A true story: For many years I lead polar bear photography tours in Churchill, Manitoba, on the coast of Hudson Bay. Churchill is an odd little frontier town that, before they realized they could make money off the autumnal polar bear migration, was the end of the rail line for grain shipments from Canada’s Prairie Provinces. When I was in Churchill the tourist industry was hauling in lots of bear-watching dollars but the Port of Churchill was in steady decline. Less than a dozen ships came to Churchill to load grain and then head north out of the bay.
One year I was up in Churchill for three weeks leading tours and coordinating other tours. Leading tours was easy because polar bears are appallingly photogenic. Coordinating the other tours in town was also pretty easy and involved mostly grocery shopping and driving a big school bus full of bear-watchers on daily rounds to and from the tundra buggy parking lot 15 miles out of town. The hardest part was keeping myself amused during my off time because there is only so much you can do in Churchill in November without a polar bear as a friend.
For all the years I led polar bear tours a visiting artist was also there who became a fun friend to hang around with. Her name was Olivia Summers and she made beautiful pen and ink drawings of the bears and the native children and sold them to the hordes of visiting bear watchers. But the most outstanding thing about Olivia was that she was a tall, striking, southern belle-type lady that could, with a flutter here or a coo there, get any hot-blooded male in Churchill to do anything she wanted. By the way, all the males in Churchill were hot-blooded. To say the least, she was not the kind of woman you normally saw in Churchill. I don’t think Olivia ever paid for a meal and she was never lacking hot-blooded company. Olivia didn’t wield her wiles maliciously just opportunistically and once you were on to what was happening it was an interesting game to watch and occasionally promote.
On one of my free days Olivia came by and asked if I would be her chaperone for a few hours. Apparently, she had lunched (gratis) with the captain of the last freighter in port and had been invited to take a tour of the ship. The ship was from Estonia and was crewed by 40 or so lonely Soviet (at the time) sailors that apparently needed their fantasies refreshed. Knowing that Canadian Customs kept the crew on the ship and the locals off it and knowing that it was illegal and in violation of several international laws, Olivia had kindly invited me to accompany her on her private tour. How could I say no?
The tour of the ship, as you might imagine, was a howling success. There was a lot of attention given (none to me) and I spent most of the time in the wake of the captain and Olivia. He escorted her around like a big ‘ol rooster much annoyed by the presence of another rooster (that would be me) in his coop. As we were leaving and as more invitations of various kinds were being extended to Olivia, and not me, I realized, in a blaze of insight, that I had something that Olivia did not. I had a school bus! And without further thought, I invited the captain to take an unauthorized spin in my big yellow bus in search of big, white bears. With Olivia implying that she would love to go along, he enthusiastically accepted. We had a date- the captain, Olivia, a polar bear and me.
A hour later I pulled the bus up to the ship ready to take the captain on a quick tour of the surrounding tundra in a completely unrealistic attempt to see a polar bear. You never saw bears anywhere near town; they were either picked up and detained or scared away to keep them away from people. The bears we photographed were a hour tundra buggy ride outside of town. But the captain didn’t know this and he was excited about seeing Olivia and the countryside, in that order.
After going up and finding the captain and telling him his bus had arrived we headed back down to the bus. When I stepped into the bus, much to my surprise, I saw that it was full of the entire ship’s crew. I also saw that much to the captain’s surprise Olivia was not among them. This wasn’t going to be a private tour with the dashing captain and his exotic belle. Oh no, this was going to be an American guy taking 40 trespassing Estonians and a case of vodka on an unauthorized and illegal tour of a foreign country in search of the largest land predator in the world.
By now it was too late to unload everybody so off we went with my head reeling with calamitous scenarios. Headlines, in bold type, started flashing before me- SOVIETS MAULED BY BEAR–AMERICAN JAILED or SAILORS JUMP SHIP –AMERICAN DRIVES GETAWAY BUS or SCHOOL FIELD TRIP TURNS UGLY-POLAR BEAR SEXUALLY ASSAULTED or HANDSOME CAPTAIN STRANGLES TOUR LEADER – SOUTHERN BELLE COOS. With my imagination now fully in control and all rational thought abandoning me, I drove 40, very happy, very boisterous Estonian citizens off into the Canadian tundra. (‘Tundra’ by the way, is one of only two Russian words I know. It means ‘land of little sticks.’)
I drove to all the least likely bear spots I knew thinking that a bear/sailor interaction of any kind would not be in my best interest. At each stop the sailors all piled out, puffed on their cigarettes, took a long shot of vodka, looked around and, eventually, piled back into the bus. I spent the time pretending to look for bears and being so sorry for not finding any.
As my luck would have it we did eventually see a bear and they did get out to try to get pictures of it. The bear, at first, really wasn’t close enough to be a concern but bears do walk and this one was walking towards us and it was getting closer. I figured the bear wasn’t go to stop but also that my guys had the wits not to get any closer to it. I was wrong about their wits. Their technique was to try to walk a ways toward it, offer it a shot of vodka and then, in full sway, take a picture. Then they would walk closer and do it again. The bear continued to walk toward us and the sailors continued to walk toward it. It didn’t take a tour leader to figure out that this had international incident written all over it.
In an effort to get their attention, I tried yelling ‘’toondrah” and waving my arms but they just smiled, ignored me and took another shot of film and vodka. I tried to herd them back toward the bus but those Estonians are a crafty bunch. As soon as I got one group going the right direction another group would head for the bear. Finally, as the farthest of them started to crash through the willows and as the bear was picking up the strong scent of vodka-marinated sailor I screamed the only other Russian word I knew ….”SMIRNOV!!”. It stopped them in their tracks. With a bit of cajoling all 40 (I think) sailors stumbled back into the bus. I closed the door just as the polar bear ambled out of the willows and the first of many toasts to a successful bear hunt sloshed through the bus.
The trip back to their ship was a fog of smoke and endless toasts. Upon arrival at the dock and after even more toasts, I delivered all of the sailors safely back onboard the ship. That night at dinner, across the restaurant, I saw Olivia sitting again with the captain enjoying another free meal. She spotted me and cooing, waved me over to join them. She probably wanted to be saved from the little Bantam but I was feeling less than gallant. I noticed the now red-faced captain clacking his beak at me and not wanting to tempt faint again, I feigned alcohol-induced blindness and turned away. The hen house was all hers tonight. This little rooster had had a very long day.