After a day of grey and blowing snow, we had some luck around 3pm as the weather started changing quickly. Contrast and clear northern light leapt into full, beautiful splendour around us as the sun emerged in brilliance. Deep in the willows, previously unseen, a polar bear lifted his head, sniffed, then stretched luxuriously, radiating a mellow, soft, yellowness, and eliciting gasps of wonder from us all.
Standing slowly, lugubriously, he began strolling towards us, striding almost, pausing every now and then to regally scan and sniff the air, exuding power and confidence from his rippling, glowing frame. Over a rock band, and straight up to the tundra vehicle without a break in stride, glittering snow crystals scattering from his stately paws in a sparkling haze, drenched in pure sunlight. We stood silent on the back deck, awed and humbled by this majestic creature who approached us with so little heed. A glint in his eye, calculating, he circled behind us. Gazing steadily up at the morsels just out of reach.
We could see every hair on his body, hear his measured breath, see the bloodshot whites of his eyes. He disappeared from sight as he walked under the vehicle, and we huddled in the centre of the deck, listening intently. To lean over the rail and see where he is could mean a clobbering clout from one of those impossibly large clawed paws. We heard a gathering of muscles, not a sound that we knew was audible, and suddenly there was a face looking at us, eye to eye, unimaginably tall, steady as a rock, sussing out the possibilities that we might provide.
As a guide in this moment, I’ll admit that my legs shook but my arms were steady as I held people back from the edge, and silence prevailed over us all as we gazed eye to eye with the largest land predator on Earth. Instinct says this is a bad idea. Adrenaline says that we, as humans, are strangers to this sense of being prey. It is exhilarating when we know we are safe, terrifying to think how it would feel to not be safe.
The events of today are why people choose to travel to Churchill to see polar bears.