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Arctic Travel, Past and Present - Polar Bear Tours

Updated on September 6, 2011
RedElf profile image

Elle Fredine (RedElf), photographer, published author - strong supporter of pet neutering/spaying, fierce advocate for no-kill shelters

Polar bears are one of the most impressive and effective of the large predators.Their range is slowly being eroded by global warming, and some feel they are next for the endangered species list. Until recently though, any kind of encounter with these majestic creatures outside of films or television, was restricted to a visit to the zoo or a wild animal park. Now, eco-tourists can travel to the high arctic and live, in relative safety, within the bears' territory.

My first, up-close and personal experience with polar bears came when I was about two years old, while trying to slide down "Hershey's" head. Hershey was the name we bestowed on my grandparent's brand-new, huge white polar bear rug - one of the last legal polar bear pelts to come out of the Arctic, and a gift from my parents.

Even as a rug, his attached, razor sharp claws proved a considerable hazard. I still bear the scars of a few of those bare-foot skirmishes. I shudder to think what those claws could have done powered by a live bear.

The Great Ice Bear from
The Great Ice Bear from
Old-style Bombardier for arctic travel -
Old-style Bombardier for arctic travel -

Man has long been fascinated with exploring the "frozen wastes" at the top of the world. Early European travelers to the land of the Ice Bear had to contend with extremely harsh conditions. Many of the early arctic explorations such as the ill-fated Franklin Expedition have left behind more questions than answers.

I first set foot in the Eastern Arctic at a time when it was part of a strategic network of Cold War listening posts.

Farley Mowat's landmark "The People of the Deer" had already piqued the outside world's curiosity about this strange and austerely beautiful landscape.

This was followed by "Never Cry Wolf", described as "one of the brilliant narratives on the myth and magic of wild wolves and man's true place among the creatures of nature", another great tale guaranteed to whet the public's appetite for seeing the arctic firsthand.

When I lived in Fort Churchill, however, trekking out to see the Polar Bears was considered the sole preserve of research scientists and slightly crazed novelists - or any one else who didn't mind spending untold hours punishing their rear end on the cold, hard metal seat of a Bombardier half-track that reeked of diesel fuel and clanked along with the velvet suspension of a square-wheeled buckboard on a corduroy (log) road.

Um - how close did you want to get to that bear?

The idea of getting close to one of the most powerful and dangerous predators alive was not something I ever relished.

Seeing them in photos and on film shows a different aspect though. They look so soft and white - and the cubs are just too adorable for words.

What is it about these amazing creatures that fascinates us so? Sleek and powerful, able to withstand one of the harshest climates on earth, the ice bear moves with a deceptive, ground-eating stride.

Equally at home in that water as on land, the great white bear is an awe inspiring predator. Only a well-armed and wily hunter, man, has ever bested him.

Whatever it is that attracts us to the ice bear, we are now able to indulge that fascination with a wide variety of options.

Tours of the ice bears' habitat can be as long or a short as your budget can afford. Often the tour will include guided photo-hunts, where your long lens is attached to a camera rather than a rifle scope.

Some tours include a stay in the arctic winter. The surroundings are very high-tech and comfortable, featuring gourmet cuisine, among the other perks.

Mother and cubs from
Mother and cubs from
Playful polar bear from
Playful polar bear from

Some interesting "Polar Bear Facts" from Wikipedia

Unlike grizzly bears, polar bears are not territorial. Although stereotyped as being voraciously aggressive, they are normally cautious in confrontations, and often choose to escape rather than fight.

Fat polar bears rarely attack humans unless severely provoked, whereas hungry polar bears are extremely unpredictable and are known to kill and sometimes eat humans.

Polar bears are stealth hunters, and the victim is often unaware of the bear's presence until the attack is underway.In general, adult polar bears live solitary lives. Yet, they have often been seen playing together for hours at a time and even sleeping in an embrace.

Polar bear zoologist Nikita Ovsianikov has described adult males as having "well-developed friendships". Cubs are especially playful. Among young males in particular, play-fighting may be a means of practicing for serious competition during mating seasons later in life.

In 1992, a photographer near Churchill took a now widely circulated set of photographs of a polar bear playing with a Canadian Eskimo Dog a tenth of its size. The pair wrestled harmlessly together each afternoon for ten days in a row for no apparent reason, although the bear may have been trying to demonstrate its friendliness in the hope of sharing the kennel's food.

When the ice floes break up in the fall, ending the possibility of hunting, each pregnant female digs a maternity den consisting of a narrow entrance tunnel leading to one to three chambers.

Most maternity dens are in snowdrifts, but may also be made underground in permafrost if it is not sufficiently cold yet for snow. Sometime between November and February, cubs are born blind, covered with a light down fur, and weighing less than 0.9 kg - roughly 2.0 lb.

On average, each litter has two cubs. The family remains in the den until mid-February to mid-April, with the mother maintaining her fast while nursing her cubs on a fat-rich milk.

By the time the mother breaks open the entrance to the den, her cubs weigh from 10 to 15 kilograms - about 22 to 33 lb. For about 12 to 15 days, the family spends time outside the den while remaining in its vicinity, the mother grazing on vegetation while the cubs become used to walking and playing.

Then they begin the long walk from the denning area to the sea ice, where the mother can once again catch seals. Female polar bears are noted for both their affection towards their offspring, and their valiance in protecting them.

Young male Ice Bears from
Young male Ice Bears from
Polar Bear in a simulated Arctic environment -
Polar Bear in a simulated Arctic environment -

Hope for their future...

For the time being, many of us can only experience the Ice Bear in an artificial habitat such as our local zoo or wild animal park.

Many fear that these will become the last resort of this, and many other species whose natural habitat has been damaged by man's depredations of their natural environments.

There are no easy answers to these problems. The factors involved are many and complex, but I believe if we have the will to do so, we will find answers. It is my sincere hope that you, too will be able to experience these magnificent and enigmatic creatures in their natural environment.


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    • RedElf profile image

      RedElf 7 years ago from Canada

      You're most welcome. Too bad you missed Anchorage, though. I have been to Ketchikan a number of times, so I am sure you saw lots of great sights there, too.

    • hafeezrm profile image

      hafeezrm 7 years ago from Pakistan

      Lovely hub, quite absorbing. I went to Alaska but our ferry,AMHS, broke down at Ketchikan and someone lured me to return back and claim refund and compensation. I was taken by greed and the lost the chance of forging ahead to Anchorage and beyond.

      Thanks for a virtual tour of the area and bringing polar bear so close.

    • RedElf profile image

      RedElf 8 years ago from Canada

      Greetings, fishtiger58! How lovely - my mother lived in south-eastern Alaska, but I did fly out of Fairbanks once or twice. It's amazing country.

    • fishtiger58 profile image

      fishtiger58 8 years ago from Momence, Illinois

      A beautiful hub. I went to Alaska but not to the ice. Went in summer but would have loved to see the polar bears. A polar trip sounds wonderful.

    • RedElf profile image

      RedElf 8 years ago from Canada

      Thanks so much, Cm. I hope you get to see them in the wild. I hear it's an unforgettable experience.

    • CMHypno profile image

      CMHypno 8 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Great Hub on polar bears and beautiful photos! Would love to go on one of these tours, so you have inspired me to start saving, RedElf!

    • RedElf profile image

      RedElf 8 years ago from Canada

      What a lucky cousin you have, FP! I have never been on one, btu have seen lots of video from the tours and lots of photos from others as lucky as your cousin.

    • profile image

      Feline Prophet 8 years ago

      A cousin has been on one of these polar bear tours and he showed us some amazing pictures! What a great experience it must be!

    • RedElf profile image

      RedElf 8 years ago from Canada

      You are most welcome, PS. So glad to add to your list as well. They are wonderful creatures, and if you can see them in the wild, so much the better.

      Too true, Paradise7! I hope we can find that will before it's too late!

      Oh, wow! You rode the "White Pass & Yukon!" That must have been an amazing trip! I sure do hope you go again, and thanks so much Zsuzsy!

      Thanks so much, Laura! Always nice when you stop by ;) Let's hope so - every little thing adds up for the best as well as the worst.

    • Laura du Toit profile image

      Laura du Toit 8 years ago from South Africa

      What a beautifully written hub. Loved both the videos. They are such exceptional animals let us hope that we can do something to keep them in their natural habitat for our children and grandchildren to see one day!

    • Zsuzsy Bee profile image

      Zsuzsy Bee 8 years ago from Ontario/Canada

      Awesome hub Elf, when we lived in Kamloops we took holidays in Skagway in northern BC and took the train to the White Pass summit. We saw a Mama Polar and her two cubs far off. She still looked huge even at a distance. One of these days I will be back in those mountains again.

      Great hub once again

      kindest regards Zsuzsy

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 8 years ago from Upstate New York

      Terrific hub, I love those bears, and was very interested to read some facts about them. The babies are SO CUTE! And I'm sad to think we've just about completed the job of spoiling their natural environment.

      As you said, it's a complex issue. But, as you also said, where there's a will, there's a way, and spoiling other creatures' environments isn't always necessary or wise.

    • Papa Sez profile image

      Papa Sez 8 years ago from The Philippines to Canada

      That was a nice tour to the arctic, RedElf. It really fascinates me as the contrast to my tropical environment here in the Philippines is so huge. Like Princessa, my family would also put this in our "must do" list. Thanks.

    • RedElf profile image

      RedElf 8 years ago from Canada

      Thanks so much, dohn121. The are indeed fearsome predators and you wouldn't have a snowflake's chance in you-know-where if you ever met a hungry one, but they are amazing and awe-inspiring creatures.

      Greetings, aquaseaCreative! They sometimes stay together til the cubs are two years old.

      Thanks so much, HH - I'll have to pop over and read those hubs.

      So happy to add to your bucket list, Princessa! ;) It's well worth doing.

      Thanks, so much, kartika. I would like to introduce Sarah Palin and a few others to David Suzuki! The big whites don't make terribly good pets, but they are amazing in their own habitat :)

    • kartika damon profile image

      kartika damon 8 years ago from Fairfield, Iowa

      Red Elf, beautiful hub - they are so amazing. Sarah Palin says they are not endangered and not at any risk of extinction--go figure! I think I would be a bit wary of getting to close, but I love knowing they are alive and well in their own neck of the woods!

    • Princessa profile image

      Wendy Iturrizaga 8 years ago from France

      You have opened a new world to me. Now I have to add a Polar bear Tour to my list of "Must do".

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 8 years ago from London, UK

      A great and fantastic hub. The pictures are absolutely gorgeous. Thank you so much. I also wrote two hubs about the polar bears. I guess, we can't get enough of those beautiful creatures.

    • profile image

      aquaseaCreative 8 years ago

      Wow. They really are amazingly beautiful creatures. The Attenborough clip is really moving - such a tight little family unit.

    • dohn121 profile image

      dohn121 8 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York

      I really enjoyed reading this, RedElf. Polar bears are very fascinating! Of all the films and books I read that made mention of them, they were always feared in all aspects, so thank you for dispelling some of the notions many people have about them.