Diane Parkes visits the Canadian town which is the polar bear capital of the world.
I blame Teddy Roosevelt. When the former American president popularised toy bears he was creating a love affair that would last for life. How can anyone who grew up with Winnie the Pooh or a now battered ted not adore bears?
Which is why, even though I knew the approaching polar bear could kill with one bite of its massive jaws, it still looked adorable to me.
And I was not alone in that. Cameras were clicking and videos whirring as the bear came closer and closer.
She had been walking in the distance on the ice but, seeing the massive buggy we were all sitting in, decided to come over for a better look. Face in the air, she stepped forward until almost within touching distance. As her nose raised and sniffed in an attempt to identify us I was sure this bear would come right up to the buggy. But then a sudden movement from a fellow tourist spooked her and she turned and ran. Polar bears may be massive but they are also just a little bit nervous.
This was just one of countless meetings with bears during a four day visit to Churchill in Manitoba, Canada.
Organised by local travel company Frontiers North, our trip began in a hotel in Winnipeg with an introductory talk and the chance to meet the other 20 people on our tour. Early the next morning we were flown up to Churchill where we spent two days out on the tundra looking for polar bears and two days visiting museums, on a dog sledding trip and with free time to explore or arrange other excursions.
The tiny town of Churchill has just a handful of streets, can only be reached by rail or air, and would be relatively unknown but for one thing. It claims to be the polar bear capital of the world.
And justly so. Each year hundreds of descend on an outcrop of tundra just outside Churchill for roughly six weeks over October and November and wait.
They are waiting for the ice on the massive Hudson Bay to freeze so they can disappear out onto its waters and indulge in their favourite occupation, hunting seals. But until the ice sets there is nothing to do except sit tight.
And, while they are sitting tight, the bears prove to be just the biggest travel draw in this part of Canada. People come from all over the world to see them.
Churchill’s population normally sits at around 850 people but during polar bear season, that number is swelled by roughly 300 additional workers and 10,000 visitors.
No wonder Churchill loves its bears. Pop into one of the handful of gift shops along its “main” road, the grandly named Kelsey Boulevard, and you can find anything from polar bear pyjamas to bags of polar bear poo, otherwise known as chocolate drops.
And everyone you talk to asks “did you see any bears today?”
The high point for any visit to Churchill is the days out bear spotting in the tundra buggies. These leviathans are perfectly equipped for the job. Tyres as big as the drivers ensure the buggies can cover the terrain and keep the tourists well out of reach of bears who, when standing on their hind legs, can reach to more than nine feet tall. The buggies are heated to fend off temperatures well below zero but windows along each side and a viewing platform on the back ensure good visibility. Rules are strict, there is no feeding or encouraging the bears, as townspeople are keen to ensure people and animals do not become too friendly.