Since time immemorial polar bears, the largest land mammal carnivore on earth, have congregated in their hundreds, even thousands, on the shores of Hudson Bay in October/November, waiting for the winter ice to form after a summer of discontent to give them access once more to their favourite buffet of seals.
Churchill, where the Churchill River meets Hudson Bay in Canada's province of Manitoba, is slam dunk in the middle of this annual migration route, so it's only natural that the town boasts of being the world capital of polar bears.
To see these magnificent but unpredictable and dangerously aggressive animals in the wild, you board a tundra buggy, a huge box-like contraption on five foot high tyres with a back viewing platform, and traverse the bleak snow-swept scrub and tundra at a safe height.
On this early November day the guides say they've never seen so many bears. There are solitary polars, pairs of polars, sauntering polars, resting polars, curious polars, blasￃﾩ polars, hind-leg rearing polars, sparring polars, back-rubbing polars, weight-lifting polars, and doubtlessly your neighborhood bi-polar polars.
Your local neighborhood polar bear
We've barely boarded the buggy when a largish specimen saunters along a row of low trees and scrub. He looks our way, couldn't be less interested and rambles on. But shortly after, in fairly quick succession, more curious compatriots lope over, sniff the wheels, and pass along beneath the windows and the outside platform. They stare up, fully in control of the situation.
Bears investigating the buggies
It's absolutely verboten to go down onto the ground. When we have to fix a tow line and haul another buggy out of the hole into which its expert driver has guided it, a park official stands by with a rifle in case a bear becomes too curious. He has cracker shells and whistling flares to scare it off, and live rounds in extremis.
As if on cue, two polars a couple of hundred feet or so away rear up on their hind legs and start sparring with each other. They open their mouths, bare their teeth, mock bite and swipe at each other with their massive paws. This is non-aggressive horse play, to mix up your animals, unlike the violent battles males may wage over mating rights, but the swipes from creatures weighing 1,000 pounds or more can inflict wounds.
These two exhaust themselves and plop down to rest. After 15 minutes they're at it again, rearing up, swiping away. Again they plop down, only to repeat the performance. The encores go on for the next hour and a half - polar bear night at the Palladium.
As fascinating as this is, the piￃﾨce de rￃﾩsistance comes from one massive specimen with huge legs and paws who shows great curiosity, moving around the buggy and staring up at our ugly mugs and film-snapping fingers.
He then calmly lays down in the low shrubs and proceeds to roll over on his back with his humongous legs in the air, before raising his head to give us a stare. On his back again he stretches out his forelegs and pushes a fallen tree trunk upwards several times, as though he's doing repeats with barbells. Again he looks at us as if saying 'look what I can do.'
Some bear rolling
He has a longish black scar under his right eye, inflicted by a seal's claws as he grabbed its tail, or in a sparring bout, or in a brawl over a female. It gives him rather a rakish look. Once more he goes through his routine, rolling over on his back this way and that, waggling his legs high in the air, lifting his barbells, staring at us and getting up, before starting it all over again.
I've no idea if bears put on 'shows' for humans the way pods of dolphins, those most exhibitionist of creatures, do, but today I'd sure like to believe so.
More rolling and barbell lifting
On a second full day out on the tundra, it's gloriously sunny though much colder, with a wind sending the mercury plummeting even further. The bears are glowing light golden under the sun's wash as they saunter across the blindingly white snow.
Once more these incredibly inquisitive creatures come right up to the buggies to check them out. One mounts on his hind legs with his front paws to check on the load above.
He plops down again, goes round the back and under the vehicle and stands up to inspect it like a mechanic checking the oil or the axle.
I can fix that buggy for you
Another follows as we move off until we stop again. She then plops down to watch us.
Two massive creatures to the right are playing. One lays down, his back paws in the air, while the other approaches. They rear up on their hind legs and spar, before plopping down again for a snooze.
It's really rock around the directional clock. We see them all over the place - at 10 o'clock, 1 o'clock, 4 o'clock, 9 o'clock. Some ignore us. Others can't control their curiosity and come right up to us, dark eyes intent, long purple-black tongue rolling out and flicking.
A walk on the sunny side
To cap it off, a mother and her 10-month-old cub are snoozing right by the side of a track. The mother raises her head to look around; the cub nestling into Mum's bum does likewise. A perfect end to a perfect day.
Mother and Child
[Upcoming blog next Sunday: When polar bears come into town at Churchill]
By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.