Dinner concludes, and it's time to join fellow guests for the evening's entertainment. The performance proves heavenly brilliant.
Corrugated ribbons of eerie, blue-green luminescence cloak the zenith. They veil naked stars beneath a chemise of transparent color. The empyreal fabric weaves, bends and undulates in a slow, seductive dance. It looks as if the celestial sky has donned Victoria's Secret lingerie in an attempt to lure her earthly lover.
Voyeurs all, several dozen of us watch the auroral temptation unfold from our outdoor perch at the Tundra Buggy Lodge. The flirtatious northern lights are a bonus. We came here to ogle the great white bears of Canada.
When the first snows fly and the mercury dips below freezing, polar bears approach Churchill, the northern Manitoba port on Hudson Bay. They linger nearby, waiting for the saltwater to freeze. Only with ice can they catch seals and break their summer-long fast.
Polar bears, the carnivorous symbol of the North, loom larger than grizzlies. Males weigh 900-1,600 pounds, while females top out at half that. On all four legs, they stand 3-5 feet tall and stretch 8-10 feet from nose to tail. The animals range throughout the Arctic. A favorite denning site for pregnant polar bears lies near Churchill.
The "Polar Bear Capital of the World" has a population of 1,100. On the blustery day of my arrival, it seems bleak as a freezer in need of defrosting. Streets sit wide and empty. The handful of motels, cafes and gift shops display the unpretentious exteriors of a clapboard boomtown. Most of the year, they probably beg for customers. During the six weeks of bear season when 10,000 visitors pass through, empty rooms are rare, and diners share tables with strangers.
"It's kind of exciting," a local mother says while bundling her tots. "Very busy, though. You don't have time for socializing."
Most bear watchers spend their days in vehicles and their nights in Churchill. Our group will remain on the tundra. There are 11 of us ranging in age from 30s to 80s. Our common bond is a fascination with nature and a willingness to swap amenities for surroundings.
Like the day-trippers, we transfer into a four-wheel-drive Tundra Buggy that resembles a motor home on monster tires. Purpose built for tundra travel, parts for this do-it-yourself SUV look to have been scavenged from a Tijuana junk yard. The steering wheel came from a Chevy truck, seats graced a school bus, and tires hailed from a crop sprayer. The rubber towers 54 inches high and 33 inches wide. Mud and snow just roll off.
As we jolt down a tracked quagmire that would founder a Jeep, driver John Bykerk enumerates his rules of tundra travel.
"While the buggy's moving, don't stand up. Don't go out on the back deck. Don't use the washroom or you'll find out why they call it a wash room."
We soon thrill to our first bear sighting. She appears to be a furry lump of glistening white sacked on the landscape. John stops. Shutters snapping, we attack like a busload of paparazzi. Unfazed, the celebrity bear barely moves in benign indifference.
Polar bears dine primarily on ringed seals. In the frozen sea, the swimming mammals maintain breathing holes. The bears smell the openings and wait for a 200-pound dinner to pop up. The day the bay freezes, Churchill's bears disappear faster than linebackers rushing to a buffet table. Now, they conserve energy.
Leaving her in slothful slumber, we resume our 1½-hour journey to the Tundra Buggy Lodge, our next four night's accommodation. A trailer train on tractor tires, the lodge consists of utility, kitchen/dining, lounge and two dormitory cars, which together billet 38. Guests sleep in foam-mattressed bunks with curtains for privacy.
Each dorm has chemical-toilet rest rooms and a shower stall. Electricity flows from a generator, and water comes by truck. There are no TVs, phones or souvenir shops. It's not the Ritz, but few luxury hostelries boast polar bears for doormen.
Camp hostess Tanya Smith prepares dinner. The personable young woman presents a spunky vivaciousness that makes her instantly likable. She does, however, display a perverse sense of humor. Knowing we will be sequestered in confined quarters, she feeds us fajitas and beans. Many beans.
Generators and lights go off at 10:00 p.m. Both return in predawn darkness. We rise, eat breakfast and depart on the buggy in time to witness a fiery 8:00 a.m. sunrise.
At this latitude, the late-autumn sun rises slower than a sleepy teen. The day's awakening begins with a blush of glowing pink. The sky brightens, slowly turning embarrassingly crimson. Finally, the solar disk peeks from the horizon and sluggishly grunts skyward.
A professional photographer in the off-season, John knows the nature of the animals and where to position for best viewing. When he spots a large female resting by some willows, he maneuvers so we catch the light glistening through her creamy white coat.
The bear glances up. Her dark eyes harbor no aggression. A long snout and short ears make her appear as docile as a bleached teddy bear. One longs to cuddle her furry magnificence.
"She's precious!" one of the women blurts out.
In her own ursine way, the bear may find us precious too. At least she and her brethren appear unperturbed by our presence. Unlike staring at captives in a zoo, we get to admire these wild and dangerous creatures roaming freely in their native habitat.
This land of the polar bear lies flat and naked. A subarctic desert, the area averages a miserly 16 inches of precipitation annually. At the verge of the northern tree line, stunted evergreens huddle against a constant wind. They look scrawnier than the last tree left on Christmas Eve.
In spite of its harshness, the land accommodates abundant wildlife. Besides bears and shore birds, we glimpse three varieties of foxes, a covey of willow ptarmigan, a husk of Arctic hares and a ghostly snowy owl, 18-inches tall and white as an albino poltergeist.
Near the shore, we encounter a mother and her yearling cubs. The youngsters play, muzzling and biting in mock aggression. Mom watches patiently from the side.
Motherhood is a tough job for polar bears. Mating occurs on the ice in April or May, but the fertilized egg does not attach until late September. In October, mothers-to-be excavate snow-bank birthing dens.
There are no pickles-and-ice-cream binges for a pregnant polar bear. She is forced to fast. Birth, normally to twins, occurs from late November through early January. Emerging tiny and blind, another two months will expire before the cubs and mom can venture onto the ice.
The young may nurse for 20 months and remain with the mother for up to 2½ years. Then they leave to fend for themselves. Free of her offspring, the female will mate again. Life goes on.
And so does death. Several times we pass the carcass of a young bear killed by an aggressive male. It serves as a reminder that these animals can be deadly, although attacks on humans are rare. In the past 30 years, only seven people have been killed in Canada by polar bears.
After a day rife with sightings, John returns us to the lodge. The buggy docks at the back, and we head into our warm den on the cold tundra. The vehicle may be heated, but with windows often opened to a biting breeze, the buggies become a tad glacial. A thawing shower will help.
We explore farther the next morning and meet many subadults, polar bear "teens" not yet old enough to mate. A trio walk across the rocky tidal flats. Others hang out in the willows. One sleeps, its head resting on an outstretched paw.
"Precious?" someone rhetorically asks.
"Definitely precious," comes the trite reply.
Sleepy-eyed, the bear adjusts his husky pillow paw. Besides cushioning, the extra-large size allows him to swim up to six mph and helps spread his massive weight across thin ice. Small bumps on the foot pads prevent sliding on slippery surfaces. To snatch and hold prey, the bear has claws that measure more than two inches long. I observe a set of the daggers up close.
We stop to gaze at a pair of bears. Curious at us, one of them saunters over for a peek. Standing on his back legs, he stretches toward the observation platform where I stand. Seizing the opportunity for a polar bear portrait, I focus over the side.
"You might want to step back," a compatriot says.
The bear has worked a paw under a gap in the railing. Practically playing footsies, our feet rest mere millimeters apart.
"Yes, I think I will. Thank you."
The weather changes rapidly. We go from sun to rain and back to sun again. By day's end, snow begins falling. With dropping temperatures, the bears become more active.
A large male lingers near the bunkhouse. A junior approaches cautiously. When he gets within ten yards, the adult makes an aborted charge. The youngster scampers, circles and gingerly reapproaches. The action repeats several times before the adult lies down.
"Bears are attracted to the lodge odors," John says. "They have to sleep somewhere. It might as well be where it smells good."
These fellows seem content to hang around our outpost on the tundra. Their friends who venture into town face prison sentences.
When bears encroach on Churchill, alert signs go up. Wildlife officers then trap or tranquilize the trespassers. Captured delinquents serve time, quarantined in a building nicknamed the "Polar Bear Jail." If the penitentiary fills before the bay freezes, convict bears are helicopter lifted to a parole site miles to the north. The worse repeat offenders serve life sentences in zoos. Fortunately, capital punishment is rare.
In Canada, polar bears are largely protected from hunting. The government grants only aboriginal communities limited permits to harvest the animals. Of a worldwide population of 20,000-40,000 bears, about 1,300 reside in the Churchill area.
Although relatively safe from being shot, the local bears face a cloudy future. The warming climate has lengthened summer. Hudson Bay ice now melts about three weeks earlier than it did 25 years ago. Having less feeding time, the bears are becoming smaller and cubs fewer. With average temperatures rising ½ degree Fahrenheit per decade, some worry that ice may ultimately fail to form. The polar bears might perish.
Our final morning on the tundra dawns. After breakfast we depart for Churchill. Since my flight leaves late, I spend the morning on a town tour and the afternoon wandering gift shops.
A stuffed polar bear sits atop a shelf. Its white fur, long snout and black paw pads make it look as docile as the real thing. Of course I buy it. It's so precious.