The Great Canadian Bucket List is more than just the activities and destinations that make Canada the country it is. It is also about people. Every once in a while, I’m going to introduce you to a remarkable individual who embodies the spirit of the nation, someone who forms an inspirational thread in our cultural fabric. Our next subject is a man who works, loves and lives the world of polar bears.
Rider of the Tundra
Tundra Buggy Driver for Frontiers North Adventures
More famously known for:
Twenty nine years patrolling the tundra working with polar bears
If your morning drive is a little challenging, spare a thought for Kevin Burke. For nearly three decades, Kevin has been driving giddy tourists, scientists, photographers and filmmakers into the vast tundra that surrounds Churchill, home to nearly one thousand of the world’s most southerly population of polar bears. Piloting customized vehicles designed to take on muddy, ice-covered terrain and hungry polar bears, Kevin has watched an industry blossom out of nothing.
“Back then, Churchill was quite a frontier, and our vehicles were all different. The first tourist camp had a school bus body that was repurposed as a dining room and kitchen. We had a bunk house that slept twenty people, and an ox cart with some gasoline and drums for garbage. The bears would just come rumbling through.”
The residents of Churchill have a unique relationship with their environment. Sitting on the edge of the Hudson Bay, the town lies in the path of migrating polar bears, awaiting the bay to freeze so they can head north in search of food. Each fall, this presents a unique wildlife experience for visitors, and challenges for residents. Bear traps surround the town, warning signs are posted, and the streets are monitored by camera.
“The bears follow their noses, their keenest sense. Their curiosity gets them in trouble. We’re not a food source, but we are easy pickings, especially if they’re starving. We live on their turf, so we can’t be blasé about it. I hate it when cars park outside restaurants, because you never know what could be hiding between them. I’ve trained my wife to use a firearm. I’ve got two young kids. You have to be bear aware.”
Churchill’s bear population is the most accessible on the planet, and therefore the most studied. Old school buses have been replaced by modern tundra buggy lodges, but other things have changed as well.
“We used to see the bears as a nuisance. Locals didn’t want them here, they obstructed industry. Now that Churchill’s become so famous, that attitude has changed, and people are accepting of the bears. It doesn’t matter who you are, one of your family members works in the tourism industry somehow. Whether its airports, or trains, we make our living off these creatures, and we respect them. The climate is changing too. I used to be a naysayer, used to think it was just fluctuations. But we work with seasons, and those seasons are definitely getting later. Twenty years ago, it would be unheard of to see bears as late as mid-November. Everything would have been frozen up, the bears long gone.”
Polar bears have as much personality as the people who work with them. Some are curious, others shy. It’s not uncommon to see bears sparring in front of cameras, like a pair of heavyweight boxers, with white coats and sharp claws.
“They never cease to amaze me with their intelligence. In the 1980’s, I remember driving a buggy, much smaller and cramped back then. A bear came up in the driver side, stood up on his hind legs, his paw in the wheel rim, and opened the door with his teeth. I couldn’t believe it! With all my clothing, I could hardly move, and my seat is right at the wheel. I put my hand through the steering wheel and managed to close the door, but the bear just kept at it. We were eye level, my heart was coming out my chest! I’m yelling at him, trying to scare him, tell him this isn’t right. I’d make a fist as if to hit him but he’d duck and dive, just like a boxer. One of the passengers gave me a monopod and I smacked him on the nose. He gave me the weirdest look, like ‘why did you do that?’ and wandered off. This was one smart bear.”
Churchill’s polar bear season falls over a short six week period each October and November. Kevin works every day, inspired by his encounters with guests, inspired by the bears, inspired by the land in which he lives.
“To see the emotional reaction of visitors, it rejuvenates me. I’m proud to say I am from here, no bones about it. I’d protect this place with my life. I see so many people visiting Canada’s beauty, enjoying our natural resources, and I hope we can keep it going. I’ll be driving buggies as long as I can, I just hope there are still bears around when my kids are my age. That’s all I wish for: my grandkids to see the bears too.”
You can join Kevin aboard a tundra buggy this season. It’s one of the highlights of The Great Canadian Bucket List. Click here for more info.