Two television vets, a film crew and a lot of polar bears… my week in the Canadian wilderness
Last week’s BBC Two documentary series The Polar Bear Family and Me was an extraordinary piece of television in which wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan followed a polar bear family. It was moving, beautifully shot and at times gripping as Gordon got closer to the bears than others might consider wise.
For while they look cuddly, polar bears can be lethal and as global warming impacts on their environment resulting in them often going hungry they are increasingly looking for new sources of food.
Watching the documentary brought back memories for me of a trip I did to the snowy wastes on northern Canada with a BBC film crew in 2000 for Vets in the Wild, featuring Trude Mostue (pictured) and Steve Leonard.
We were based in the tiny town of Churchill on the shore of Hudson Bay, a place of 800 hardy souls, which has become a magnet for eco-tourists wanting to see polar bears at first hand, on account of its position on the bears’ migration path.
The point of the programme was for vets Trude and Steve to see how the authorities in Churchill cope with the bears that increasingly head into town scavenging for food. In short – they shoot them with tranquillizing darts then hold them in a ‘polar bear jail’ before flying them out of town by helicopter and releasing them in the wild.
It was certainly drummed into us by the locals that we needed to beware of the bears even when moving from one hotel (mine is pictured below) to another in the town. At first you assume they are exaggerating, before it’s pointed out that they are the world’s largest land carnivores that they can run faster than we can – and weigh considerably more than a human (around 1000 lbs – although cubs are tiny and often only weight about 1 lb at birth – which is about an seventh of the weight of a newborn human baby ). In a scrap with a polar bear and a human, the bear will win (although, in truth only two people from the town have been killed by polar bears, most recently in 1983, although more recently, a tourist had an arm ripped off by a polar bear).
Seeing Gordon Buchanan in his clear glass box (there’s some footage here) in The Polar Bear Family and Me almost becoming a snack for a polar bear (fortunately the glass stayed intact but I imagine Gordon wasn’t totally sure it would while under bear ‘attack’) reminded me of sitting in a 4×4 with the Vets in the Wild team while they got footage of some bears. At the top of the page – and below – are two my snaps taken through the windows (at least I assume we didn’t open the windows!)
It was a fascinating (not to mention fun) trip – and in addition to seeing polar bears in the wild, which was something I’ll never forget, I also landed and took off in snow (and I mean that the runway was like a ski slope!) for the first time and endured temperatures that I’d never faced before – it was minus 34 degrees on the coldest day, (It’s a mere minus 24 today – I’ve just checked on the BBC website!) which I can tell you, is snow joke…
(c) Steve Clark 2013. All rights reserved.