Earlier this month, Sarah Davy found herself just feet away from a wild polar bear and her two cubs in the Canadian tundra.

It was a far different experience from her weekly trips to the Como Zoo while growing up just a block away.

"My heart was pounding in my chest," she said, although she was in no danger because she was perched in a bus on 5-foot tall wheels. "You knew they couldn't get at you. You see bears in the zoo walk around bored, but in the wild they get curious."

The 17-year-old Como Park High School junior was the only Minnesotan in a group of teens from around the United States and the world -- Australia, Denmark, California, Maryland, to name a few locales -- who attended a learning and leadership camp near Churchill, Manitoba. The camp was put on by Polar Bears International, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization. The goal was to turn the teens into "Arctic Ambassadors" who can observe the effects of climate change firsthand and go back to their hometowns and talk about conservation.

"It seemed like an amazing opportunity to be with kids around the world and see my favorite animal in its natural habitat," said Davy, who has volunteered at Como since 2007, teaching visitors about plants and animals.

Qualifying for the program seemed like a lot of work because, she said, having to write an essay and make a presentation. But she did so and she was picked to go to the camp. Como has worked with Polar Bears International for a few years, said zoo spokeswoman Michelle Furrer, and the zoo was one of about 20 institutions around the country chosen to select people for the camp. Davy's airfare was covered by the Como Friends, and Polar Bears International paid for the camp.

Furrer said Davy will be asked to discuss her experience with groups of all ages at the zoo.

Lorrie Cashman, education specialist at Como, said Davy is well-spoken and will do well sharing her knowledge.

Davy also will speak to students at elementary schools and her high school peers.

Polar bears are the largest land predators in the world and live in areas around the Arctic. Near Churchill, on the western shore of Hudson Bay, bears gather in the fall to wait for the ice to come so they can hunt ringed seals. The bears hunt and eat during winter and generally live off their blubber in a state of "walking hibernation" during warmer months.

The problem, Davy says, is that the winters are getting shorter, ice is melting faster and bears are going hungry sooner. It's a real-life example of the effects of global warming, she said.

"It was sad and exciting at the same time, because I know when I'm driving a car and turning on lights and taking a long shower it affects them."

Davy came back to a zoo without its polar bears, though. Brothers Neil and Buzz have been chilling at the Detroit Zoo since April and will stay until their new home at Como opens in the spring of 2010. The new project will cost about $14.3 million, paid for with public and private funds, and will be four times larger than the old exhibit.

Still, she's ready to start sharing her experience.

Her mom, Bonnie Davy, said Sarah came home with a huge smile and a new attitude.

"Now, Mom, we have got to turn off the lights and consume less," she recalled her daughter saying in the days after her return. "That was interesting to hear from a mall-shopping teenager."

And that was the point.

To see Davy's blog of her polar excursion, go to polarbearsinternational.org/student-journals.

Chris Havens • 651-298-1542