underneath; strange pastel streaks of slush ice sketched like a grounded rainbow on barren shores, and solitary black spruces with sparse branches where the wind hits the trees hardest.

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