Wildlife

The ice walkers: Canada’s polar bears

An excerpt from Gloria Dickie's book, Eight Bears: Mythic Past and Imperiled Future, which explores the planet's eight remaining species of bears and the dangers they face

  • Sep 06, 2023
  • 2,770 words
  • 12 minutes
Cover illustration by Arjun Parikh and photo by Kevin Beaty.
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Excerpted from Eight Bears: Mythic Past and Imperiled Future by Gloria Dickie. Copyright © 2023 by Gloria Dickie. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Whiteout conditions blotted out the banks of Canada’s Hudson Bay. It was mid-​November, and sea ice had been slowly forming a frozen jigsaw puzzle over the dark open water. It would soon reach the shoreline, bridging the terrestrial and marine worlds. The region’s six hundred or so polar bears would then head out onto the ice to hunt ringed seals, where they would lead an enigmatic existence until they returned to the rocky tundra next spring. Inside Tundra Buggy One, the official research vehicle of the conservation group Polar Bears International, I scanned the monotone landscape for the camouflaged ice-​pilgrims to no avail. Out here, one had to be adept at discriminating between shades of white: porcelain, bone white, eggshell, milky white, pearl. Spotting a polar bear, particularly in a snowstorm, was an ocular feat. Gusts of wind lacerated the saltwater coastline as the buggy pushed forward. The bears had likely taken refuge among the low-​lying willows that fringed the shore.

“Buggy” is a benign word for the armored monstrosity we were using to navigate this part of the Canadian Shield, where large gray boulders broke through the tundra grasses like breaching whales. The snow-​white vehicle, driven by a polar bear biologist named BJ Kirschhoffer, was reminiscent of a stretch Land Cruiser balanced on gigantic tires with some 6 feet of clearance above the permafrost—​and curious polar bears. It felt less like a truck and more like a boat as it pitched over rocks and lurched into deep craters carved by the buggies that had passed before us. A native of the region, Len Smith, developed the first iteration of the Tundra Buggy in 1980, blending together equal parts gravel truck and school bus to safely transport tourists and film crews over the fragile tundra. The buggies followed a network of trails created by the military in the 1950s. Wind-​scoured flag trees—​black spruces with the branches on the windward side destroyed by strong gusts—​stood as a testament to the severity of the landscape. So fierce was the wind that even their tree rings huddled to one side when cored. Black gulls squawked above us. The buggy’s wipers struggled across the windshield, trying in vain to divert the hammering snow. A colorful assortment of bear cracker shells and bullets jittered on the dashboard with each rotation of the tires. I checked the temperature on my phone, which I had tucked into the inside pocket of my parka to keep the battery from dying: −23°C (−9°F) with wind chill. No wonder the polar bears weren’t out and about.

Illustration by Arjun Parikh.
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Fortunately, the inner chamber of the wood-​paneled buggy was cozy—​not least of all because those of us huddled inside were surreptitiously sipping Irish cream mixed into our coffee at eleven in the morning. Unlike the dozen or so bear-​viewing tourist buggies with coach seating humming along through the blizzard, this one was designed to allow a team of researchers to stake out on the tundra for days, even weeks, during the polar bear migration, observing the habits of the ice walkers. The back of the buggy was equipped with bunk beds, a working fireplace, a whiskey stash (count on Arctic scientists to always have the good stuff), and, on the exterior, four surveillance cameras connected to a live-​stream channel that transmitted images of Hudson Bay’s bears around the world.

I had long dreamed of this journey north. Whenever people had asked me which bear was my favorite, I had dithered and hedged. “I like them all equally,” I would say, diplomatically. Sun bears were cute with lolling tongues. Grizzlies were emblematic of the American wilderness. And who could pass up the panda? What a jolly fellow. That, however, was all a lie. My favorite bear was unequivocally the polar bear. It was singular in its magnetism. An all-​white bear, with translucent fur and black skin. It ate seals! Males could weigh more than 1,000 pounds! Never mind that it split off from the grizzly bear a few hundred thousand years ago, the ice bear was a novelty and we were lucky to be in its presence. Or, very near its presence, I hoped.

The day before, dozens of bears had been spotted padding along this stretch of frigid tundra pockmarked by shallow kettle lakes that formed when glaciers retreated thousands of years ago. In the nearby town of Churchill, Manitoba, tourists dressed in expensive parkas gabbed about their good fortune between bites of Arctic char at the Tundra Inn restaurant. Churchill is one of the easiest places in the world to see polar bears. What other northern locale has a group of polar bears that shows up, on a predictable schedule, near an airport, train station, and grocery store? Indeed, the sign posted along the desolate road into town proclaimed Churchill to be “Polar Bear Capital of the World.” How much longer, I wondered, would this hold true?

Around twenty-​six thousand polar bears are believed to exist worldwide. That estimation would make them the fourth-​most populous bear species, and compared with many of their relatives whose numbers are slowly ticking down, most polar bear populations appear to be doing okay. Many Inuit even purport that the population is growing and that there are too many bears roaming the Arctic. But the species is heading toward an inevitable cliff: the point on a population chart where the red line chugging along uninterrupted suddenly nose-​dives and disappears entirely below the x-​axis, submerged much like the polar bear in an ice-​free ocean. In the past two decades, climate change has devastated the sea ice that bears use for a hunting platform. Without ice, the bears starve. Those visitors who had made the long journey to Churchill were last-​chance tourists, much like those who had sailed the undammed Yangtze in its final weeks or who now snorkel at the bleaching Great Barrier Reef. All of this could come to an end in as little as forty years. Churchill’s southerly location in the subarctic means not only that the region is more accessible to researchers and visitors, but that the bears living here are likely to be among the first wiped out by climate change.

A female polar bear and her cub in Wapusk National Park, Manitoba. (Photo: Drew Hamilton/Can Geo Photo Club)
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Hudson Bay is a large inland sea bordering three Canadian provinces and one territory, though technically the waters are considered the property of the Nunavut territory alone. At low tide, locals joke you can walk out along the sandy shore and find yourself standing in the northern territory. English explorer Henry Hudson, who built up his seafaring credentials near Greenland and Svalbard, discovered the bay in 1610 while searching for the fabled Northwest Passage, as was the thing to do if you were a brazen man with a penchant for exploration in the seventeenth century. But like his ambitious forefathers, he, too, was led astray. Mistakenly, Hudson believed he had discovered a route to Asia when he happened upon the large saltwater body smack-​dab in the middle of what would later become Canada. After three months of searching the bay’s edges, Hudson could find no outlet. By November, his ship was trapped in ice. He stubbornly demanded that his crew spend an abysmal winter on the shore of the bay before forging westward. (The polar bears were out on the ice by this point—​a small comfort.) Fed up with Hudson’s orders and the cold, the crew mutinied the following spring and set him and his teenage son adrift in a small shallop boat on the bay’s waters. No one ever heard from Hudson again.

Hudson Bay does not connect to the Northwest Passage, but it does eventually empty out of the aptly named Hudson Strait into the Labrador Sea, an arm of the North Atlantic Ocean. In late autumn, as Hudson and his crew unfortunately discovered, ice grows over the surface of the bay. Though this may have filibustered Hudson’s grandiose plans and led to his untimely demise, it’s also given rise to a unique population of polar bears that inhabit the bay’s shores. In other parts of the Arctic, sea ice may shrink in the summer but persists year-​round, and polar bears spend most of their lives on the ice, rarely coming ashore. (At least, this was the case before climate change entered our vernacular.) The sea ice of Hudson Bay, however, freezes and thaws according to the season. The region’s polar bears endeavor to stay on the ice as long as possible, but at some point they must decamp. During the summer and early fall, they bide their time on land as they wait for the ice to return. The patch of tundra around Churchill has become particularly populous with bears, in part because it’s the place where the sea ice breaks up last in spring and returns first in the fall. Migrating bears from around Western Hudson Bay are getting on and off the ice here, often passing through town as they do so.

Forced ashore for months at a time, there is little else to do but get to know the neighbors. Young male bears spar on the slushy shores to stave off boredom in late autumn. Others munch on kelp washed in by the tide. Pregnant females den in the soft peat banks of Wapusk National Park, the only place in North America outside of the Mackenzie River delta where all three species of bears—​black bears, polar bears, and brown bears—​mingle. Though grizzlies were thought to have disappeared from Manitoba, they began showing up again in Wapusk in the 1990s. Scientists believe the bears—​barren-​ground grizzlies—​are dispersing southward from Nunavut. Grizzlies have been seen in the park every year since 2008. For polar bears, the impermanence of ice means that they must pack on as much weight as possible during winter and spring when they can hunt blubbery ringed seals. A polar bear stomach can hold the food equivalent of as much as 20 percent of its body weight. Upon returning to land, the bears will fast for more than four months—​pregnant females for eight—​with rarely a pinniped in sight. Remarkably, during these lean months, a bear sheds about 2 pounds every single day until the ice returns.

Today seemed to be that day. In the twelve hours that had passed between me eavesdropping on the tourists’ conversations and heading out in pursuit of bears, the thick ice edge had connected to the shoreline. Nearly every single bear spotted on land yesterday had departed for the winter season, finally satisfied that the ice could support their tremendous weight. Though it was bad news for me, it was good news for the bears. In recent years, Hudson Bay has been freezing up later in the season, extending the bears’ tenuous fasting period. A sudden shift in weather patterns that week had spurred a surprisingly early freeze-​up, and the bears would have extra time to fatten up.

Trying to appear patient despite this bedeviling change of fortune, I took a seat next to Andrew Derocher, a towering Canadian with a gray-​streaked beard dressed in a puffed-​out parka that doubled his stature. Still, it was difficult to make out anyone’s physical characteristics under several layers of jackets, scarves, and toques. I was nearly as keen to meet Derocher as I was a polar bear. He was one of only a handful of scientists who had been studying polar bears before climate change hijacked the research agenda. Back in the mid-​1980s, while Derocher was working on his master’s of science, polar bears were doing well in Canada. It had been over a decade since the Canadian government began limiting the number of bears that could be harvested and restricting hunting permits to Indigenous people or to sport hunters with an Indigenous guide. (Canada is the only nation that still allows for the international export of polar bear hides and the only nation that permits the sport hunting of polar bears.) With these restrictions in place, many bear populations were recovering. “Our focus back then was just on basic ecology. We wanted to know about the lingering effects of the harvest and how many bears there were,” he told me as we rumbled over the tundra.

A polar bear on the shore of Hudson's Bay. (Photo: Gisele Landriault/Can Geo Photo Club)
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In the mid-​1990s, Derocher moved to Norway to study the emerging threat of pollutants accumulating in high levels in the unhunted population of polar bears living in the Svalbard archipelago. But things soon began heating up. “I love learning how animals make a living in a place like this. But now it’s vainglorious to study the natural history of polar bears in a time when it doesn’t seem to be that relevant. Seeing how much they’re screwed up . . . ​it’s not as much fun,” he said with sad frustration. Derocher now leads the Polar Bear Science Lab at the University of Alberta in Edmonton and is a volunteer scientific adviser to Polar Bears International. Most of his spring field season is spent in Western Hudson Bay, traveling the tundra by helicopter to count the bears—​a far smoother ride than the buggy.

Derocher first arrived in Churchill in the summer of 1984, a fresh-​faced university student from rainy Vancouver who had never been to the subarctic before. Snow, in his view, was for downhill skiing. Despite such inexperience, he was handed a tranquilizer gun on his first time out in the chopper. The scientific mission was to dart and deploy radio collars on female bears (male bears can’t wear radio collars because their necks are wider than their skulls). It wasn’t long before Derocher spotted a pregnant female. He pulled the trigger and made contact. Success! The great bear swayed, but wouldn’t go down. Instead, she began staggering toward a shallow lake as Derocher watched in horror. The bear collapsed in the water, nearly unconscious and partly submerged. The pilot turned to him and sternly told him to get out. “Next thing I knew I was standing on the skids and jumping into the lake.” Immersed in waist-​high frigid water, Derocher struggled to keep the bear’s nose in the air. “She was heavy. And she was still swaying.” The pilot flew back to camp to get help while Derocher was left alone in the water with the bear. When he returned, they dragged the soaked and now slumbering bear back onto the land. “She was fine,” Derocher shrugged. “She went off and had her cubs.” Sometimes he saw her family around and wondered if she remembered him.

Finally, in the early afternoon, we spotted a lone female bear the color of limestone. Bears will appear white when they first come off the ice, freshly rinsed from the pristine seawater. But eventually, dirt or tannins from the peat tinge their fur a creamy yellow. We were just past No Pants Lake—​named for the man who once had to push his Tundra Buggy out of the water, losing his trousers in the process—​and she appeared to be coming in from the bay. The quality of the ice must not have been up to her standards. Idle conversation was instantly abandoned. I jostled to the other side of the buggy and pressed my face against the glass, squinting through the driving snow to see the majestic animal of my Arctic imagination. Derocher hardly moved. He’d spent his life hand-​to-​paw with these bears, and seeing one from the buggy must have been like Jane Goodall seeing an animatronic gorilla on the Jungle Cruise in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. He calmly lifted a pair of binoculars up to his eyes, observed the bear for a moment, then deemed her to be in good condition—​though, he added, that wasn’t indicative of how things were going across the Arctic. The yearlings he had seen earlier in the week were looking a bit smaller than was normal for the time of year. Moreover, the physical size of Western Hudson Bay polar bears had declined since the 1980s. The buggy inched closer to the bear padding across the tundra. I held my breath. Her black eyes and nose formed a dark triangle in a sea of white. What would she do? Roll in the snow? Break into a run? I raised my camera, ready for whatever charismatic polar bear behavior came next. She was about 30 feet away when she shrank behind a small willow, looked around, and emptied her bowels.

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