herald

Thursday 18 December 2014

Diary of a travel writer: Hungry bears and thirsty bugs on the hudson bay

THURSDAY Flight AC895 is late departing Dublin, but the Air Canada staff tell me I can connect with AC267 to Winnipeg. I race the length of the terminal at Pearson International, find the gate just as the last passengers are boarding, dance down the air bridge and find my seat.

Then someone tells me I am sitting in her place. She was right. I was on the wrong aircraft. I would have woken up in Edmonton, 1,000 miles away from where I am supposed to be.

FRIDAY Another flight to Churchill, Manitoba, an ugly Hudson Bay port so far north the ice only broke up a fortnight ago. Churchill is the only place on the planet where it is illegal to lock your car. The reason is there are 950 polar bears around the western Hudson.

Tourists go out on a huge tundra buggy to view bears. It is spectacular but we need not have bothered -- a railway worker, Wayne MacRae, went out to photograph beluga whales from the beach beside the hotel and was chased by a sick and hungry bear.

He was saved by a conservation officer but is still shaking when I breakfast with him the following morning and watch his video of the chase.

SATURDAY Belugas all around our boat. "This is intimidating," said our sun-creased guide Hayley Shephard -- and she spent 12 years on the Antarctic.

SUNDAY An amazing day. Mike Macri's zodiac brings us out into the bay and we snorkel with beluga whales. There are teams of them, swimming past, below and beside, turning and looking at me with those winsome eyes. A mother and calf curiously nudge my toes. This is nature viewing on nature's terms, like being let into someone's living room.

MONDAY We wake to the sound of fire crackers as the conservation people try to drive a bear from the street outside the hotel. Bears are getting smaller and hungrier thanks to global warming. There is three weeks less ice a year than the traditional cycle, and every lost week on ice affects the weight of the polar bear by 10 kilos.

TUESDAY Calmair flight 542 back to Winnipeg. I am itchy. When we went for a husky ride in the boreal forest the mosquitoes descended in hordes. My bug suit kept mosquitoes out but not their proboscis, and I now have the scars to prove it.

WEDNESDAY The lady in the beer tent at Winnipeg Folk festival used to work as a nurse up in Churchill. She tells me about the American tourist who had his arm savaged by a polar bear when he leaned too far out of the tundra buggy.

Makes me thankful it was just an army of mosquitoes who savaged mine.

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