It has been 4 years since I started working seasonally with a fun-loving group of huskies running dogsled tours in Churchill, Manitoba. I haven’t put the miles on like a traditional musher would – we mostly just run tours.
My friend Dan told me, “You’re not a real musher until you lose a team.” I’ve flipped my sled, broken up tangles & dog-fights, I’ve broken clasps & lines & I’ve slid on my knees more times than I’d like to admit. (It’s good to get it out of the system.) I’ve even trailed behind the sled headfirst holding nothing but a rope to pull myself back up to the back of the sled – but I’ve always held on. Still, there’s that nagging feeling that I can’t call myself a musher because I don’t have the experience.
We run our tours through the Boreal forest, which is much more protected than the barren tundra on the Hudson Bay coast. These days, the conditions are magical. -5°C & overcast with a light snow. When the tree boughs covered in snow & the air is still, you hit the trail on the sled & it’s peaceful – just the sound of the runners on the snow & the dogs breathing.
This day was no different. It had been an excellent morning, & we got everything set up for afternoon tours.
We do an introduction, then give the tourists a chance to meet the dogs & take photos. After a few minutes of getting pats, the dogs will start to get restless. They’re watching us & they’re watching Kelly. As soon as one of us unchains a lead dog, they start barking & jumping like crazy. They know it’s time to go.
We’d take each dog to the sled & help them into their harnesses, which are already laid out in their position in the team. Once we start this process, we really want to get them running as soon as we can. Having 7 rambunctious huskies in close proximity when they’re very excited isn’t a good idea. Even though they’re kept in line with clips, it’s a build-up of energy that will cause something to go wrong with enough time.
No worries. The guests are loaded into the sled before the dogs are all hooked up so that we can go as soon as they’re ready. And we’re off! It doesn’t take long for the dogs to settle in. When they’re running, they’re happy. No barking, just running. Bliss.
We come around the first corner & there’s a polar bear walking on the trail.
I slam on the brakes.
We skid to a stop. The dogs are pulling, this time barking at the bear in front of them.
My guests are unfazed. They’re doing really well for Aussies. They say “oh, there’s a bear” matter-of-factly.
Churchill is literally known as the polar bear capital of the world. It’s not like we didn’t know that there’s bears around. Tourists come from all over the world to see them. They just tend to stick to the tundra & don’t always come into the forest & this is the first time we’ve come across one in this area. It was bound to happen.
The dogs are warding the bear off with bared teeth & angry barking. I’m holding the brakes down with all of my weight & more. I can’t take my eyes off this hulking bear in front of us.
The bear doesn’t make any indication he’s startled to see us. He had probably heard the dogs barking & was coming to investigate. His expression is “oh, that’s interesting.” He continues to take steps towards us. He’s not 20ft from the dogs leading the team.
He stands up on his hind legs to get a good look at us. He’s at least 8 feet tall. A beautiful looking creature with a broad chest & creamy blonde fur. My guests might have said something. I think I’m saying a mixture of f*ck and nononononononono.
He gets down onto all fours & saunters into the ditch beside the trail to lay down.
Fine. Sitting there is fine, just please don’t attack the dogs.
A couple of the dogs are lunging into the bush at him. I can see his face from my perspective. He’s moving his head & sniffing at the dogs – not looking particularly angry or anything. Not showing any stress from the fact that he’s 5ft away from an animal that looks like it’s about to tear his face off. He’s the top of the food chain here.
I’m watching this unfold, holding the team in place. With these dogs, there’s no “turning around” – the options are stopped or forward until you come to an intersection, like a train that has no reverse. A thought briefly goes through my mind that I could just try to pass him & leave him behind, but the lead dogs are off the trail in the deep snow trying to get at him. I’m parked here & that’s it. We’re not going anywhere.
As expected, Kelly shows up behind me.
I always go first because I have less experience than Kelly, who’s been doing this for 25 years. When managing a team of dogs, any number of things can go wrong. If something happens, he’s right behind me to help if I need.
He knows there’s a problem & stops behind me. I yell “Remember what we talked about yesterday?” & point into the bush. He knows.
We had just had this conversation about what to do coming across a bear in the bush. It’s a practical discussion. They built Churchill in the middle of a polar bear migratory path & they come to wait for the ice at this time of year. The area is crawling with them. I am however cautious about using language in front of guests who might freak out. (Language like “polar bear” gets people very excited; especially if they’re not in the comfort of a vehicle.)
Yesterday, his recommendation was to anchor the sled down & let a couple dogs loose to chase the bear away. Today, there is no way I’m getting off this sled. If we slip forward even by a couple inches to lunge towards the bear, the whole situation could escalate instantly.
You know the expression ‘Don’t poke the bear?’ So long as I can hold the sled down, maybe we can avoid catastrophe.
Kelly brings the teams side-by-side, so he can get a good perspective of the situation. He knows bears better than I do. He hands me the sled & goes up between the teams to see where the bear is.
We need a gun. Neither of us have one.
Good thing we are a short ways from the beginning of the trail, so our co-workers will hear the dogs barking, know something’s wrong & come to check on us.
The first person to arrive is Julia. I just say “Get Ernest. Get a gun.”
Ernest is an old-time musher & a Churchill local. He was the first owner of a few of Kelly’s dogs, including Cookie, who despite her sugary-sweet demeanour that makes everyone rub her belly & want to take her home, is currently short distance away from tackling a polar bear 10x her size. Ernest is a part of our team & has good bear sense.
Kelly & I are standing there managing the situation, by which I mean, holding everything down. The bear seems fine with this. He’s decided that he wants to sit & watch the dogsleds I guess.
I’m standing on both snow hooks to hold the sleds & my legs are shaking. The bear must have moved because he’s disappeared from my view. Kelly says he could see him the whole time from the front of the team, but I when had called out to see if he could still see him, he was busy breaking up a dog fight. (We intentionally put the dogs that don’t like each other on separate teams, so they never get a chance to interact. We typically never bring the teams so close together, but this was an exceptional situation.)
Dog fights look brutal. They can be really aggressive & even superficial wounds can bleed a lot. White huskies look shocking when they’re spattered with red. I steadied myself by talking to the guests about the dogfight, rationalizing something startling & primal. I did it partly to distract the guests and partly to calm myself down. They were making little “oooh interesting” or “aw alright” sounds of understanding, but I was on autopilot. My mind was on the bear. It had only been minutes but it felt like an eternity. Where the hell is the gun?!?
I thank my lucky stars we had a good bear. All we could do was to stop the situation from escalating from our end. If the bear decided he’d had enough….I don’t even want to think about it.
Ernest arrived on an ATV with a gun & Steph on the rear as backup to take care of the dogs. The point was never to shoot the bear, but to scare it off. Ernest fired off a couple rounds into the air. Once Kelly was satisfied that he was gone (for now at least), I pulled his hook out of the snow & gave his sled a push so the dogs would feel the tension of the brakes release & start to run.
He took off ahead of me. I took off shortly after, with the ATV close behind me. The dogs are running as if nothing happened. They seem to be so single-minded; running comes first, everything else is secondary. They walk it off like pros & run excellently. To be fair, they live outside of Churchill & spend their whole lives outdoors. They’ve probably seen more bears than we would like to believe.
We got back to the start of the trail & set up to get ready for our next lap. All the guests had been loaded onto their bus for safety. Our team acted quickly to make sure everyone was taken care of & get the gun out to us asap. At the time, my mind said that we were cancelling the rest of the tour, but I felt very comfortable running between Kelly & Ernest on the ATV if we’ve got a gun with us. They’ve got my back.
We end up doing all 4 laps. The dogs ran amazingly. The guests were in that protective tourist haze that denies reality. I heard they spoke to some friends of mine in town later & were like “wow! That was neat!”
In fact, when we went to load up our passengers for the second lap, they said “I heard you saw a bear on the trail.” I said “Yep.” “…..A black bear?” I almost laughed. I don’t think I would have even asked the guests to get in the bus if there was a black bear around. I feel like a team of 7 dogs would be more than enough to scare it off.
I guess I have to forgive people for their perspective biases, cause I thought it was funny. If you say “bear” in Churchill, it’s a polar bear unless you say otherwise. But people aren’t used to that. If you say “bear” in most parts of North America, people are going to assume it’s a black bear unless you say otherwise.
Usually your first indication that there’s a bear in the area is tracks – foot prints in the snow. It’s strange to me that we never had any indication until we saw him coming towards us in the trail. He stayed in the area for 6 more days. This was a good reminder for us to always be bear safe, to start carrying a gun & signalling devices on the trail & to always check the trail between tours.
The day he was darted by Manitoba Conservation, he had been to the dog yard & flipped over a couple of dog houses. One of our dogs had been burying her food & he found it, then checked a few others in case of a free meal. None of the dogs were harmed, thankfully. Some of the pups looked at us with wide eyes like they had seen a dinosaur, but they were otherwise fine.
We called them when we saw him in the field behind the dog yard one day. They came with a helicopter, darted him & took him to the Polar Bear Holding Facility (aka bear jail).
He was a 4-year old male polar bear weighing about 600lbs. He had never been tagged before, which means he had never been to bear jail & was new to the area. He was just a young, curious bear checking things out like a good bear would.
A few days later the ice came in on Hudson Bay. Soon after, all the bears were released from the holding facility onto the ice to go hunt seals. So long, Bear!
I consider this my initiation. After 4 years, I can call myself a real musher who can handle anything that might go wrong on the trail, & as a Churchill tour guide, I have had my first experience looking a polar bear in the eyes.
It’s a good reminder that we are in bear country, and not the other way around.
It was an experience that will live with me forever.
I hope I can learn from it & walk it off like a husky.