- The Washington Times - Friday, October 8, 2004

CHURCHILL, Manitoba — Dancer jumps up, pressing his long black nose against the window that separates us so that we’re eyeball to eyeball. His luminous brown eyes look kind and curious as he raises his snout ever so slightly back and forth, the better to sniff us.

Although Dancer is playful as a puppy, he’s no house dog. He’s a 1,300-pound, 10-foot-tall polar bear, North America’s largest carnivore, and he’s on the prowl in the Canadian subarctic. Dancer and about 1,200 other white giants roam the frozen terrain of Churchill from mid-September to early November.

They gather along the western shore of Hudson Bay, waiting for the water to freeze into thick ice blocks. The bears use the blocks as platforms from which to hunt for seals. When the bay turns nearly solid, the bears depart.

Not quite yet. Although an air of anticipation fills Dancer’s daylight prowls, tonight the big bear prances. Standing on his hind legs, Dancer executes the two-legged hop for which he was named. Upright, Dancer peers at us through the window. With his huge front paws, he rocks the massive tundra buggy we’re in as if it’s as light as a baby’s cradle.

That’s because Dancer sniffs Dennis Compayre, the engineer operating the Web cam for Polar Bears International. Each winter, Dancer seeks him out, curling up to sleep near the wheels of the monster truck with the computers and coming to life when Mr. Compayre enters the buggy.

“I’ve made a real connection with Dancer,” Mr. Compayre says. “I open the window a bit for him since he loves the smells in here. He’s good to have around. He hangs out here until the ice freezes.”

Mr. Compayre, who enjoys educating people about these creatures, says, “I have a lot of respect for the bears. It’s important to get the message out that there are still wild areas out there where wild animals roam that are accessible.”

That’s part of what makes our three-day polar bear safari in late October so special. In this untamed territory, polar bears surround us. We sleep, dine and explore the frozen turf from a trainlike chain of tundra buggies constructed from reconditioned extra-wide tractor bodies.

As we eat breakfast in the dining car or gather for snacks in the parlor, we look through the windows for bears, often seeing one snoozing while nestled against the snowdrifts or another rolling on its back, juggling a frozen ball of kelp with the finesse of a professional basketball player.

Each morning after breakfast, we board a movable buggy to roll through the landscape in search of critters. How much wildlife we see depends on the weather and the animals.

One day a raven, fat as a house cat, perches on a pole on the outside deck. Another day, we catch sight of an arctic fox asleep, blending almost seamlessly into the snowbank except for the streak of gray along his back. Later we spot a flock of willow ptarmigans, tinged pink in the afternoon light, flying over the murky water.

Each tundra tour brings a slightly different drama and shows us more shades of white than we ever thought possible. Some bears boast thick, creamy white fur, while others look yellow against the chalky turf.

When covered with clouds, the frozen landscape turns to a gray, foreboding plain, but in the sunlight, the icy horizon glows with a blue tinge, and the blowing snow sparkles like crystals. Near the shores of Hudson Bay, the slush, a green-hued mix of sea ice, kelp and gravel, ripples with the tides.

In this dramatic setting, the bears are the stars. When they amble toward us, we stand outside on our vehicle’s viewing platform, the better to get closer to these majestic creatures. Some look up at us, sniff and move on, but the more curious ones jump up, pressing their huge paws against our tundra buggy’s sides.

The bears stare at us as we stare back, transfixed but surprisingly unafraid even though we’re so near to these giants that we can see their breath turn to silky frost in the cold.

Up-close, the bears, with their round bellies, purple tongues and pigeon-toed gaits, remind us more of overgrown stuffed toys than vicious predators.

Also, our supersized bus’s elevated outdoor deck and glass windows remain reassuringly just out of the bears’ reach. Plus, Frontiers North, our outfitter, has been taking people on tundra adventures for years.

On one foray, we come across mothers with cubs, the babies clowning and climbing over each other. Increasingly on outings, we see males rear up, swatting each other in mock fights as they wait for the hunt to begin.

Although outfitters offer day trips from Churchill to bear territory, sleeping on their turf comes with advantages. It gives us more time with these giants without coming upon other buggies because the day-trippers arrive later in the morning.

In the evening, we enjoy the antics of the bears that wander into the floodlights surrounding our lodge. Importantly, we get the full tundra experience, from snowy blasts to brilliant skies.

One night, a blizzard engulfs us. The roaring gales of nearly 70 mph violently shake the vehicle, making it difficult to sleep. The force of the wind prevents us from opening the buggy’s doors, so we watch the sheets of snow pummeling the lodge through the windows.

The next night, however, the sky turns so clear that the northern lights, the aurora borealis, glow like celestial fireworks. Undulating ribbons of green and white dance across the heavens, alternating with thick swaths of neon blue splashed against the inky black sky. We feel blessed just to be here.

Alas, a polar bear safari comes with a few inconveniences. It takes a long time to arrive in Churchill; most arrangements require overnighting in Winnipeg, then flying to Churchill, followed by a drive to the site.

Although the lodge comes with electricity, heat, running water and sit-down meals, a remarkable feat in the middle of bear country, bedding down in a bunk that’s really a shelf in a trainlike compartment takes some getting used to.

Eight to 10 of these single berths, each with a small window and only a flimsy curtain for privacy, fill each side of the train car. At night, we must ignore the snores of the sleepers as well as the rustling of the restless. Getting dressed means wriggling into clothes while lying flat and waiting as 16 to 20 people line up for just two toilets and one shower.

Then there’s the confinement. Except for one brief stop far from the bears, we never touch land for three days. That’s because the bears possess a keen sense of smell and a fierce and efficient method for killing prey. Plus, at this time of year, these giants are hungry.

These remain small annoyances, however. For animal lovers like us, a polar bear safari is worth the trouble; the trip is one we’ll remember forever.

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