Standing just a few feet away, I looked into the eye of a wild polar bear, scrawny and gaunt from going a summer without food. It felt like visiting Jurassic Park.
I can't help but feel a profound sadness when we lock eyes. A sense that these majestic animals know what's happening. I wonder whether their lethargic, zombie-like shuffle is only the result of months of fasting, or is there something else? Could it be a symptom of depression? A coal-black eye blinks at me—spontaneous movement, or is it a nod of resigned acceptance?
The Cree Indians call them wapusk. The Inuit, Nanuk. In ancient Latin, they are ursus maritimus. In any tribal language, the polar bear is sacred. I came to Churchill, a speck of tundric civilization on Hudson Bay, to watch these behemoths gather in wait as the choppy waters freeze, so that the seals return and the bears can hunt the seals. I saw dozens of bears, and spoke with biologists, philanthropists, filmmakers and local people. A few of the bears seemed fat and healthy. But most of them were scrawny and gaunt. The more I watched them staggering hungrily, tracking the smells from our mobile lodge's kitchen, the more my heart sunk. Was I listening to a swan song in an already penned tragedy?
Broadcasting From Tundra Buggy One
Our mobile lodge looks like a train-car raised on tractor wheels. It's suspended twenty feet above the ground. The tires are enormous, 5.5 feet tall, 3.6 feet wide. Four-wheel drive, 25-inch rims, and an engine that can pull a loaded highway semi. This amazing war machine makes sure that the scientists, tourists, and the occasional guest journalist like me, encounter the bears and survive. Only the size and the complication of the vehicle gives you an idea how dangerous and powerful the animals themselves are, even when they look like they're tottering helplessly. There are less than 20 buggies in the world—but more sturdily built than the Humvees our soldiers died in in Iraq and Afghanistan—and only two tourist companies are licensed to operate these vehicles.
There's such a Jurassic Park feel to all this. Leaning out of an open window while filming, one wrong move, one slip overboard, and it's over. Meantime, the animals are as cute as when you're back home watching them on the Discovery Channel.
But these days more people watch the bears online than on TVs. I'm front row with a quartet of scientists, live-broadcasting for Polar Bear Week from eight mounted HD cameras in Tundra Buggy One's mobile studio. Explore.org, the 501(c)3 founded by philanthropist Charlie Annenberg Weingarten, produces the equipment and video as part of a five year, million dollar grant to Polar Bears International, raising awareness. The ecotourism company Frontiers North Adventures supplies the buggies and accommodations.
There are no roads in or out of the arctic desert that is the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Because of the sea ice, there is limited access via the Bay; that means everything is flown in, or created locally using MacGyver-esque ingenuity. To get a sense of the size of this setup, signals travel from our location over 51 miles of wireless tundra, through the Wapusk National Park, getting pumped to an ISP provider in Churchill, then onto Explore's servers, and out to YouTube and viewers' computers all over the world. Because of harsh conditions, it's a continuous process of upkeep. The man responsible for making it work on the ground is BJ Kirschhoffer. For the past eight years, this native Montanan spent the seven-week bear seasons maneuvering over icy trails, fixing Internet bugs, filming, and sleeping in the buggy, which has spartan amenities: a cot, a stove for warmth and cooking, and a toilet that on this frigid morning is out-of-order.
Real Talk: Climate Change
"Look out the window, right now," Kirschhoffer points, grinning.
Man and beast, together here in the far north, separated by a few feet of protective metal and plastic. An arm's length away, a bear curls up in a clump of gray shrubs as snow starts falling, on queue. I watch in real time, and simultaneously on the buggy's live feed Apple monitor. To my untrained eye, everything seems postcard perfect. But when the bear rises and struts, the scientists to my left and right cringe, almost like unsatisfied judges at a beauty pageant. "This female should be fat and pregnant," moans Dr. Andrew Derocher on my right. "Or have a yearling with her." This University of Alberta biologist spent three decades studying polar bears, a lot of the time with his head craned out the window snapping away on his DSLR. To my left, Dr. Don Moore, the Smithsonian's senior scientist for species sustainability, knows this all too well.
He's been coming here for the last 12 years. If you add up this group's field research time in years, it's close to 100. "Here it is, the third of november, I don't even have my coat on or my snow boots," Kirschhoffer adds.
For me, it's cold, but I'm from Los Angeles. For Hudson Bay and this time of the year, it's warm—too warm for the sea ice to freeze. That freeze is vital to the future of these bears. The longer they're landlocked, the more calories they lose, and with no food by the Bay, they wander into Churchill in search of any easy meal (up until a few years ago they came to the town's now closed garbage dump. Sometimes they come into people's homes). If current warming trends continue, this sub-population of 800 will disappear in the next 20 to 30 years. The entire species could be extinct by the end of the century.
University of Washington professor Dr. Cecilia Bitz breaks down the larger problem: because sea ice is so reflective, when it melts "it returns the solar radiation to space, so when we lose sea ice there's more sunlight absorbed by the planet and that warms the planet further, accelerating climate change."
The rising temperatures also increase ocean acidity. That means the slow death of corals, of crustaceans, and of the larger fish—ultimately, we may have seas devoid of marine life, meaning the loss of an entire food source. Not to speak of the nightmarish water rise that would displace and even kill millions of coast-dwelling people. Inside this buggy just now, are the five of us witnessing the beginning of the end? Ice sheets melting, whole species vanishing, heat waves, seas dying? Whole nations becoming ecological refugees? Dr. Derocher is not shy with his words: "We'll be dealing with all of it: displaced people, droughts, famine. We're not going to be worried about polar bears anymore, we'll be worried about millions of people that need a place to live."
Physical Possiblility Versus Political Plausibility
That night at dinner, I spoon mouthfuls of grilled arctic char, still alive and available in the icy reaches all around us, and I listen to Polar Bear International's chief scientist Dr. Steven Amstrup. Amstrup is an oak of a man whose work swayed Congress to list the polar bear as a threatened species in 2008.
"In 2007 when we did our projections that led to the listing of polar bears as a threatened species, we were talking about a 10 or 11% decline in sea ice per decade. Now it's over 13%."
I ask him if the listing helped the polar bear. Some, but not enough, he replies. "If you run a cement plant in Kansas, and you've got all these astronomic greenhouse gas emissions, the fish and wildlife service still can't force you to limit those emissions, unless we can prove that your specific emissions directly kill the bears." Unless you can draw a direct line from industries to species loss, there isn't a legal connection—welcome to the 4(d) Rule, a law President Obama renewed last year. "They could have just let it lapse. It would have been a bit of a storm in the media, but no big deal compared to Obamacare and ISIS. From an environmental standpoint, I often think that we're in the fourth term of the Bush administration."
We washed down the char with red wine from Australia, anonymous in taste, bought in the town's only liquor store. Expensive though, because it had been flown in many miles, before being lugged in our buggy across the bumpy tundra. For dessert, buggy-made cheesecake. From ingredients bought in town, after being flown in frozen. Even though I don't like it, I eat the whole thing.
Would Going Green Be Cheaper For Business?
The fact of our current planet earth is, it's only got a finite amount of fossil fuels. Because of that fact, Amstrup thinks that we can sway politicians and industrialists, maybe even make them into ecological converts. For the sake of money, "if they want to stay in business, they need to look at the world in a more sustainable way."
Derocher agrees. "Businesses realize that not being green is going to be incredibly expensive. Politicians will follow. What are you going to do when most of Louisiana is underwater and Florida's flooding? To not do something now is going to be far more expensive."
Could Gordon Gecko's greed be our savior?
"Maybe," Amstrup chuckles. Congress did list the bear, and the U.S. and China did just sign a deal to lessen CO2 emissions. "We're talking about the future of the whole world. We'll just have to keep plugging away."
Tomorrow is another 5 am wakeup call, so we all leave the dinner table, headed for our cots. I pause and look out on the barren tundra. Staring out in search of the northern lights, I lean over the railing. Something stirs in the darkness. An inquisitive white face looks up at me from the shadows below. Am I an alien to him or just an out-of-reach meal? The bear gets up on his hind legs, sniffs the air with his black-tipped snout. Close enough to touch. But I keep my arms tucked close, utterly silent, not even reaching for my camera. The bear goes back on all fours, but his eyes hold mine, and then something changes in his expression. I swear he just winked at me.
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.