Basic Bear Facts
A hair raising conversation with Ray
Introduction to Churchill's Polar Bears/ Reasons to Visit/ Practicalities/ Churchill the Town
If you plan on wandering around the tundra and remnant boreal forest for any reason, you need to consider options for self-defense. Refreshingly, the greatest physical danger you will encounter comes from polar bears, not low-lifes of our own species. When I was up there in July, 1996, 16 bear sightings occurred in 11 days. Everyone commented upon the unusual number of unseasonal bear sightings. I was all over the place on foot, hiking, botanizing and taking pix. I may have been the only person who did NOT encounter a polar bear.
Your chances of a problem are probably much slimmer in July, because they are in a natural fasting state at that time.
As summer turns into fall, moving toward October, the danger increases. Right before their hunting season begins, (early to Mid-November onward) they are hungry and thinking about food. They hunt ringed seal out on Hudson Bay once the ice freezes over. By this time of year, their appetites are already whetted and they could really use a good meal, or at least a snack.
Some experts anticipate increasing problems with unfortunate bear-human interactions as the global climate warms. You may be an artist, a poet, a great scientist, a fine all-round human being, but to a polar bear, you are meat. (although fortunately not their favorite, or one they apparently even enjoy much.)
Do not try to run away from a polar bear. They can outrun a human. Seeing an animal fleeing from them arouses their instincts to chase. They think you are prey. <
Do not stare at them directly. Direct eye contact, to them, is a sign of aggression.
Their Latin name is Ursus maritimus. This should tell most people all they need to know about a polar bear's swimming ability. They can outswim you.
He was also the one who happened to be out on the back road, emptying a gray-water tanker when I needed a lift after getting myself stranded.
Within minutes after my arrival at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, I had a conversation that I have never forgotten with Ray, the Centre's technical director. We had been discussing what I should expect if I came face-to-face with a polar bear while out walking. Please read Ray's comments with an English accent. Mine will be strictly California.
RAY: If you see a polar bear while you're out walking, and he's standing on his hind legs just looking around, you're probably safe. That particular body language indicates that he's smelled or heard something, probably you, and that he's just curious.
ALICE: I learned from my last trip up here, a year ago last November, that it's considered a very bad sign indeed if you find yourself eyeballing a polar bear, and his head is lower than his neck, and he's swinging it back and forth.
RAY: It's considered even worse if, while he's doing that, he's also making clicking and hissing noises. That's a sign he's feeling very threatened and is about to charge.
RAY: But not to worry. Most of the time, it's only a false charge, meant to frighten you.
ALICE: What if he's serious?
RAY: If you find yourself situation, and you have no way of defending yourself, the best thing to do is to throw yourself down on the ground, stomach down in a tight fetal position, with your hands clasped against the back of your neck. Since most of your vital organs are in the front, you'll stand a better chance of surviving a mauling.
Only much later did it occur to me to wonder what Ray meant by "most of the time." Did he mean 51 percent? 65 percent? 87 percent? 99 percent?
When I asked him about it later, somewhat complainingly, he laughed but gave no definite answer.
Continue on to Bear Safety Rules, Part 2
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