Polar Bears: Up Close and Personal

Armed with 12-gauge shotguns, pepper spray, two-way radios, and noise flares, two guides met us at the unpaved landing strip on the edge of the Hudson Bay, where we had just touched down after a 25-minute flight from Churchill, Manitoba. Six of us—a mix of professionals and retirees from the U.S., the U.K., and Australia—were headed for Seal River Lodge, Canada's only fly-in polar-bear eco-lodge, operated by the adventure tour company Churchill Wild, for an up-close view of the last great land predator in its native habitat.

The guides greeted us with a surprise. "We have four polar bears on the grounds," said Andy. "Two are in front of the lodge." He pointed east, to where our accommodations were visible about half a kilometer away. The five-day, $5,900 Great Ice Bear Tour practically guaranteed the encounter we were about to have, but I didn't expect it within the first five minutes of the trip. Andy continued talking as I stretched my neck over his head for a glimpse of the polar bears. He wasn't exaggerating; no more than 10 steps outside the front door, two massive creatures stood on their hind legs, knocking each other down with their paws and biting one another—or, as Andy called it, "play fighting." A city girl, I hung back and let the others walk in front of me.

The bears were romping in a field of wild berries and fireweed. As we got closer, both stopped for a second to smell the air. They looked in our direction as if to confirm their sense that humans were close, but then went about their business, paying us no mind. After about 10 minutes of frenzied camera shooting—not knowing our front-row seat to nature would get even better in the days to come—we walked inside to find a basket of warm, homemade orange-cranberry scones, and hot chocolate and tea at the bar in the living room.

Located seven degrees below the Arctic Circle, the lodge sits on the stretch of shore where polar bears gather each autumn to wait for the bay to freeze so they can venture onto the ice and begin their winter hunt for seals. "You are on the edge of civilization here," says Mike Reimer, who manages the eight-room all-inclusive lodge with his wife, Jeanne. Built in 1992, the lodge is open five months a year: October and November for polar-bear treks; March for exploring Inuit traditions; and July and August, when guests can snorkel in Hudson Bay with the beluga whales. The lodge is surrounded by vast, untamed wilderness. There are no roads, and no fences or gates except the ones surrounding the outdoor grill and the stairs to a rooftop patio, which offers great views of the belugas and the northern lights. Visitors on the Great Ice Bear Tour typically spend one day in Churchill and four days at the lodge, taking a two- to three-hour hike each morning and afternoon, with lunch in between. Sightings become almost routine; on one hike we watched an older cub try to balance himself on the ice, slipping and falling flat on his face before learning how to maneuver on the slippery surface.

Often we went out to look for bears only to return to the lodge and look out the window to find that one or two appeared to be trying to follow us. According to the guides, they are very curious animals. On any given afternoon, there were three or four regular bears lounging around the lodge or on the rocks in the bay where the water level receded.

They came to visit a lot during mealtimes, walking up to the back door or glass window, ignoring the wood planks with rows of sharp nails sticking up on the ground to deter them. I, of course, took those visits as a sign that they were hungry and looking for food. There is a strict law against feeding them, which I wanted to break—especially for the ones with protruding shoulder blades and hipbones. With the temperature never dropping below minus 1 degree Celsius, Hudson Bay was at least a month away from freezing. Berries and seaweed fuel what the guides call a "walking hibernation," but it could be a long time before they would be able to look for seals.

I wasn't the only person who wanted to reach out to the bears. Two women wanted to pet them. They brought it up so many times that Reimer called the polar-bear police in Churchill. Known as the polar-bear capital of the world, Churchill has a night security force that patrols town for bears, trapping them and putting them in "jail" until they can be helicoptered back to the wild. For $6,000, three to six civilians can accompany a sedated bear aboard the chopper and even pet it before it's awakened. Just as long as they don't feed it.

Mountain gorillas
Rwanda-Congo border

Humpback whales
Maui, Hawaii

Wild giant pandas
Qinling Mountains, China