The Nature of Things·Photos

"The Arctic is nothing without the polar bear." Legendary bear tracker gives us a glimpse into their world

Dennis Compayre has spent a lifetime gaining a window into the intimate lives of the Arctic’s top predators on the shores of Hudson’s Bay

Dennis Compayre has spent a lifetime gaining a window into the intimate lives of the Arctic’s top predators

In Canada's frozen North, hundreds of polar bears follow an age-old migration route to the shores of the Hudson's Bay near Churchill, M.B., an area where the water freezes first. Legendary polar bear tracker, Dennis Compayre, has been observing the local bear population for decades. 

He acts as a guide in the two-part documentary Kingdom of the Polar Bears, from The Nature of Things, which follows a mother bear as she emerges from her winter den with two cubs and journeys back to the ice in a rapidly changing world.

It's a world few humans ever see and Compayre has spent a lifetime getting to know these majestic creatures. 

Words from Dennis Compayre. Note: quotes edited for clarity.

Polar bear rests on rocks (Tiffany Spence)

One of the reasons I wanted to come here is because it's close to where the bears migrate. I wanted to see what shape the bears were in, and I wanted to see how their winters went. I wanted to see if they're healthy.

Regardless of the research papers you read in front of you, you can gather more information by just actually looking at the bear and seeing what condition they're in. 

And they have put on a lot of fat and they're happy and they're strolling along like they don't have a worry in the world. 

Dennis Compayre, face encrusted with snow looks into distance (Mike Macri/Merit Motion Pictures)

Any time I get a chance, I like to watch bears. I haven't watched them in the summer as much as I've been observing them in the winter, obviously. And so, some of the behaviour I've been seeing, I've never seen before. And it's kind of exciting for me.

Polar bear stands among bushes (Tiffany Spence)

We know that they can actively hunt in the summer. We know that they're actively scavenging for food. We know that they can eat berries. They can eat goose eggs. You know, they can eat lots of things to keep themselves healthy.

Two cubs following a mother through the snow (Merit Motion Pictures)

There was a break in the weather and we had a nice day when the sun came out. The wind dropped down. So we got lucky. 

There was this wonderful mother and cub standing in the rocks looking at us. And what a great opportunity.  And that was kind of a gift. 

Polar bear in the arctic. Bears in the water. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

She was patient and everything a mother should be. And they allowed us to come close, but not too close. We had a good look at them. We had observed their behavior. 

They slipped into the water and the cub was playing with the mother, diving underneath and coming up on her back and splashing. And to me, that was a pretty incredible sight.

It brings a lot of joy to me when I see that. 

Polar bear mother and cub standing over partially dug ice hole in Canadian Arctic (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

If you get a chance to observe a mother with her cubs discreetly, at a distance so she doesn't know you're there, you observe how they interact, you know they live in the moment. There's no worries. They don't worry about a mortgage or getting the car fixed or anything like that. So when they play with their clubs, it's pure joy. 

It touches you. You want to show that to the world.

Polar bear stands in water. (Tiffany Spence)

The Arctic is nothing without the polar bear. They define the whole northern hemisphere.

They're the apex animal. And when they disappear, the whole chain of events below them is in trouble as well.  

All the species rely a little bit on the other species to get along. We know that bears can adapt quite quickly to the surrounding areas. Can the fox adapt along with the bear? Can the geese adapt along with the fox?

A sunset shot of a polar bear sitting on pack ice turning its head around. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

I don't see any change in the bears' population. The bears are healthy, maybe even healthier. So I don't know if [climate change is] affecting them that bad, but I do know that it soon will.

Because my analogy is this: When you strike a match, the match burns brightest and the strongest at the very end. And then after that, it's gone.

Watch Kingdom of the Polar Bears on CBC Gem. 

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