THE BLOG

Snow Safari: Seeing Polar Bears in the Wild

02/04/2014 03:46 pm ET | Updated Apr 06, 2014

Polar bears are everywhere these days -- peering at you from cans of Coke, eating ice cream in ads, and padding around in cartoon arctics with penguins (who belong at the other pole).

Polar bears are everywhere. Everywhere, that is, but where they should be: on ice floes in the far, far North.

The world's largest land carnivores are in trouble. Since they live and hunt part-time on frozen chunks of ocean, declines in sea ice could cut back their numbers by two-thirds by 2050. Or worse -- they could become extinct.

Thinking of this, I wanted to write checks to charities who would try to help them. I wanted to buy bear books. I wanted to spend some time at the zoo.

The more I read and watched, the more I realized: It didn't work.

It was time to see these big white guys in the wild before it was too late.

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It is late fall, a few years back, when I sign up for a tour to the not-quite-North Pole. It is a safari, a strange one, run by Natural Habitat Adventures. Instead of lions or elephants or leopards, we will be aiming for bear -- polar bears, that is -- those that are roaming the sub-arctic tundra near an outpost called Churchill, Manitoba.

When I look at a map, I note that the Arctic Circle is at latitude 66.6. Churchill, on the edge of Hudson Bay, sits at 60. I buy myself a hat with ear flaps. In a basement box I turn up a pair of boot socks. The kind that are as thick as mittens. The kind that take up all the room in your shoes.

In Winnipeg, it is snowing already. We cram into a chartered prop plane that says on its side that it is run by "Calm Air." As advertised, the atmosphere under our wings is tepid for about an hour. Then there are bumps. And drops.

Soon we are ski-jumping at thousands of feet up. I try to distract myself with the in-flight magazine. Winter Living teases the cover -- "Cure your cabin fever! Check out our cool cold-weather clothes!"

I decide it's going to be a very long ride.

Churchill, I discover, is a scattering of streets and insulated sheds, but it is where polar bears arrive each fall in late October and early November to wait for Hudson Bay to freeze. As soon as it does, they pad out onto the ice for winter hunting of seals.

Tundra, tundra everywhere. Our guide up here, a German named Matthias, tells us that "tundra" is the land that doesn't have any trees and that the patches with scraggly forest are called "taiga."

Did someone say forest? You can spot a few toothbrush-thin spruce trying to grow, but mostly there is wind and snow and a kind of distant cousin of daylight. I check my watch: 1:43 p.m. This can't be right.

Instead of a sun, someone has screwed a Soft White bulb into the sky. And they've stuck it in just over the horizon.

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On the ride from the airport we tourists shout and point. Three shapes that look like pictures in calendars plod along right by the side of the road. It is a mother bear and cubs. Lens caps are dropped, windows on the bus are ajar, and shutters snap and snap.

These are not zoo bears -- not at all. Their fur is puffy, not yellowish or matted. And while the cubs are shy, their mom is confident in a way that's not easy to describe. She leads the pack, she scans, but she's not wary like other animals I have watched in the wild.

The cubs are toddler princes. She is the white queen.

We are in her world now, and it is we who unload our bags into a kind of cage. Our home for five days will be a specially-built movable tundra lodge consisting of four train-style cars linked together and jacked up on fat ATV wheels.

Our sleeping car is toasty thanks to an industrial-strength iron stove that is whistling while it throws us heat. Each of us gets a private compartment that's about the size of berths on Amtrak. There's an upper and lower bunk, a window, and some hooks and cubbies to stow our gear.

"My ears are ice," complains Roberta Bakos, who tells us she lives in the south.

"Miami," she says. "Miami Beach!"

I should be sympathetic, but I'm not. My toes have been dead since Winnipeg.

I rub and stamp, jump and scratch. I refuse to move from the stove.

Besides our Pullman bunkroom, the tundra train has cars for lounging and dining. It has between-car decks with railings and steel mesh gratings.

And it has bears.

Bears licking the tires under the lodge. Bears snuffling inches from our shoes out on deck. Bears growling and arguing. And bears staring up the open drains when you are trying to get clean.

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When I take a shower, I look down while pouring shampoo and see a medium-sized male watching carefully from below. I am embarrassed. But the bear is not.

I rinse off some soap. He rears up closer to the drain. I run the water hot. He shows me his nose and teeth. I crank the knob for pressure, pour it down as hard as it will go. His tongue comes out, just slightly. He smacks it. He is having a drink.

Time to towel off.

Our welcome dinner is a type of seafood stew. It's just the thing for the cold. Someone notices that a pot of something is steaming out on deck. One of the cooks is stirring, stirring.

"Is it dessert?" asks Bakos.

It is not. It is a broth with leftover scales and fishbones and shells.

"We keep it bubbling for the bears," explains Matthias. "Of course they like this smell."

After coffee we get a briefing.

"The male," says Matthias, "he can weigh two times as much as the Siberian tiger." I remember the one in my shower.

"Of all the species of bear," he adds, "he is most likely to prey on humans."

I think of my shower bear again.

According to Matthias, a grown-up male can tip the scales "at 1,000 pounds, even 1,500. It is sometimes nine, sometimes nine-and-a-half feet long."

Other facts pop out:

-- "A polar bear's skin isn't white, it's black." (This causes frowns).

-- "If you try to take an infrared shot of a polar bear, good luck. They're so well insulated, they're invisible in infrared -- except for their breath."

-- And, yes, polar bears are in trouble: "They swim from ice floe to ice floe. And with so much ice melting off, they've had to swim further -- often struggling, sometimes drowning -- in their push to find food."

Our bears are still on land where they are safe and where we can meet them. Every night they cluster around to smell our stew, to stare in our showers, and to have their squabbles -- private disagreements -- in the dark.

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When it gets late we stop looking down for a little while and look up: the Northern Lights -- a glow-in-the-dark Frankenstein green.

Every day, we pile into a sort of moon-buggy to ride away from the lodge in search of yet more bears. The buggy is cold, and we get bitten by an arctic wind that whistles with the zest of the disturbed.

Someone shouts about a snowy owl they can see. Maybe it's a rock, I say. It is probably an owl, decides our guide. When it swivels its feathery head we know for sure.

Seconds later, we spot an arctic fox that pops up and disappears behind a bank of snow. He is whiter than the white of the landscape, and surprisingly small. My cat, Sam, outweighs him by a good five pounds, but this fox is fast, trotting and darting until he is gone.

Our last day of the tour is spent in town and we are warned that there can be bears in Churchill, too.

"It isn't good," says a local guide here, "but before we closed it, they would come to have dinner at the dump."

"Bears are aggressive," adds Matthias, "and creative. They eat plastic, styrofoam, entire bags of garbage, including the bag. Anything people throw away."

The last time anyone got mauled here was in 1983, we are told. For reasons no one can explain, a local man went for a walk at night with jacket pockets filled with meat. A polar bear ate him and the pocketed meat as a single meal.

None of this is reassuring, and we look carefully around corners and spend a lot of our time inside bars and stores.

"At least," says Roberta Bakos, who is buying a statue of a walrus, "it means there are still enough of the bears for us to have to worry."

It's an encouraging thought, but when I go to the edge of Churchill to take pictures, I look carefully around.

Aggressive Churchill bears end up locked inside a former military hangar. And now and then, on crisp and clear afternoons, they are given an extraordinary dose of something to relax them and helicoptered far from town.

Before our tour group heads to the airport, we get to see a deeply slumbering bear as he is stretched out into a hammock-like net, winched up by the copter, and swung up high and swaying, into the blue-black arctic dome.

"Calm Air," is what I say to myself. Calm air.

The bear and I -- both -- are flying peacefully today.

We are going home.

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Peter Mandel is the author of the read-aloud bestseller Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan/Roaring Brook) and other books for kids, including Zoo Ah-Choooo (Holiday House) and Bun, Onion, Burger (Simon & Schuster).