Wilderness is an odd beast. Churchill is in Manitoba, a central Canadian province that reaches the edge of the Arctic Circle. The small town was once considered a wilderness destination – a sub-Arctic outpost of 800 surrounded by permafrost and polar bears. Then it became popular with tourists who boarded trucks to watch the bears foraging on the outskirts and, in the curious geography of the traveller’s mind, Churchill became mainstream – an extension of civilisation rather than a frontier of wilderness. Enter Arctic Kingdom, an upmarket adventure travel company…and exit Churchill. With five wildlife photographers for company, I’m flown 160 kilometres north, crossing into Canada’s youngest territory, Nunavut. We’re roughly alighted at a spot on the map with no airstrip, no name and horizons that comprise very little indeed: flat, brown tundra on one side, flat, grey Hudson’s Bay on the other. “Welcome to camp!” says expedition leader Tom Lennartz. “Let’s get your things inside – the change is coming soon.” The camp, standing tall in a topography that barely varies by a metre, is a compound of ATCO portable huts once occupied by trophy hunters (their messages of thanks are still scribbled on the plywood walls). Luxe? Not as much as you’d think after paying C$7,600 (about A$7,398) for four nights, but I thrill to this isle of civilisation in the howling sea of nothing – the snug huts warmed by gas heating, the caribou furs on the floor, the bowls of chocolates to keep the calories up…the electric fence to keep the bears out.
Polar bears are beginning their migration from the summer feeding grounds of Churchill, to find ice in the high north. We’re hoping for animals to pass just metres from the fence.
Overnight, the temperature nose-dives to minus 20 and the blizzards blow. We wake to white tundra, Bay shores clotted with creamy slush and a bitter wind shrieking out of a steely sky. It’s time to disgorge our bags of polar gear and get down to the business of bears. The guides shoulder rifles and lay down strict rules of procedure before leading us out of the electrified compound. Each day we walk some five kilometres – a thin line of colour threading gingerly over plains of iced boulders, fields of glossy kemp and jigsaws of frozen lakes. Inuit guide Jason Curley helps us to understand the country, how to name it in Inuktituk and how to appreciate its strangeness. We see animals already dressed in their winter whites – ptarmigan, snow buntings and a fearless arctic fox, which enters camp one night to twirl and prance among the snow-flurries.
A polar bear frolics on the snowy tundra
But it’s really about the bears and there’s always a guide scanning through binocs. “Polar bears are the only mammal to hunt humans,” says Jason. “And if he’s face-on with his ears flat, you won’t see him.” One day, I spend a sublime two hours with Jason and chef Mike foraging for shellfish beneath ice shallow. Then an urgent radio call comes – a bear has been spotted hurrying away from the camp. It’s a far white figure and we don’t see it again.
At the end of each day, we tired bear trackers savour camp pleasures. Great plates of arctic char fish in maple syrup served with local reisling. Tales told by the Inuit guides of hunting the great bear, the most feared and respected quarry. And slideshows on the photographers’ laptops, photos from globe-spinning travels. I’m surprised how good-spirited the photographers are about the lack of polar bears. But they’re seasoned professionals, some of them travelling with Arctic Kingdom to dive with narwhal and white Beluga whales, experiencing Arctic environments most of us don’t even know exist. “Photography is 10 per cent shooting and 90 per cent patience,” says Manuel Lazcano. “And this is the wilderness.” He shrugs: “If I wanted a guarantee of bears, I would have gone to a zoo.”
To be frank, I’m quite caught up in the frisson of the hunt and not that fussed by the bears’ no-show. And truth is the migration’s late because the season’s late because the climate is changing – and I can claim some responsibility for that.
Besides, I’m loving being in a landscape that’s as raw as the daily temperature, I relish the real-ness of being far-flung on the tundra and come to be fixated by white horizons that hold a subtle promise of eternity.
We fly back to Churchill for connecting flights home, and we’re met by a man called Dennis. The lack of bears at camp has prompted expedition leader Tom to call in a favour, asking Dennis to bundle us into his 4WD and rush us through the little town to a property on the outskirts.
“The guy who owns this place is one of the last breeders of true polar huskies,” says Dennis. “His dogs’ ancestors go back to the animals that accompanied the Scott expedition.” Some two dozen animals are dotted across a huge snowy paddock; they’re frenzied, straining and barking on the end of long chains. These are working dogs bred to pull sleds and are known to fight to the death. It is, in itself, an extraordinary sight – but then we see the reason for their frenzy: a polar bear calmly walking though their midst. The animal is sleek and long, and we can see its huge front feet are turned inward as it strides towards us. “There’s food left out for the bears,” says Dennis, “which is illegal. But if the bears aren’t fed, then they’ll eat the dogs.” Building electric fences would be prohibitively expensive, so this is a compromise between man and bear.
The polar bear stops a matter of six metres from us. It lies in the snow and dozes for long minutes, the dogs howling all around, their chains snapping and jingling as they leap.
I watch, marvelling at the super-natural sight.
“That’s just…” I grope for the word.