Shades of White
A family canoeing on the inland ocean of Hudson Bay crosses paths with the nine-foot, 1,600-pound predator at the top of the food chain.
It’s late July, and we’ve reached the mouth of the Seal River, on Hudson Bay. The four of us, a family unit, have paddled 350 miles across northern Manitoba, spending nearly a month in the boreal wilds, and now we’re ready to head home, via Churchill, 40 miles to the south.
“You’ll see the cabin from the last rapid,” we’d been told.
Sure enough, when our two red canoes schuss down the final riffle the plywood shack appears, hunkered above the tidal zone. I step barefoot onto the wet clay. It feels like a rubber mat. An aluminum ladder lies near the building. Doors are no impediment to polar bears. If they want in, they place their front paws on the door and give a shove. The only refuge, and a shaky one at that, is the roof.
Decision time. The tide is in. If we are going to paddle the shoreline to Churchill, where we will catch a train south, back to the vehicle we’d left in Thompson, Manitoba, almost a month earlier, we need to take advantage of high water.
Before the trip we had contacted a man in Churchill who picks up canoe parties at several area rivers. We might have to wait a day or so, but for a price, we could avoid the dangers of paddling on the ocean.
I suppose the risks of canoeing on the ocean are obvious, but on Hudson Bay they are accentuated by icy water, sudden weather shifts, and tidal zones that can extend miles from shore. And by polar bears that concentrate here, particularly at the river deltas. I have no interest in seeing this imperiled species, not even a twinge of curiosity.
Polar bears collect in the region around Churchill for much of the ice-free season. They perch at the top of the food chain, and their demeanor reflects that status. If a polar bear wants to check you out, there is no tentativeness involved. Weighing barely a pound at birth, an adult male bear can hit 1,600 pounds and measure nearly nine feet from nose to tail. They have been known to swim 60 miles across open seas, and lately their swims have been longer because of the shrinking ice pack. The dwindling ice has led to population stress, since the seals that are the mainstay of the polar bear diet and provide the fat that sustains bears through the ice-free season, are available to them only on the pack ice.
|Illustration by Anthony Russo
For days it’s been drizzling, windy, clouds down to the deck. “This is no weather to be on the ocean in a canoe,” I’d said that morning.
Ruby, 13, has lobbied hard to paddle Hudson Bay. Sawyer, 15, and Marypat could go either way. I lean toward a pickup, although my resolve is weakened by the drab cabin, the aluminum ladder, and the prospect of waiting days for our ride.
I get out the satellite phone and call our contact. A group from a camp in Minnesota is coming tonight, and they have priority, he tells me. I imagine the place full of campers. I imagine spending days in a tent with bears nosing around.
“We’re going,” I say, when I hang up. Ruby whoops. I stride for the canoe. Marypat and Sawyer scramble to catch up. Then we’re paddling.
The mood is ebullient. The canoes sing through the waves. We are strong and tested. All along, Ruby and Sawyer have been full partners. They are as steady and skilled as any adult I’ve paddled with. I can’t imagine better trip mates, and that is a huge source of pride. Four belugas suddenly surface ahead of us. They’re pure white, nearly the length of our boats. Ruby and Sawyer grin with delight.
The shoreline is low and nondescript. After six miles we ease out around Point of the Woods. The tidal shallows get tougher to thread through. Eventually we get let down by the tide at a slightly elevated mound of rubble. I’m satisfied to have made 10 miles. The tidal flats continue east, blending with the distant ocean.
Our strategy is to paddle only at high tide, night or day, keeping close to shore and making twice-daily leaps of six to 10 miles. Between tides we’ll nap, eat, hang out.
We leave the boats packed, removing only dinner supplies and sleeping bags. The watch that has been stowed all month comes out, along with the tide charts. High tide is due at 2:37 a.m. We eat dinner. The sun slides toward its brief night below the horizon. The sky continues to improve.
“Let’s get up around 1 a.m.,” Marypat says. “We’ll pack and be ready when the water comes.”
The bugs are light. We set up a quick tarp and roll out our bags. A floatplane drones up the coastline in the paling light. It makes a low circle just south of us, then continues. My eyes meet Marypat’s. We are both thinking the same thing: It was checking out a polar bear. We say nothing.
By 9:30 we are in our bags, minds busy with the day and with the coming night. Way too jazzed to sleep. Much later I lift the edge of the tarp. The waning moon is rising over the ocean. Marypat exclaims at the sight. Later still, she asks me to lift the tarp again. I think she wants to gaze at the moon. Instead she says, “Look at the water!”
The water is pulsing in, and it’s only 11:30. We shake awake, start stuffing bags, rolling pads. We have less than five minutes. The boats bump in the rocks by the time we hop in. No sleep. All night ahead of us.
It is soon dark enough that if we get separated, we can’t see each other. We repeatedly hang up on rocks and have to work our canoes off, losing each other with each delay. The lights of Churchill glimmer ahead, 30 miles off. We feel our way blind. The novelty of night paddling wears off, supplanted by fatigue. Ducks wing past in the darkness, whistling softly.
|Illustration by Anthony Russo
Finally, light begins to return. Low tide will come with its chance to nap and recharge. I start looking for landmarks, still vague in the dawn light. We are paddling along a sandy shore.
Ruby points. “There’s a polar bear,” she says, fear in her voice. She’s right. Unmistakable. The fuzzy shape, cream-colored contrast against dawn-lit sand. We stop paddling.
The bear looks at us. It walks directly to the water’s edge and into the ocean. It starts heading toward us. “It’s swimming!” Ruby wails. Her face goes rigid with fear. We start paddling, hard. Marypat and I scrabble for bear spray canisters between strokes. The kids keep craning their necks, searching for the implacable white head aimed for us. I have no illusion of outracing a determined bear, and I have no idea whether bear spray will be an effective defense. We paddle like hell for deeper water, fatigue replaced with the caffeine of adrenaline.
“It stopped,” says Sawyer. The bear stands in the shallow water, huge-looking, head weaving. We keep right on paddling. “It’s back on shore,” Sawyer says a minute later. “But it’s following us.”
The bear lopes along, easily keeping pace. The deepwater swells build. Marypat, notorious for motion sickness, retches over the side. Ruby is ashen, her usual song-singing fortitude swallowed by anxiety. Miles go by. The bear parallels our progress; so languid and beautiful, and also so powerful and terrifying.
We approach Button Bay, a deepwater dip in the shoreline before the long peninsula that ends with Eskimo Point and the turn into the mouth of the Churchill River, where town and the end of our trip wait. Conventional wisdom, which I agree with, says you do not cross Button Bay. It is a tempting, miles-saving prospect. But it is a crossing people have died attempting, known for huge waves and sudden weather shifts.
We cruise along with that slight following breeze. The polar bear keeps pace. The far side beckons. Crossing would shake the bear; more important, it would get us to a deep shoreline free of tidal flats.
We take a breather, the two canoes gunwale to gunwale. Everyone looks drawn and tense, faces taut. I outline my plan, to cross to a dip in the far shore called Seahorse Gully. I figure it’s five miles. I take a compass bearing. Everyone knows the gravity of this. Everyone looks over at the bear. We have paddled, essentially non-stop, for almost 24 hours, covering more than 40 miles, most of it on the ocean, and through the night. Fatigue, hunger, fear sit with us like another paddler. But everyone agrees.
Marypat gets out a bag of energy bars. We gulp them down, simple fuel. “We don’t need to push,” I say. “Just paddle steadily, stay together.”
The waves become broad-backed, rolling under the canoes. We paddle side by side, but between waves, Ruby and Marypat disappear in the trough. The waves crest only rarely, but the water is huge, mesmerizing. Shore, and the bear, drop behind. We are grim and focused. Sawyer bends to his strokes. Marypat, seasick, stops to puke bile. Ruby moves mechanically, her face set.
“Al, you have to talk to Ruby,” Marypat says, halfway across.
“Ruby!” I say. “Sweetie! You are an amazing girl. You are strong and happy and full of life. We are almost there. Hang in a little longer.”
She says nothing, cries quietly. I see her wobble in her seat. I sing her songs, any songs. Lullabies, folk tunes, beer commercials. She looks over at me, face pleading. “C’mon, babe,” I say. “Help your mom.”
When we finally land, after two hours, surf bashes us against rocks. Sawyer stumbles out of the bow and falls down. A wave fills my spray skirt, pours into the boat. I stagger over the side into the water, crawl to shore. Solid ground is a precious thing.
When I can walk, I go to Marypat. She leans against me. “That might be the most dangerous thing we’ve ever done,” she says.
I hold her tight. “We’re here,” I say.
Sawyer and I carry the gear above the high-tide line. Marypat and Ruby find a camp, a patch of flower-dotted tundra. When the tent is up and everything stowed, Marypat and the kids dive in to sleep.
My nerves are jangling. I need a cup of coffee. I start water to boil, get out my journal. The ocean sparkles in the sunlight. Belugas surface in the distance, sentient whitecaps. For weeks we have traveled unsettled country, seeing no one, in the company of wolf, black bear, moose. I have slept soundly. But here, tension hums in the air. I keep glancing over my shoulder.
I nap fitfully, sip hot drinks. The tide starts to inch in. Around midday my family emerges from the tent, revived and hungry. Our last meal was 20 miles up the coast.
“The polar bears have no fear of us,” I say, while we cook breakfast. I’m trying to voice, what? Some framework to fit our fears on, to reckon with the vulnerability that erupted when the bear came at us at dawn and that lingers like brooding weather. “Who knows, that bear could have just been bored.”
Just then I see another polar bear, a hundred feet off, moving toward the water. “Damn, there’s a bear!” I say.
Everyone looks at me like I’m kidding. When they see my face, they turn. Fear singes the air. We cluster together like penned sheep. I grab the bear spray.
“What do we do?” Ruby asks, as if we have options.
The bear moves through the rocks, nosing here and there. Then it catches wind of our fire. The white head turns. The bear climbs to the top of a boulder, scents our way. Marypat takes a picture. Time stalls. What happens next is up to the bear.
What happens is that the bear turns and shambles away, covering ground the way water flows, smooth and seamless. The white shape slips though rocks, around a corner, gone. “Thank you, bear!” I say.
Relief floods into us like sunlight. At the same time, whatever budding security we had been nurturing evaporates. When I point out that the waves have calmed and that Churchill is eight miles away, everyone nods.
When we launch, the swells are huge, but smooth and unruffled. Long stems of seaweed undulate in the depths. Every white boulder in the distance stirs a momentary surge of anxiety. I think of all the country we have seen, the string of camps, the cloud-berry pancakes we ate two mornings ago.
Churchill sidles into view midafternoon. The town squats on low, glaciated bedrock. The sight of this drab, northern community provokes a gush of relief.
And here the belugas welcome us. At first they appear at a distance, white blinks in the waves. Sawyer pulls the bow toward them, but it is not necessary. They come to us. Several surface just behind me. I turn at the sudden blow of air to see sleek white backs. A cow and calf rise parallel to the canoe, almost in reach.
The whales are serene, benign. They keep coming, pod after pod, permanent smiles on their blunt heads. They surface so close I catch whiffs of fishy breath. “Sawyer,” Ruby whispers. “I almost touched one.”
Despite the magic, we are all drained. We paddle slowly in, stopping to savor the palpable sense of being escorted to the end of our journey.
When we turn, finally, into the sand beach below town, I have a momentary foreshadowing: that I will encounter these white shapes, these serene gazes, in dreams. I know, too, that I will dream the fluid dread of white bear on the textured plain of tidal flat. Side by side, shades of white, menace and embrace.
Alan Kesselheim, a frequent Audubon contributor, lives in Bozeman, Montana.
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