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.
Tundra Buggy driver and guide Len Smith remains unmoved. A resident of Churchill, Manitoba, he has lived too long among the great white bears to be awed by them. He opens a window and then a can of sardines. The oily odor wafts bearward. Smith knows that polar bears can smell food from a distance of 28 miles. At a mere 300 yards these hors d'oeuvres are irresistible.
The bear's long, Roman nose rises. His head swivels toward the buggy as unerringly as the needle on a compass. He has the scent.
But sardines are strange fare. Plopping his big bottom onto a block of ice, the bear settles down to study and consider. It's not a whale. Not seal. Not caribou. But it's worth looking into. He gets to his feet and heads for the odd-looking vehicle.
There is an anticipatory stir among the photographers, a nervous rechecking of aperture settings and shutter speeds. The polar bear seems huge, far larger than anyone imagined. He weighs perhaps 1,200 pounds and stands five feet at the shoulder. His black claws hook into the ice like oversized crampons. A golden aura surrounds him as the hollow hairs of his thick pelage radiate the light of the feeble northern Canadian sun.
The bear strolls fearlessly up to the buggy. There is, after all, nothing in the Far North to challenge his supremacy. Close by the buggy, he rears up to his full 12-foot height. He fixes his hungry brown eyes on the two-legged things that look sort of like seals, and he sucks in their scent with his black nose.
As though a firing squad had been given orders to shoot, the camera shutters crack. Film-advance motors whine like ricocheting bullets. In the grip of the moment, one shooter forgets to take his finger off the trigger. In seconds, 36 frames of 35-mm film whiz through his camera. Stunned, he stares at the traitorous piece of equipment, not willing to believe that he must reload. In this first frenzy, film races through all eight cameras like ticker tape.
This, after all, is the purpose of the world's only polar bear safari, a trip organized with the permission of the Canadian government by Dan Guravich, a professional photographer, and Smith. These wildlife photographers, professional and amateur alike, have traveled to Churchill from Europe and all over North America and boarded a caravan that includes three snow-rolling buggies as well as a bunkhouse that sleeps 16, a diner and a utility trailer complete with generator. They have lumbered a circuitous 70 miles over some of Canada's dreariest terrain to this original, genuine, polar bear club. Safe inside the tall vehicles, the photographers do nothing but watch the bears and depart after a week, carrying with them every film canister, candy wrapper and garbage sack they have brought in. They also leave with a few thousand photographs of the world's largest nonaquatic carnivore in its natural environment.
Within a half-mile radius of the buggies' camp, on the surface of a frozen lake, some 50 polar bears of all ages and sizes have congregated. Since the summer the bears have waited patiently on shore for the return of winter. Unable to hunt the seals on which they feed, they've survived the long months on their fat. They've lounged on the shore, eyeing arctic foxes. Now, winter's cold breath has quickened their instincts for the hunt. They've gathered here to be the first on the ice when it forms and thus first in line at the meat market. It is a phenomenon unique in the circumpolar world.
Over the past decade a hundred photographers, tourists and wildlife enthusiasts have joined this fall safari to enjoy one of nature's most photogenic animals. Some visitors return as regularly as the bears. Author and photographer Fred Bruemmer, who has seen hundreds of bears in his 30 years in the Arctic, says that his interest in them never fades. "Just because you hear a Mozart symphony seven times doesn't mean that you won't enjoy it an eighth," he explains.