Tours bear witness to Earth's sentinel species

Warm weather makes for lethargic bears, though, and they're not making much of an appearance at the moment. But other wildlife does. There's a lone caribou separated from the herd, chickenlike arctic ptarmigan and snow-white arctic hare crouching under bushy willows.

Hebert hefts the binoculars and peers through the buggy's panoramic windshield.

"Over to the left of the lake, is that a rock or is it a bear?" he asks.

"Do rocks move?" someone responds from the rear of the coach.

A mother and cub are visible in the distance, and Hebert prods the groaning vehicle over rough ground in pursuit of a closer view. This being nature, however, there are no guaranteed sightings. Hebert, who's in his ninth season as a tundra guide, has seen as many as 24 bears in a single day. But quality trumps quantity, he says. "What's better? To see 10 bears lying down or two bears on their hind legs sparring?"

The 21 passengers, most of them Europeans, are on a packaged tour, which is the most popular way to encounter bears in Churchill. Some, like Celia Crook, a retired hospital worker from Norwich, England, are seeking a "spiritual connection" with the creatures. Some, like Mary Duffy, 34, of London, simply have a "thing" for bears. And some, like Jens Otto of Dusseldorf, Germany, relish rare experiences in remote places.

The accommodations are far from luxurious. The restaurants are mostly mediocre. Service can be lackluster. And the $3,800 or so Otto spent on this five-night trip could have bought a month on a beach in Spain. But he takes it in stride. "I wanted to see bears in their natural habitat, and since you can't follow them onto the ice, this is the only way to go," he says.

Time was, when spotting bears was as simple as taking a spin by the garbage dump east of town. But that was before heightened ecological sensitivities prompted officials to do away with the dump and its incinerator two years ago. (Since then, public waste has been piling up in an abandoned military warehouse.)

"I had a buddy who drove the (garbage) truck. The bears would tackle the vehicle trying to ride in it," recalls Sheldon Olivier, a 15-year Churchill resident and expedition guide.

Locals find fun where they can

Olivier is behind the wheel of an old school bus, conducting a tour of Churchill, though frankly, there's not a whole lot to see. Pre-fabricated metal buildings line a main drag that ends abruptly at the port, where a monolithic grain elevator dominates the skyline. Commercial establishments, some of which spring to life only during bear season, serve multiple functions. The biweekly arrival of fresh fruit and vegetables at Gypsy's Bakery has locals lining up. The front desk at the Iceberg Inn doubles as a Sears mail-order outlet. The primary retail emporium, the Northern, sells everything from apples to all-terrain vehicles. Bulletin board notices there announce karaoke at the Legion hall on Friday and urge "Let's Bring Curling Back!!!" In Churchill, you have to make your own fun, advises one resident.

Outside town, the arboreal forest, a mix of wind-scarred dwarf spruce and tamarack, nudges the bay shore, where giant granite boulders break the earth's surface like compound fractures. Just 30 miles north of here, the tree line vanishes altogether.

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