The Aussie girl spots an Arctic Hare sitting in amongst the bushes, stretching, scratching and just generally doing what hares normally do. It is too far away to photograph with my little compact camera and anyway, the light is fading fast. That’s one of the things I miss about the SRL – the longer range lens and the flexibility.
Once we’ve had our fill of food, wine and bears, Steve makes his way back to town. We spot a sleeping bear nearby and stop for a closer look. Actually we are not 100% sure whether it is a polar bear or just a rock, even with the spotlight on it, but out on the viewing platform we discover something altogether more spectacular: the sky is full of dancing lights. Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. The whole sky is covered with greenish swathes of light, moving in waves and creating dramatic patterns of illumination. There are curtains of vivid glare appearing to come down to engulf us in the most outer-worldly fashion. Really quite spooky. It varies from an intense flash to a gentle glow and an amazing radiance across the entire sky. The atmosphere is electrifying and almost illusory – like something from the film ‘Close Encounters’. This really is the icing on the cake and there are not enough superlatives to describe the experience. Steve’s favourite word is ‘awesome’, but even that doesn’t seem adequate to express how incredibly fortunate we have been to witness this wonder of nature. David is so thrilled – this has been his ambition for a number of years.
We spot a couple of bears not too far away; one is sleeping, the other just out for an evening stroll. Out on the ice one youngster gets the jitters when he spots us and scampers off. This is the first time that has happened; usually they are totally oblivious to our presence. He is probably too young to be used to lots of large vehicles around. We continue to the same lodge area we were at yesterday, this is obviously where they all congregate. There are several bears here already, and as if on cue, one of them ambles up to the buggy to check us out. He is as curious about us as we are about him. Wonder if he goes back to his mates and tells them about all the cute little humans he has seen today? Just like us with the bears. He sniffs around a bit and Steve shines his spotlight on him for us to see him better. Then it happens, the classic shot that I have been waiting for all the time I have been out here: he stands on his hind legs and tries to peer into the buggy. Wow. He must have been just a foot or so away from Steve’s face. Cameras clicking, we are all uttering sounds of ‘aah’ and ‘ooh’ and ‘gosh’. The bear walks around the buggy a few times, and although it is cold, I decide to go out on the little viewing platform at the back of the buggy. Waiting for what seems like ages out there in the freezing temperatures eventually pays off: I get the magic photo of him on his back legs from straight above. Wow, wow and double wow! I didn’t realise that polar bears are unable to bring their front legs above their heads when standing on their hind legs. Therefore, the highest point of an upright bear is his nose. There’s a bit of useless information you can use in a pub quiz! Our little friend is performing well tonight and does this trick several times in a number of places around the vehicle, giving everyone the chance to capture this amazing display.
We are picked up by John Stetson who runs a Husky Sleigh outfit from the Northern Studies Centre out on the Tundra. The centre is a former US Rocket Launch pad, now used by various scientists studying polar bear behaviour, astronomy and anything else of interest. As this is not part of the normal package, we join a German group of 17 with a most peculiar guide. I can’t make out whether he is gay or just odd. David thinks he is a she. John was the first person to walk right across Antarctica and he has crossed both poles with dog teams. His photos are stunning and he is witty and interesting in his speech. He even claims you get ‘used to constantly feeling cold and uncomfortable’. Really?
From the Research Centre we travel out on the tundra, half the people in a bus, the other half on dog sleds on wheels. The dogs are so excited, the just love to pull the sleds, and they jump up and down, rearing to go. There are two types of huskies, racing dogs who wear little booties to protect their feet and the bigger Inuit dogs. There are 70 dogs in total at the centre, and John knows each dog by its bark. He is currently planning his next jaunt, from Alaska to Greenland and the North Pole. Since his last expedition he has married Shelly and they now have a son, Nelson. Shelly has accompanied John on minor treks, and they are hoping to introduce Nelson to the joys of dog sledding expeditions soon. Once out on the tundra, we take it in turns to go off in ‘proper’ sleds, two at a time. We only travel half a mile or so, and much as the dogs are gorgeous and it’s a fun experience, it is rather commercialised. Back to the centre it is our turn to travel in the sled. I was determined this morning that I would not get cold out here in the dog sleds, so I am dressed in so many layers I waddle when I walk: knickers, tights, leggings, sweat pants, microfibre trousers, cargo trousers, bra, vest, 2xT-shirts, polo-neck jumper, fleece and a thick warm jacket. 2xhats, 2xgloves and a scarf wrapped around my face. I am boiling!
In the Eskimo Museum there is nothing older than 70 years, and it isn’t as interesting as I thought it would be. Perhaps if we had received a guided tour talking us from exhibit to exhibit, we might have gotten more out of it. There are plenty of stuffed animals: polar bear of course, ptarmigan, eagle, musk ox, walrus, fox and wolf amongst others. Carvings tell various folk tales and are about the most interesting. I would have loved to have spent some time with Eskimos hearing about their life style and traditions, but that is not part of the itinerary. Some of the more unusual exhibits are carved human teeth. Different.
It is only in the last few years that the Meti people have been recognised as an ethnic minority in Canada. Meti is a half caste Indian and White and Myrtle’s granddad was Scottish while her grandma was an Indian. Both her mum and dad are Metis, her father was a trapper, and she spends two hours telling us about her childhood. I have never known a story teller so captivating, everybody is spellbound; nobody even starts to fidget during the time she is talking to us. Myrtle tells us about the trapper’s line, the food they ate, their traditions, prejudices she experienced at school, their art and their music. She uses no notes and the stories flow from one to the next. It is extremely interesting. The hall has traditional items used by the Meti on display and Myrtle sells her home made arts and crafts. She creates beautiful pictures from animal skins, but they are dear and would look out of place back home.
Only three of us take up the offer of a helicopter flight over the tundra. As pre-arranged, the helicopter comes out to meet us on the tundra. Getting from the buggy to the helicopter, we have to look out for polar bears. This whole day has been so unreal!
We fly no higher than 100ft above the ground and from the helicopter spot another dozen or so bears. It is almost as if we are watching a film: ‘there’s one, there’s another one, look over there – a polar bear’. Please don’t ever let me get blasé about seeing wildlife of any sort! Apart from a bear skeleton, all we see is snow, ice and polar bears, but I’m not complaining. The flight is great and gives a totally different perspective on the tundra – you realise just how big and desolate it is out here – but I don’t know if it is worth the money. Never mind, we’ve done it now!
One of the young males walks up to the buggy next to us and stands on his hind legs peering into it. Wow. I feel incredibly privileged and honoured to be here, this really is incredible. Bears sniff around the lodge after food smells, trying to look into the kitchen, checking out their mates and taking part in a little play-fighting. Then cool off by spreading themselves out flat on their stomachs. Another little walk, then let’s check out the tourists again. This is so amazing. I can’t believe I’m sitting here in the comfort and warmth of the buggy, eating soup and sandwiches and drinking hot chocolate while it is snowing horizontally outside and within a few feet there are several large polar bears. It seems utterly unreal. We stay in the same spot for several hours and see probably about 15 bears in total.
Occasionally one lifts his head to look around and goes back to sleep. In the distance we can see a bear walking across the tundra. Then another bear arrives from behind the lodge. He thinks he has found a food source in the grey-water outlet from the lodge and fiercely protects is from another bear approaching. Two more bears wake up and the young males start sparring. Cameras clicking, we are so excited about the spectacle that unfolds before us. Steve tells us that until yesterday the bears did nothing all day except sleep. We are so lucky to be seeing so much activity today.
After an hour of driving we still haven’t seen any bears, just some tracks across the ice. Disappointing. Steve turns off the main track to go towards the shore line where there are two other trucks. Way in the distance we can see a sleeping bear, just a yellow blob through the binoculars. We would all like to drive a little nearer, but Steve has other ideas. He seems to think he knows of a place where we can see bears a little closer. We have to trust him. The tracks are interesting, lots of frozen potholes, puddles and mounds of ice. It makes for an exciting drive. You couldn’t get across the tundra in any other sort of vehicle. In the distance we spot lots of other buggies and when we get nearer we realise that it is the Tundra Buggy Lodge. There are several bears hanging around, mostly sleeping.