SI Vault
Downs Matthews
September 11, 1989
At the edge of the shore ice, where Hudson Bay's cold waters move sluggishly beneath a bank of gray fog, a big male polar bear ambles into view. From a distance he seems little more than a harmless hummock of snow that somehow moves. But at the sight of this lord of the Arctic, the eight photographers watching from a Tundra Buggy on a Cape Churchill ridge suddenly develop a shortness of breath. They are transfixed by bear fever.
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September 11, 1989

Polar Bear Safaris: The Hottest Thing Up North

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Once at Cape Churchill the bear watchers spend a night in a mobile bunkhouse, which is linked to the other vehicles. In the morning the bear groupies dress warmly—the temperature is 12�, and the sky is overcast. With daylight, they can see bears of all sizes and ages wandering around the vehicles. Other bears are sleeping in daybeds scooped out of snowdrifts.

Arctic foxes, fat cotton balls with feet, scuttle through camp with a curious side-winding gait. A subadult male bear has curled up in the lee of one of the vehicle wheels with his head cradled, puppylike, on his paws. The fox, in his hyperactive search for food, approaches. Annoyed, the bear lunges. But the nimble fox whirls safely away. Guravich, who has the world's best collection of polar bear photographs, follows the action, unable to resist the temptation of getting just one more picture.

A bear rears, front legs dangling at his sides, chin on his chest, and invites another to play. His partner rises to meet him and the two grapple like sumo wrestlers. But the gladiators aren't serious about the contest. They waltz lazily back and forth, fencing with their muzzles, finally collapsing on their backs in the snow. They push at each other with their hind feet as if pedaling bicycles.

Delighted photographers jam open the windows of the buggy, shooting steadily. The professionals on board trigger their shutters in short machine-pistol bursts, taking the same picture three or four times, and then shoot the scene with exposures above their light meters' recommended settings. The amateurs snap more slowly, one shot at a time.

The two bears rise again on their hind legs and grapple in more ponderous play. As the action starts, one shooter groans in frustration, "Why do they always do that on the 36th frame?" He fumbles feverishly for more film. By the time he has reloaded, the two play-fighters have lost interest again and have gone to sleep in each other's arms. "Isn't that sweet," murmurs a woman photographer. She exposes frame after frame of the dozing bears.

To get just the right camera angle, one man sticks his head out of a window. But in ducking back inside, he knocks off his fur hat. It drops 10 feet to the snow below. Instantly, two subadults weighing perhaps 500 pounds each, try to grab the hat. The faster of the two, after determining that it is not a rabbit or something else good to eat, rushes off with the new toy in his jaws, waving it like a flag while the other bear chases after him. For half an hour, they play keep-away with the hat. Finally they tear it up and eat it, right down to its Garfinckel's label. The photographers, with the exception of the hat owner, expose yards of film. "What'll I tell my wife?" the bareheaded victim wonders aloud.

The sun breaks through the overcast sky and the landscape is transformed into cake frosting, pink and blue, dusted with sugar crystals. The photographers are galvanized with fresh enthusiasm. Nine adult male bears pose handsomely, their creamy coats suffused in orange light. The monochrome Arctic has unexpectedly become a prism refracting rainbow colors.

A female with cubs enters camp accompanied by the steady stutter of shutters. She's a new mother, inexperienced at handling cubs. Her two 50-pound cubs don't seem to know that adult male bears are dangerous. One of the old warriors growls a threat, and the mother turns to confront the ill-tempered male, her head low and her lip curled in an unmistakable warning. She charges, but the cubs fail to follow her. One runs away. As he passes near, a large male springs and clamps the cub in his jaws. The mother rushes to rescue her squalling offspring and tries to drag it away from the much larger male. Blood stains the snow.

The photographers are appalled. Some turn away, sickened, unable to watch. Others weep in anguish. Only Dr. Harold Albers, an internationally known wildlife veterinarian, can retain his objectivity.

Fifty percent of all polar bear cubs don't make it through their first year, he points out. The next day bears are observed feeding on the little carcass. No one wants pictures.

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