Before my husband left for police college, he made sure I had in my possession a stuffed polar bear to keep me company in bed at night and to get me used to what I might expect in Cochrane – from what our Internet research has shown, polar bears are kind of a big deal up there.
For starters, the town is the southern terminus of the Polar Bear Express, the train that runs north to Moosonee, which is oh-so-close to James Bay.
And apparently, when you take the road into Cochrane, you’ll be greeted by a large fibreglass statue of a polar bear named Chimo, the town’s mascot, who stands outside the tourism information hut.
But it seems that the star polar bear in Cochrane is Ganuk, the only ursine resident at the town’s Polar Bear Habitat.
The centre opened in 2004 as the world’s only habitat dedicated exclusively to polar bears. The original bears were moved back to the Toronto Zoo, but Ganuk, who was born in captivity in Quebec in 2009, has been living at the habitat since 2012.
According to the Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat’s website, Ganuk is still growing and weighs about 740 lbs (although I suspect this is old information, since the site says he’ll be full mature at 5 or 6, so this spring or next, and at that point he’ll weight around 1,000 lbs). His diet consists of a lot of fruit, fish, and ‘polar bear chow’ (I wonder if my dogs would like that), and that his favourite is peanut butter. In the winter, area hunters tend to donate leftover meat and bones from moose carcases, which Ganuk seems to enjoy, too.
From the site: “He also likes carrots once in a while but is not too keen on eating them everyday. We think that his taste buds are still developing as he is growing and he will eventually eat his vegetables like a big boy one day.”
I’m really excited to meet Ganuk, whose name I’m still not sure I’m pronouncing properly. One of the features of the habitat is a side-by-side bear-and-human wading pool, separated only by a sheet of sturdy glass (and hopefully several degrees Celsius in water temperature) that allows visitors to have the impression of swimming alongside the bear.
I grew up going to a children’s farm in my home town on a weekly bases, but we never had any animals as powerful or dangerous as a polar bear. We regularly had horses, donkeys, cows, pigs, chickens – you know, regular farm animals. And occasionally, a baby goat would escape its wooden pen and nudge you with its head until you relented and surrendered whatever was in your bag, but that was about as hazardous as it got.
I have vague recollections of seeing a polar bear in a zoo when I was much younger, but that would have been from afar and before I had any real appreciation for the animals’ majesty.
So the idea of having the chance to regularly be inches away from Ganuk – season passes are available for what seems like an outrageously reasonably price – is simply thrilling.
Even more exciting is the fact that the centre seems to be accepting volunteers on an ongoing basis. I have a background in biology and writing, I’m technically bilingual, and I’m not afraid of offensive odours. In short, I’m ready to sign up to to anything at the centre – lead visitors on a tour, design information booklets, and, hopefully, scoop bear poop.
(Of course, in the very possible situation where I meet a brown bear in the course of my regular business while living in Cochrane, ‘exciting’ might be lower on my list of adjectives to describe the situation.)
Until we meet Ganuk, though, I’ve got a miniature, fuzzy version to keep me company.
I might not learn a whole lot from my little Ganukshuk, but at least I know for sure that polar bears like to cuddle.