A male polar bear, weighing in excess of 800lbs, is sauntering our way — little more than 10 yards of snow-dusted ground stands between us. Should we be this near to a wild animal that hasn’t eaten in weeks?
Derek, our guide, refers to these creatures as the lords of the Arctic. Last night, during an after-dinner lecture by the fireside at Seal River Heritage Lodge, he mentioned polar bears are the biggest of the world’s land-dwelling carnivores.
There’s no point in running, he told us. Polar bears may look ungainly but they can run at speeds of over 18mph. In my thick ski pants, boots and multiple layers, there’s no way I’m going anywhere fast.
Anyway, running would be the worst thing any of us could do. When Derek had greeted us off the De Havilland light aircraft that brought us to the remote lodge, 40 miles north of the Canadian town of Churchill, he’d explained we’d need to stand together as a group upon encountering polar bears.
So, I shouldn’t really be down on my knees. I’d dropped to them to photograph the bear at eye level when he started plodding in our direction. Through my lens, I can observe individual strands of his cream coloured hair shifting on his face with each icy gust of wind.
“Stuart, get to your feet,” commands Derek. Should the bear spot me in this position, he explains, he might think I’m injured, therefore vulnerable and easy prey. I mumble an apology as I struggle to my feet. Our 12-strong group then proceed to bunch together like penguins in a storm.
Derek and his colleague, Josh, are both carrying shotguns. Yesterday, they told us they’ve never been fired to protect a group. Will this be the first time? They’d explained that, in an emergency, the weapons would be discharged into the air, to scare off the bear. That would be a last resort. Firing at a bear would mean things had gone a long way south at this isolated northern location.
As well as the firearms, our two guides each carry an air horn plus a can of capsicum-based anti-bear spray, and there are also fireworks and even a cap gun to be used before a shotgun is fired. But is there time? This particular bear isn’t behaving as might be expected. Normally, they avoid confrontation whenever possible, and at this time of year the creatures are virtually in a state of walking hibernation, waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze over so that they can go hunting for seals. But this huge predator is making a beeline for us.
“That’s close enough,” says Derek to the bear with firmness and finality. Usually, the sound of a voice is sufficient to drive away a polar bear from a group of humans. But the giant carnivore ignores him and nonchalantly continues lumbering towards us. In this subarctic wilderness, even a minor injury can prove fatal. Today, it’s a bracing -16C, although the mercury can plummet much lower in mid-winter.
From his jacket pocket, Derek pulls out two egg-sized stones. They’re not to throw. He clacks them together, causing the bear to stop in his tracks. Derek smacks them together again and the animal diverts left, away from us.
In unison, members of the group utter wows and sighs of relief. The polar bear continues heading away from us along the shoreline of the Hudson Bay. “There goes the south end of a northbound bear,” says Derek as the bear plods into the distance after our close encounter.