A walk in the park: How to swim with polar bears

Polar Bear Habitat in Cochrane, Ont. Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks. The images in this post were taken by Trevor Juhl.

COCHRANE, ON — If you’re going to swim with polar bears, you should know: it’s going to be very cold.

We visited the Polar Bear Habitat on the last day of a heat wave, and we thought we were more ready for that cool water than the three bears who live here, Ganuk, Henry, and Inukshuk.

Inukshuk was rescued when his mother was shot, and he lived for a time at a zoo in Quebec, where he fathered Ganuk. Henry’s father was orphaned in Quebec; his mother was Russian. “He is a very exuberant bear,” says the habitat’s website and at 640 pounds is the smallest of the three (the others tip the scale at just over 1,100 pounds at their weightiest).

Though just the three live here now, the habitat reminds visitors that as climate change spreads, they will be called into action more frequently. Cochrane is very close to the southernmost natural habitats of polar bears. The Polar Bear Habitat has extensive conservation plans that include research and education.

You’re wondering about swimming with them, though, aren’t you?

The habitat’s learning centre, where keepers come to talk to visitors and where one can spend as much time as they want reading about bears, has giant observation windows looking onto their wading pool. And just to the left is a wading pool for humans, separated by just a slab of glass from the polar bears.

“I just checked it and it’s 80,” said one of the maintenance workers when I squealed stepping into the pool. Eighty what I don’t know, because it was cold. Damn cold. Polar cold. We were the first ones there — even the bears were playing elsewhere — and it took me a good 10 minutes to get boob-high in the water. At its deepest, it’s about neck-deep for a six-year-old.

This isn’t the only place the bears can come to cool off. They have seven hectares of land to wander that is categorized as sub-arctic, just like home. They have the “world’s largest enclosed lake that provides an ice platform for up to seven months of the year.” The lake has a self-sustaining fish population, but these three don’t fish often — they’ve lived in captivity their entire lives and they’re used to having their food served to them.

After some time, Henry and Ganuk arrived. They hung out at the other observation window, where most the visitors were, and where the keeper was giving a talk. Trevor would relate to us that it’s because the shorter of the bears bullies the taller into staying into the shallow end with him.

We could see the bears just fine, and it was so ridiculously hot that we just hung out and swam back and forth and were eventually joined by a few more families. Our patience paid off.

One of the bears ambled over, ignored us completely, and backed into the pool in almost exactly the same way I had — slowly and butt-first.

There we were: in a pool with polar bears, so close we could see every strip of fur and the giant black pads of their paws. Several times during this trip we have tried to reach peak Canadian, going to the Tims in Tim Horton’s home town, staying in a motel with igloos, visiting a beaver at a science museum, swimming in the largest of the Great Lakes.

But this? Swimming with polar bears? This might very well be peak Canadian.

The Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat gets three (out of a completely arbitrary five) stroller wheels from us after much discussion. It’s a little costly for three adults and a child on a budget, but you do get to swim with bears, after all. We also love that our money is earmarked for various kinds of conservation.

There is a small heritage village where children can get up close to items from Cochrane’s beginning in the early 1900s, and where there is a snack bar-style restaurant and play area. Attached to the main building is a snowmobile museum.

The habitat is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. There are keeper talks at least twice a day. Prices range from $10 to $16; it’s $45 for two adults and two children. Yearly memberships are available and the perfect choice for locals.

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