CHURCHILL, Manitoba -- At the "launch pad," a brief bus ride from this small town in northern Canada, tundra buggies, like oversized moon vehicles, await the day's explorers. On arrival our driver warns us to stay seated while he checks the dark space beneath the pad for opportunistic polar bears. This elevated platform now used for boarding the buggies was named for the rockets that were launched from here in the 1950s to study the northern lights.
When it's pronounced safe, we disembark and board a massive buggy, one of only 19 designed and built specifically for polar bear sightseers. Huge rubber wheels, almost 5 feet high, elevate the vehicle's cab sufficiently to avert a bear invasion. It's cozy inside the spacious 40-seat interior.
Jarrett, our driver, warns us before we set out : "Don't whistle at the bears. Nobody seems to have found the right tune anyway. The washroom is at the back of the buggy and you'll notice the water is blue. If you don't want a blue bum , don't use it while we're in transit."
When we hit the trail, old military tracks are our road. They are in an advanced state of disrepair, presumably untouched since the withdrawal of the military presence. We lurch, bump, and roll across the tundra, like a ship on a storm-tossed sea. I pop a tablet to keep a heaving stomach under control. As the driver negotiates a track where the hump in the middle resembles a mini mountain with deep water-filled gullies on either side, I wonder about our progress.
Our buggy trundles onward across a vast and lonely landscape, and all eyes except mine scan the horizon for bears. For the moment, mine are drawn to simpler pleasures: scrubby low willow; golden grasses and brilliant emerald colored moss; and burnt umber, ochre, and orange lichens interspersed with bayberry in stunning shades of rose. I find this earthy palette of plants and striated glacial rock particularly beautiful.
All around us late migrating sandpipers and plovers skim across vast watery sloughs. Ptarmigans , not the brightest of birds we are told, scurry around in the willow scrub. Perfectly adapted for this environment, they have a heavy concentration of feathers just above the ankle . We have arrived in October, at just the right time. Any day now there could be a heavy snowfall and their winter plumage will blend with the background , making the birds almost invisible.
Besides bears, there is other life here on Hudson Bay. Arctic and snowshoe hare, arctic fox, wolves, moose, caribou, and many other creatures roam the tundra in search of food in the coldest months.
The first sighting of a polar bear -- about a mile distant -- prods us into action. Windows crash down. Cameras are readied. One of our binocular-wielding companions assures us that it is a mother bear with a cub lying on her back. As more sightings occur, each much closer, we become blase. In two days of touring we will see 62 bears, one so close that I will feel its breath on my face.
I notice that many bears have scraped out beds in the dense, spongy kelp on the shoreline. Just a brief period of sparring between two playful bears causes them to overheat. So they lie on a bed of kelp, tummies close to the permafrost, in an effort to keep cool.
Polar bears are curious creatures. The dull roar of our vehicle does not disturb them. Lured by the scent of humans, and driven by their insatiable hunger, they are drawn to our stationary buggy to investigate. Inside, we sip hot chocolate with a liberal splash of coffee liqueur and marvel at the size and power of these, the largest and most ferocious land predators on earth. An average adult male is 1,100-1,300 pounds, an average female half that size. Their sensitive noses catch the sweet aroma of the drinks. Venturing closer, they stand and stretch at full length against the buggy.
At the back, on the viewing platform, I have a nose- to- nose encounter with a massive male. Just feet apart, my camera trained on his face, I look into what seem like dangerously intelligent eyes, dark brown and edged with a milky halo. He hisses softly as he watches me. As I look back at him through my lens I feel almost hypnotized. He is what Jarrett calls "a real pretty bear," but the truth is that this huge, cuddly-looking animal with his dog-like face could, and would, crush a human head with his powerful jaws in seconds.
Moving on, we approach Polar Bear Point, where one of the local touring companies operates the Tundra Buggy Lodge, a row of trailers hitched together. We stop for what is likely to be a photographic bonanza. The point is located on the route the bears take as they make their way north toward Churchill and the sea ice.
Since the melting of the ice in July the bears have spent the entire summer in groups of sometimes 15 males wandering the coastline of Cape Churchill. Their diet has been minimal: berries, kelp, and grasses. They have not had a taste of a seal for nearly three months and they are ravenous. We have been warned not to feed them. After our lunch -- steaming bean soup; turkey, tuna, and egg salad sandwiches; and Danish pastries -- we settle down to watch.
We see bears teasing each other, others rolling around on their backs in the patchy snow, the curious ones checking out the buggy, and in the distance traveling bears advancing slowly across rock and kelp. Anxiety mounts as we catch sight of three large males stalking a mother bear with her two cubs. Their own cubs are fair game, especially when the pursuer hasn't eaten for three months. The only one who seems to care about the defenseless cubs is the mother, who is vigilant . She tolerates just so much from the pesky stalkers , then lashes out in a furious charge, sending the males scurrying for safety.
The polar bear population has dwindled to between 20,000 and 25,000 worldwide and the alarm bell is tolling for their survival. With the sea ice forming later each year, the bears have to fast up to three weeks longer. Spending less time on the ice means they are unable to hunt and build up the body reserves necessary for the summer months on land. There is a danger, according to Lara Hansen, a scientist with the World Wildlife Fund , "that bears could become so thin by 2012 they may no longer be able to reproduce."
This journey to the far northern climes of my country to see polar bears is as fascinating to me as any journey I have made -- to see lions in Africa, tigers in India, or kangaroos in Australia. I am reminded of G.K. Chesterton 's words, "The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one's own country as a foreign land."
Anne Gordon, a freelance writer in Canada, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.