Sitting in Tundra Buggy 12, I vow to never complain about the condition of St. James Street in Winnipeg ever again.
Take your average, ordinary school bus, paint it white, mutate it to twice its width and height, equip it with a bathroom and a propane heater, cut the roof off the back six feet, add two-metre-tall monster-truck tires, and voila! You have your very own Tundra Buggy. Perfect for watching polar bears, it’s also perfect for destroying roads.
Our driver, David, warns us the buggy will tip, bounce and flex. There are up to a dozen tundra buggies out in the wild at any given time, all driving on semi-frozen roads. You think the pothole that dented your rim was bad? Try a pothole that would swallow your car. Not even joking, people.
So this makes the ride a little bumpy, but the group aboard doesn’t care, and frankly, neither do I. We’re off to see the bears! We all plaster ourselves to our windows until someone spots something – and it’s a red arctic fox.
We click our cameras, still jovial. It’s good practice for the bears.
And the first bears we see, at 8:30 a.m., are beautiful. They’re large, powerful males, and they’re sparring. The only problem? They’re sparring a good kilometre away. Even with my 300 zoom lens, my photos are pathetic.
But 20 minutes later, we’re rewarded. The first up-close bear wanders close to us. A young female, she’s beautiful, and we all crowd around the windows. Being a journalist who isn’t afraid to be rude and use her elbows, I get myself up front.
All I can think about is, what if this is the only bear we see all day? We’re assured we will see plenty, but I can’t help taking about 250 photos of her as she meanders her way around us and the water supply truck currently parked on the track ahead.
The day is grey, with snow falling gently during various periods throughout the day. And we see more than one or two bears. At the end of the day, the count is more than 20. The bears include two mothers, three cubs, a couple of males and other bears that wander around.
What’s hilarious is the reaction of the group every time a bear is spotted. Inward gasps of breath, a rush to pull out cameras. The sleeping bears at the beginning of the day are no longer as cool to look at by the end of the day.
Several of us do not have to take the Tundra Buggy back – those of us who didn’t get to finish our helicopter ride the day before meet up with a ‘copter in the middle of the tundra. This is the only time I will step out onto the frozen rocky plain during the trip.
We fly above the tundra and the bay and I’m struck, again, by the awesome beauty that is the Arctic north. While the land is flat, it’s not like an ice rink. It’s rocky, more so than I ever imagined, covered in several low species of willow that look more like spreading bushes and stunted spruce trees that have been stripped of their branches and vegetation on one side from the biting north wind. It’s the kind of beauty that you have to look for, the kind of beauty that takes a soul to love.