The planet's largest land predator looked disarmingly cuddly. Ambling over the snowy tundra toward us, he was all big furry head and huge shaggy paws -- which we got a close-up eyeful of as the polar bear stopped, rose up on his haunches and placed his big feet on the side of our vehicle to stare into my daughter's astonished face, a mere pane of glass between them.
Sure, we'd seen polar bears in the zoo. But nothing prepared us for the sheer magic of watching the King of the Arctic in its natural realm. Mothers nurtured yearling cubs; young males romped and pushed each other over in spirited displays of play-fighting; lone bears wandered regally over the snow, white on white.
Our family had traveled to Churchill, Manitoba to spend three days among the bears as they congregated along the shore of Hudson Bay waiting for the ice to freeze and seal-hunting season to begin.
Observing bears is a thrill for wildlife lovers, as every long line of cars stopped to ogle a roadside black bear in Yellowstone attests. While Yellowstone may be most famous for bear watching, there are other sites that belong on every nature traveler's ursine pilgrimage list, offering opportunities to see and photograph wild bears often at close range.
- Churchill, Manitoba: Churchill is the polar bear capital of the world, with the greatest concentration of bears on view each October and November. Several hundred gather here along Hudson Bay each fall, and guests travel over the tundra to see them via specialized vehicles called Polar Rovers. Some lucky visitors may enjoy a stay at the Tundra Lodge, a unique rolling hotel that's placed each season in a remote location with high bear density, for a complete immersion in the polar bear's habitat.
- Spitsbergen, Norway: Spitsbergen, the largest island in Norway's Svalbard archipelago high in the Arctic, is home to more than 3,000 polar bears. Sightings are frequent in summer, when expedition cruise ships ply the ice-laden waters of the remote realm of jagged peaks and glaciers. In addition to its famous polar bears, Svalbard is also home to reindeer, polar fox, whales, seals, walrus and multitudes of sea birds, protected within six national parks, three nature reserves and 15 bird sanctuaries.
- Katmai National Park, Alaska: Perhaps no place in the world is more renowned for bear watching than Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park. As many as 50 brown bears congregate along a mile-long stretch of the Brooks River during the annual salmon run, waiting atop the falls with gaping jaws as the fish leap into the air -- and often right into the bears' mouths. Brooks Lodge is within walking distance of the falls, where visitors can safely view bears from raised platforms. For an even greater thrill, watch coastal grizzlies directly from the beach at Hallo Bay on a yacht-based Alaska adventure cruise into the Katmai wilderness.
- Anan Wildlife Observatory, Alaska: Anan Creek, a Tlingit native fishing site located 30 miles southeast of Wrangell, boasts the largest pink salmon run in Southeast Alaska, an event that draws large numbers of black and brown bears that gather to feast on the bounty each summer. The U.S. Forest Service has built a facility that allows visitors to watch the feeding bears up close -- reach the observation platform and photo blind overlooking the cascading falls via a half-mile trail through the forest. The Anan estuary and observatory are accessible only by boat or small plane, and guided trips can be arranged through local operators in Wrangell.
- Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia: Tucked between the Pacific Ocean and the Coast Range on Canada's west coast, the ancient Great Bear Rainforest is one of the largest tracts of temperate rainforest left on earth. Amidst its thousand-year-old cedars, 300-foot-tall Sitka spruce trees and rich salmon streams are plentiful grizzlies, black bears and the rare white Kermode, or Spirit, bear, which is an unusual variant of black bear found nowhere else in the world. One in 10 cubs in this region displays the recessive white coat that has earned this bear its aura of mystery in local Native legend. Most visitors see Spirit bears on small-boat coastal cruises, while the grizzlies of the Bella Coola Valley are typically observed from lodge-based tours including float trips on the Atnarko River.
- Sichuan Province, China: Could any bear lover's travel itinerary be complete without a chance to see China's globally beloved pandas? As the icon for World Wildlife Fund, the endangered giant panda is a symbol for endangered species worldwide. Visitors can interact with the charismatic bears -- and often cubs -- at China's two giant panda breeding and research bases in Chengdu and Bifengxia in Sichuan province. And while it is very difficult to observe truly wild pandas in their native environs, Natural Habitat offers a rare opportunity to explore a remote Chinese nature reserve in the Minshan Mountains that's home to some 60 free-roaming giant pandas.
- Zhupanova River, Siberia: If you're a serious adventurer yearning to see huge brown bears in the real back of beyond, consider a kayak expedition in the Siberian wilderness. A paddling trip down the Zhupanova River on the Kamchatka Peninsula is almost sure to reveal them, since it is one of the most productive wild salmon and trout streams in the world. The peninsula harbors the planet's densest population of brown bears, and the Kamchatka subspecies is nearly as big as Alaska's enormous Kodiak bears.
-- Wendy Worrall Redal