PICTURES by Dennis Fast
The first time I visited Fireweed Island in Manitoba, Canada, this bear lay down about 40 metres away. I was with a Japanese film crew in a small compound protected only by five strands of electric fence stuck into the tundra on slender fibreglass posts. Our arrival had scared off the bears, but this one returned very early in the morning.
After a nervous and cautious approach, the bear reached out to smell the fence post and we heard the zap as it got a shock. Fortunately, the bear retreated and lay down among the fireweed flowers. It stayed there for the rest of the day, virtually disappearing when it lay down, but giving us frequent poses for photos. The bear looks so inviting in this photo that you almost want to saunter over and give it a hug.
Polar bears are curious by nature. If anything in their environment moves, it will likely be checked out in due course. If you think about the fact that polar bears spend long and dark winter days hunting for seals in places like Hudson Bay in Manitoba, you realise that their life may depend on spotting or smelling things at a great distance.
Anything that moves could be food and is worth investigating. That instinct does not leave them just because it's summer; or that they may already be well fed from their winter's sojourn on sea ice. This bear is playing peek-a-boo with me and now only needs to be convinced that I'm not that good eating. I'm feeling better already about being behind an electric fence although the bear wouldn't even notice any shock through its thick layer of hair if it decided to charge.
One of the most amazing things I witnessed while watching polar bears in fireweed for days was seeing them eat some flowers and grass. The bears are almost completely carnivorous with ringed seals being their favourite food in winter. In summer, they may top up with washed-up dead seals or beluga whales that they manage to kill on their own at low tide.
I was able to photograph this bear at close range reaching out with fierce-looking bared teeth to snip one flower from a stem of fireweed and then proceed to roll it back and forth on its lips. It did this a number of times as though it enjoyed the delicate scent and texture of the flower as a candied treat.
It was just another example of one of the most powerful predators on earth showing its gentle and playful side.
For most of the week that my friend and I spent in the presence of this bear, it kept its distance and stayed aloof even when we tried to approach it. As a result, we stayed in our little compound most of the time letting it get used to us and presenting ourselves as no threat to its territory. It was interesting to watch the bear being attacked by the Arctic Terns as it wandered around the island looking for a snack of eggs or young terns.
We had almost given up the notion of getting some great shots when the bear approached on the last day of our stay. Needless to say, we were on full alert, especially when the bear began to “pout” and hiss. He wanted to get at us in the worst way, but his shock from the electric fence on its first day with us kept him at bay.
It always amazes me that a large white animal can hide in a field of pink flowers just by lying down. The fireweed here was barely over my knees in height and yet, when the bear lay down for a nap it completely disappeared. Once I saw one sprawled out like a bear rug behind a very low small willow bush where it almost blended in with its surroundings.
Polar bears have great hearing, sharp eyesight, and above all, an incredible sense of smell. If there is a bear around, you will probably be noticed before you are aware of it. At that point, you can only hope the bear is a friendly one. For all of the reasons mentioned above, however, it is imperative to be on high alert whenever you are travelling in polar bear country.
After a long summer, polar bear hair may become quite yellowed and dirty from lying around on the tundra or coastal mud and kelp. However, polar bears may spend as much as seven months or more on the sea ice of Hudson Bay in winter hunting ringed seals. Much of that time is spent in near darkness, but when the sun rises in the spring its intensity ramps up quickly.
With the added effect of light bouncing off the ice and snow, the polar bear's hair starts to bleach. Add to that, the long-distance swim they may have to make to get to shore for the summer and the fur may actually approach the purity of snow.
I think the bear in this photo is not only one of the most beautiful I've photographed, it is also one with the most stunning white fur I've ever seen. The fireweed flowers only seem to add to the spectacular moment.