I ventured to northernmost Canada to face my fears in ‘bear country’

We didn’t have the 45 hours the train trip takes, so we flew. I was glued to the plane window. What had I expected? Rolling hills of Canadian heather? The boreal forest rustling in the breeze? Well, maybe in summer. I was looking down on a huge, shiny, frozen puddle: an endless glittery, brown, green and blue expanse of icy emptiness.

It is quite a thing to get to a town that you can’t drive away from. The nearest uninhabited neighbourhood, Thompson, is 250 miles away. And yet this tiny place dives way back into European history.

I had a series of quotes about Winston Churchill to hand. But Churchill had nothing to do with Winnie. The town was named after his ancestor, the 1st Duke of Marlborough. The British came here in the 17th century because two treacherous French sailors invited them to help themselves to a huge slice of Canada. So, they did. They claimed an area 10 times bigger than the Holy Roman Empire and proceeded to loot beavers and fight the French for the next 400 years. This was their basis.

My first trip on arrival was to investigate this mind-boggling fact. There it was. Across the cold, cold water, I could see the outline of the unlikely Prince of Wales Fort. It was built in the 18th century with all the redoubts and defensible bastions you’d expect in Holland.

Mike, from the Parks Department, was my personal bear of a man: my bodyguard in a DayGlo yellow reflective vest. Standing 6ft tall, he was carrying a gun. “Just to scare them, you know.”

My driver had one, too, down by the gearstick. A threatening black pump-action thing. “We gotta have them in case the bears come in,” I explained. They fired some sort of flash charge, intended to scare rather than kill. Well, that worked. They scared me.

We had arrived on Hallowe’en – the night that kids everywhere across North America go out to frighten adults. As dusk came on, there were miniature ghouls flitting about. I was petrified, but on their behalf. Surely, this was taking the day of the dead a little too far?

It was routine in Churchill. Each year, the emergency services form a cordon around the place. The fire engines and police cars space out, an armed lookout in each. We saw only three witches, two hulks and a couple of zombies.

But I now desperately wanted to see the polar bears. And so did half the people in the bars, and at tables in the many good restaurants. Churchill is an unlikely tourist hub, but a well organized one. Perhaps a little too organized for some tastes.

There is an approved and regulated way of getting close to the bears. And that is by “tundra buggy”.

The grand tour

Next morning, I drove up towards six of these huge, crazy buses parked on a lot. The tundra is presumably less disturbed by their enormous tyres. Clarkson would drive one. Tough, Jeremy, it was my turn on the ultimate SUV.

Out on the tundra, ice was forming. It gets later every year. Climate change may one day put Churchill’s economy back on the map (as it loosens up the inaccessible northern passage for visiting ships), but it will frustrate the bears. They wait in the scrub to get out of the ice. They wait longer and longer.

“There’s a couple of them there,” said my guide. They were two youngish males, probably from the same mother. Their slightly yellow fur was only an optical illusion. Polar bears have black skins. Their hair is translucent. Out in the snow, it reflects the whiteness and the bears appear to be white.

The guide took us along a frozen shore. “A mother and child there,” he said suddenly. They were moving purposefully – mum seemingly impatient to get her tween-age charge to keep up. He was big and he would be leaving her soon. He was already roaming off on his own. One of his investigations of him was us.

If you have ever taken an organized whale-watching trip or safari, you will know that any experienced guide gets excited on your privileged behalf: “Oh, now, you are lucky. This is most unusual. Well, we don’t see this very often.”

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