Bison at Riding Mountain National Park. Picture: John Borthwick

The prairie is so flat that, as they say around here, you can see your dog running away for three days and your mother-in-law coming a week off.

Three hundred kilometres north of the Manitoba capital, Winnipeg, we climb an escarpment to Riding Mountain National Park. Sometimes known as Handgun Park because of its revolver-shaped outline, it is a 3000sqkm domain of forest, wetlands and meadows, and home to a superstar bestiary of bison, moose, deer, eagles, elk, bears, wolves and coyote, not to mention skunks.

"Four Parks Canada workers here have been gored by bison. Two of us survived. I did only because the bison that got me in the thigh flipped me clean over the 3m fence I was trying to climb," says Pat Rousseau, our guide.

Pat, a veteran French-Irish-Native Canadian naturalist, is driving us across the park's huge buffalo enclosure towards a herd of 50 formidable beasts. We edge to within metres of a young male that looks like the bovine cousin of a rugby forward on steroids, complete with hunch and shag-pile hoodie.

We're so close he's almost pattable but should one of us step outside the van, he's quite likely to get aggressive and the rest is, well, unthinkable.

We spot half a dozen white-tailed deer; lithe, Bambi-like creatures that trip cautiously across the clearings. Several moose make guest appearances beside the road in their dark brown coats and hat-rack antlers.

Parks Canada estimates there are some 900 black bears amid Riding Mountain's dense stands of larch, birch and tamarack. One of them lingers to check us out and give us time for half-a-dozen photos before it lumbers away.

I spy a definitely non-charismatic skunk but keep my distance from this infamously stinky, sometimes rabid critter. Glossy ravens look down from the aspens and caw their derision like amplified bullfrogs.

We sleep and eat in the little summer resort town of Wasagaming on the edge of the park. Log cabins, barbecues, ice cream, families in the sun: it's like an old-time, gentle America, minus the gun nuts and God- botherers found south of the border.

We head back across the vast prairie towards Winnipeg airport. Power lines stretch beside the highway like musical staves strung to the horizon. Grain elevators jut like rocket silos.

We pass an Amish couple clipping along in a horse-drawn buggy, heading out of the 19th century and into town. It's a portrait of pure Manitoba Gothic - him with whiskers and tall straw hat, her in a dark bonnet and shawl. By the time they are back on their farm we will be 1000km away in Churchill, northern Manitoba.

The Amish couple didn't give the impression of going anywhere fast.

Aboard the plane the in-flight announcements come in English, French and Inuit, there are huskies in the hold, and half the passengers are Inuit, Cree and Dene people.

"Don't forget to do the 'tundra pirouette'," advises Paul Ratson, bear warden and our guide, as he collects us at Churchill airport.

A .457 Marlin rifle sits above his seat as he emphasises the need for us to stay "polar bear alert." As he says, "Bears have a way of not being there - then suddenly they are".

Churchill sits 885km below the Arctic Circle on the western shore of Hudson Bay.

"It was founded in 1731, but not by Sir Winston", I hear a breathless young tour guide declare.

Originally a fur trading post, it was named for Sir Winston's distant ancestor, John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough and governor of the Hudson Bay Company.

The traders blithely built their town on a major polar bear migration route, from which the bears still refuse to deviate. Three hundred (if not 30,000) years on, they follow an innate GPS track that runs straight through downtown Churchill and is known, for good reason, as Polar Bear Alley.

With a population of about 800 - which swells to more than 3000 during the peak October-November bear- spotting season - Churchill claims several titles: the world capital of polar bears, of beluga whales and, curiously, of bison burgers.

It's a grain export port, a sprawling, friendly settlement that looks like a defrosted Ice Road Truckers pit stop, with half-trashed half-tracks parked in front yards and kids tearing around on quad bikes. The supermarket sells anything from soap to snowmobiles.

"We leave our keys in the car but always lock the trash bin," says our guide, Paul.

Adolescent bears that loiter too long around the town dumpsters can end up in their own slammer, the Polar Bear Holding Facility - aka the "polar bear prison" - where they are held until being quite literally slung out of town, dangling in a net below a helicopter that deposits them out on the ice. (Shooting a bear, a protected species, even if it is threatening a person, is an extreme option. A ranger tells me "There's so much paperwork that it's simpler to just shoot the person".)

The polar bear, known as the Lord of the Arctic, can weigh 800kg and when upright can reach up to 4m high.

"If you see a big white boulder get up and walk away, that's a bear," says Paul.

Come October the bears emerge, hungry and heading for the new ice on the bay where they'll hunt for seals to feed their young.

We're here just before that phase, so most bears are still hiding, but the ones we see near the historic Prince of Wales Fort do indeed look like large, fluffy boulders out for a stroll, if not a kill.

"There is one real difference between white men and Eskimos," a native Greenlander once noted. "White men think of ice as frozen water while Eskimos think of water as melted ice."

We may be in Churchill too early for the frozen water but our timing is perfect for the white beluga whales that spend summer giving birth and feeding in the shallow Churchill River, with some 3000 of them - the largest beluga concentration in the world - gathered here.

An adult beluga looks like a ghostly, oversized bottlenose dolphin minus the dorsal fin. During two excursions, by launch and inflatable Zodiac, we see scores of whales and their calves.

Curious and without human predators, they nudge the Zodiac's hull as they gambol around us. Our guide drops a hydrophone over the side and we hear the belugas' amplified "conversations". The most vocal of any whale species, they chirp, click, screech and chatter incessantly.

Over a restaurant dinner we tick off the Manitoba "Big Five" - moose, black bear, bison, beluga whale and polar bear.

We've seen them all, plus snow geese, Canada geese, muskrat and Arctic fox. It seems fitting that I celebrate with a big, sloppy bison burger, which turns out to be far tastier than the previous night's irredeemable Borealis Burger - named after Churchill's other great attraction, the northern lights.

The Cree call the lights, or aurora borealis, the "Dance of the Spirits." These fantastic greenish flares that ripple across the Arctic ionosphere are constantly present above Churchill but, depending on atmospheric conditions, not always visible. We've had persistent cloud cover and sadly miss seeing their fabled, Ghostbusters- like plasma curtains. Next time.

We spend a day trundling across the permafrost in a massive Tundra Buggy, on the lookout for more of the elusive bears. Our final thrill is a drive out into the subarctic taiga - Canadian for mulga - to meet David Daley and his 22 huskies.

David, 50, is an indigenous Metis (mixed blood First Nations-French) whose passion is "mushing," long-distance dog sledding. He's a founder of a Canadian marathon winter race, the Hudson Bay Quest, and a veteran of Alaska's gruelling Iditarod Quest.

There's no snow here yet but, no problem, David has built a four- wheeled sled. He hooks up a team of four dogs, seats two of us ahead of him on the sled and lets the huskies rip. The dogs, born to run and mad-keen for the exercise, love it and so do we, bouncing and whooping our way around a one-mile bush track.

For our modest but thrilling burst of husky mushing David presents each of us with a certificate confirming our completion of the "Ididamile Quest".

For more information, see frontiersnorth.com and canada.travel.

The West Australian

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