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Where Polar Bears Rule the Land

A MEAN northerly wind sends filaments of fog streaming in from nearby Hudson Bay and stirs the powdery snow that coats the frozen lake on which we are camped. The air turns white. Shadows disappear. Here on Cape Churchill in Canada's northern Manitoba, it's about 7 degress F., and winter owns the land.

Back home, neighbors in shorts tend backyard cookers in the shade of green trees. If they think of us at all, it is to wonder why we have departed for arctic regions where a person's skin will freeze in 15 minutes and large, hungry, meat-eating animals roam.

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Ah, but that is the reason.

We have traveled by air to Winnipeg and Churchill and then by Tundra Buggy to Cape Churchill to join the annual conclave of the world's largest nonaquatic carnivore in its natural habitat.

Elsewhere in the circumpolar world of 15 million square miles of permanent sea ice, 25,000 polar bears never come ashore. But the 2,000 polar bears of Hudson Bay must hit the beach in summer because the sea ice melts.

Then, as October's snows herald the return of winter, the bears head north toward the newly forming ice. At the tip of Cape Churchill, they pause in anticipation of meals on seals. And waiting for them in Len Smith's Tundra Buggies are bear groupies from all over the world.

We are parked beside the gently shelving shore, where incoming tides have deposited chunks of bay ice in jackstraw piles. A rivulet of turquoise sea water describes serpentine coils among them.

The light of the rising sun slides in under the cloud layer, tinting the monochrome scene with birthday-cake pinks and blues highlighted with orange-star pings.

Into this pastel palette walks a polar bear, the hollow hairs of his white coat radiating a golden halo of sunlight.

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Catching our scent, he turns his narrow, curved nosed head toward us. Our odor is unfamiliar. Puzzled, he sits down to review his catalog of smells. Not seal. Not whale. Not caribou. But it is worth investigating.

He stands and ambles toward us with the swaying pigeon-toed walk that led 19th-century seamen to nickname him "the farmer."

He places his great foot-square feet carefully on the ice, gripping with curved black claws that evolved to give him purchase on slippery surfaces. Within 50 feet of our vehicle, he stops and sits again to contemplate our arctic high-rider and its occupants. He's not afraid. What in his world is there for him to be afraid of? Rather, like all carnivores, he is curious.

He stands, crunches through the thin layer of snow to the side of our vehicle. In one swift, convulsive movement, he rises to his full 10 feet of height and stands looking in the window. His small brown eyes focus on the contents, and his big black vacuum-cleaner nose flexes as he sucks in our smells.

Wide-eyed newcomers recoil with nervous cries. Old-timers, who expected it, have cameras ready. Some grin in delight. Others are struck dumb.

Somewhere, down in my inner self, I know this is a large, powerful eating machine. Part of my mind - worried that I am a small, vulnerable primate caught out of my tree - turns on the adrenaline pump and boots up the software for fight-or-flight. My hands sweat and my breathing gets shallow.

Not so the bear. His curiosity satisfied, he drops down and wanders off a few yards. He drapes his well-upholstered body over a block of ice to await developments. Other bears stroll over to see what's going on. Within a one-mile radius of this spot, some 50 polar bears of all sizes and ages have gathered to be first in line at the meat counter.

A female comes over with her one remaining cub in tow. The usual litter is two, but before a year is out, half the year's crop of cubs perish through accident or predation, some of it by mature male bears.

To mama bear, papa bear represents danger to baby bear. She speaks to her cub - "Chuff, chuff!" - which means get behind me and stay there.

The youngster does as he's told, tucking in behind his mother's flank. Then, although she's one-third his size, the mother advances on the adult male with head held low and upper lip curled.

The male scrambles to his feet, alarmed. He turns his head to one side to show he means no harm, but she will accept no compromises. She lunges at him, jaws wide. He counters her thrust with his own wide-open jaw. Like a fencer, she attacks again with open muzzle. He parries, back-pedaling.

With their size and strength, the two massive animals could destroy each other in an all-out battle. But they stop short of that as the instinct for racial survival keeps the confrontation bloodless. She pauses, then rushes him again, teeth bared, ears laid back.

He rears, jaws agape. It's the opening she's been waiting for. With a lightning-fast left hook, she swats him on the shoulder and knocks him flat on his back. He rolls, great black-soled feet flailing, snow flying. Watching, she gathers herself for another assault. But the male, in an all-too-human display of wounded dignity, retreats to a snowdrift, where he lies down and pretends it never happened.

The photographers among us are transported. The click of camera shutters and the whine of automatic film advance motors is as continuous as the drone of disturbed bees.

But the light has dwindled. The photographers pack up. Our driver starts the engine, and the Tundra Buggy conveys us to our camp on wheels, where hot showers and spaghetti carbonara await. After dinner, we fall into the relaxed honky-tonk comfort of the Muktuk Saloon, which doubles as a utility trailer.

Someone bursts in with the news that the clouds have dissipated and the Northern Lights are blazing across the nighttime sky. Driftng red, green, and yellow lights shimmer in the blackness of space.

In the killing cold of the platform between the diner and the bunkhouse, five minutes of this unearthly light show is all I can stand. I head for my bunk. There, within the warm cocoon of my sleeping bag, I can watch the aurora through my porthole. The glowing colors still hang from heaven's roof, eerie and alien over the pale snow, as sleep comes.

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