On day 25 of our recent 1,060-kilometre journey from Sandy Bay, Saskatchewan to Hudson Bay, Shauna Liora and I were cruising the down the fast-moving, braided waters of the Seal River about 12 kilometres from our finish at sea. Off to our left, two white spots in the water near the shore caught our attention. I paused and mused, “Are those…?”
Shauna finished my sentence: “…polar bears? Nah, those just look like birds… maybe seagulls?”
She returned her focus downstream, but I kept my attention locked on those white dots. Suddenly, one turned, and a big black dot filled the white of the ‘bird.’ This was different. I pulled out my spotting scope and saw that the ‘birds’ were a female polar bear and her cub, swimming up the river along the eddy. We paddled toward them to get a better visual and they swam and trounced along, the water blown off their fur by a strong west wind, sending bursts of spray through the air with every move they made. These were the first polar bears we’d spotted, and we were beyond excited. We’d been hoping to see these apex predators up close and personal. Our wish was granted.
Later in the afternoon, the broad, flat, blue expanse of Hudson Bay spread before us as we descended the last series of rapids on the river. A simple shelter cabin was situated on the north bank, so we headed for it to spend a night there in safety. The cabin was built and is maintained by Jack Bastone, a local fellow from the town of Churchill 70 kilometres to the south. Jack picks up canoeists, and he’d obviously constructed the cabin with bears in mind as it was guarded by ‘pointy-side-out’ nail-covered shutters over the windows and main door. In addition, there was a plywood nailboard ‘mat’ also laid in front of the entrance as an extra measure of protection.
We settled in for the night, happy to be snug and secure at the end of a successful journey. We saw no signs of any bears that evening or the next morning. Around noon, waiting out a big blow on the Bay, our reading was disturbed by a tapping sound on the side of the cabin and then a ‘bump’ from the front deck. I walked over and peered out the front window to see a mother and cub on the deck. They noticed us right away and made off quickly up the river and away from the camp. We got a few videos and some pictures, then stepped out on the deck to get a better visual of them ambling off. The coast looked clear, so Shauna took the opportunity to slip behind the cabin for a pee.
I stayed out on the deck, shotgun in hand, when I spotted three bears, bigger than the ones that had just left, beelining it for the cabin from upstream. I walked around the backside of the cabin, disturbing Shauna’s ruminations.
“I’m taking a pee!”
“Um… yeah… but there are three more bears coming right for the cabin. We need to get inside. I mean, I guess it can wait a minute, but they’re moving in quick.”
“Oh—well that’s okay then!” Shauna exclaimed, and quickly wrapped up her business.
Peering out from the safety of the cabin, we watched as the bears quickly circled us, noses down, sniffing, in their eternal search for food. It was a large female polar bear with two of her yearling cubs, both quite a bit bigger than a large black bear. All looked healthy and well-nourished. There are hundreds of beluga whales that feed out at the mouth of the Seal River. When the tide goes out here, it goes out quick, and the tidal flats extend over five kilometres from land. Often beluga will get stranded and that’s when it’s the bears turn to feed.
The mother and one of the cubs moved away from the cabin about 50 feet, but one cub—a dirty pawed troublemaker if I’ve ever seen one—went right for our canoe leaning against the side of the cabin. I watched it all unfold before me from the narrow window that overlooks that side of the cabin. The bear started chewing on one end of the canoe. I banged on the window and shouted, “Hey! Stop chewing on the canoe!”
It stopped, looked up at me, then went to the other end of the canoe and tried to chew there.
Again, banging and admonishing the mischievous ursine made it back away for a moment.
Then it tried to chew the middle of the canoe and bounced up and down on it with its front paws, peering up at Shauna and I with beady little black eyes. It then dropped down and tried to chew on the canoe again before I scolded it and it skulked away a few feet.
“Yeah, you go. Bad attitude.” I shouted as it left.
At that point it turned around and came back towards the canoe. I’d had enough and grabbed my shotgun. I stepped out on the porch and fired a warning shot over the bears’ heads and they scurried off about a 100 feet or so away, before all three laid down for a nap—with one eye on us, I’m certain.
About a half hour later, they returned, and ‘Bad Attitude’ bear walked right up to the canoe again. I headed out on the deck, this time with a bear banger in my shotgun (and a few lethal rounds to back it up) and launched it. The booming sound spooked them better than the slug blast had, and they bolted back upriver where they’d come from.
The bears kept coming after that: we saw 15 in total over a couple of days. Even as we paddled out to Jack Bastone’s boat when he came to pick us up, there were three bears swimming around amongst the beluga. Thankfully, our canoe was still in one piece—not much worse for wear besides some incisor dents on both sides of one end of the canoe. Mr. Bad Attitude seemed to be the only one with a penchant for T-Formex plastic… but still, something to think about when you leave your canoe out in polar bear country.