Enlightenment Under the Northern Lights: Polar Bear Eco-Tour Promotes Awareness

When I was asked to go on Gaiam’s Natural Habitat Adventures tour to see polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, I knew this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Polar bears are on the list of potentially threatened animals, in part because global warming and other human activities are affecting their fragile Arctic habitat. I wondered how many more generations would be able to experience them. And I knew I wanted to be one of the lucky ones. This story is excerpted from my journal.

After riding around all morning in the “tundra buggy,” we park for lunch. Outside, the snow is glistening like diamonds, and polar bears in the wild are outside our windows. A woman in our group named Muriel is standing in the aisle. Her arms are outstretched to either side; in one hand she holds a sandwich; the other is empty, palm open. “I’m eating lunch with polar bears,” she says. “Does it get any better than this?” I think to myself first, That’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever heard, and second, No, it doesn’t.

Back in my hotel room after dinner, I fall asleep exhausted from the day’s excitement. Our guide, Eric, calls just before midnight and says he’s spotted the northern lights. Jolted from a sound sleep, I somehow manage to pull on my boots and coat, and trudge outside with the others. Eric decides we could see the lights better if we drive out of town to Cape Merry. There, standing in the cold in my pajamas, with the Hudson Bay below us, the full moon above, and a Canadian flag flapping somewhere in-between, I see them. We’re chasing auroras. We’re freezing. But I love this. I ask myself, Does it get any better than this?

The sun is rising on the tundra this morning as it does every morning, but the difference is that we’re there to see it — the brilliant white, the crisp snow, the stark landscape that looks more like a moonscape.

We do more staying still than moving today to allow the polar bears to show themselves to us. With patience, they do come. Eric tells us how superbly adapted polar bears are for survival in the Far North. A polar bear is so well-insulated that it experiences almost no heat loss. The bear’s fur, a four-inch thick layer of blubber, compact ears and a small tail all contribute to keeping in heat. Polar bears often do not even show up in infrared photographs!

These facts fascinate me, but I know they’re not what I’ll call to mind later. It’s the feeling of being here in the Arctic — with the polar bears of Churchill in their natural habitat — that I’ll try to recapture.

Being out on the tundra buggy never gets old, and we can’t wait to be out on this land in the dark. We park by some sleeping bears as light snow starts to fall. I hear other participants of the polar bear tour talking in hushed tones by the front of the buggy. I step outside on the back platform and lean my head over the rail. Just as I do, a bear stands up to get a better sniff. I’m suddenly nose-to-nose with a polar bear.

The rest of the people in the front are having nearly the same experience. I hug the closest person — it doesn’t matter whom — and realize the adage is true: We are all connected.

It reminds me of something Barry Commoner, a famous biologist, once said. He said to think of polar bears as an “early warning system,” because if they begin to falter as a result of pollution, mining and drilling operations, over-hunting or climate change, then we humans may not be far behind them. Standing here in their environment, I understand what he means.

Polar bears brought me to the Arctic. They brought me knowledge about our connectedness to the environment. They brought me closer to my fellow human beings.

Hopefully, by sharing my polar bear tours experience with others, I can give a little something back to them. 

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