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Living with Polar Bears

Every fall, thousands of polar bears gather on the shore of Hudson Bay at Churchill, offering the wildlife viewing opportunity of a lifetime
By Peter Potterfield - November 7th, 2006

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A thousand-pound polar bear ambles across the frozen surface of a tide pool toward the coastline of Hudson Bay. From the opposite direction, from Cape Churchill, another bear appears out of the overcast, following the rugged shore. When the two bears--both males--meet, a wary, complicated greeting is played out on the icy coast. At first, the animals circle each other cautiously. But those preliminaries quickly escalate into contact, to swatting, then lunging as the bears test each other. Soon both bears rise, standing upright to an impressive height of almost seven feet, and really go at it. Locked in a bear hug, each of the white giants struggles to overpower his opponent.

Bear experts call this behavior sparring, and the opportunity to see it first-hand on a wild expanse of tundra is what brings hundreds of people each year to this frigid landscape in Canada. But these bears, already marked by the scars of previous battles, seem to have no energy or enthusiasm for pressing this encounter to real violence. Both slowly plop down on the snow, side by side, and face outward toward the gray, slushy expanse of Hudson Bay.

The hungry bears--they haven't eaten in months--are basically stuck. Until Hudson Bay freezes, the bears can't set out to feed on ringed seal, their primary food. So these males, and dozens of other bears around them, and hundreds more to come, must patiently wait out the ice in a state biologists call "walking hibernation." And that situation makes it polar bear "season" in Manitoba: For photographers, adventurers, scientists and enthusiasts, these few weeks in November, when the polar bears congregate to await the "freeze up," present the wildlife viewing opportunity of a lifetime.

"Once you've seen polar bears out here in this wild habitat, just doing what polar bears do, it's hard to resist coming back year after year," said naturalist Jerry Anderson. A retired Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman, Anderson first glimpsed the polar bears decades ago as a Mountie stationed in the town of Churchill. He now returns every year as a guide for Frontiers North, the Winnipeg-based company that offers a way for visitors to get close to the bears--and, for a few days at a time, actually live among them.

Churchill: The Polar Bear Capital
Each year in late October and early November, as the bears gather in this remote place, visitors do likewise. People arrive by rail or air (there are no through roads) from around the planet to watch this unique migration. More than 1,200 miles from the provincial capital of Winnipeg, tiny Churchill (population 800) hosts a thriving industry that has developed around the polar bear phenomenon. Tundra buggies, the brainchild of a local bear enthusiast, are the machines that make bear viewing possible, and safe. These huge vehicles take a dozen or more people at a time out onto the tundra for a close look at ursus maritimus, the biggest land predator on earth.

The 36-hour train ride from Winnipeg is a good way to see the remote northern reaches of Manitoba, but for my visit in early November, I opted for the three-hour flight in Calm Air's vintage Hawker Sidley 748 to save a few days. Like most people drawn to see these animals, I had reserved my adventure well in advance. The Canadian government created Wapusk National Park along this stretch of Hudson Bay shoreline, which imposes a limit on the number of commercial use visitors permitted. So planning ahead is essential for bear season if you're to get a room in town, a seat in the buggies--and most importantly, a bunk at the "lodge" out among the bears.

A day or two in Churchill itself is plenty of time to acclimate to the town's frontier setting and friendly locals. Part of the quirky charm here is the barrage of "cracker shells" fired from shotguns by the town's polar bear patrol to scare off bears who come too close. To protect the safety of residents and visitors, polar bears who venture right into town are quickly tranquilized by Manitoba wildlife officers, and carted off to the "polar bear jail" out by the airport. Seventeen unlucky inmates were incarcerated when I was there, all to be released when the bay turned to ice.

The Polar Bear Migration
As we set out from town to search for bears in significant numbers, Frontiers North guide Jeff Cooper explained that a fluke of geography is what attracts the animals. Churchill, the site of a Hudson Bay Company outpost since the early 1700s, just happens to be located on a stretch of coastline where winter ice on Hudson Bay tends to form first. Over thousands of years, polar bears have learned this. Ice means food, so, starting in mid October, hungry bears from all over the western coast of Hudson Bay arrive to get an head start hunting plentiful seals.

"The season lasts only about four weeks," said Cooper. "Once the bay is frozen, the bears head north across the ice. They're gone, and won't return in numbers until next fall."

While polar bears are seen in and around Churchill itself, the impressive beasts tend to congregate at customary locations farther east, between Gordon Point and Cape Churchill. With a group of 18 others, I made the journey out to see the bears in one of the huge vehicles operated by the Tundra Buggy Company. Built on the chassis of an airport fire engine, and outfitted with tires meant for wheat-harvesting combines, the enormous buggy rides high off the ground to offer both a good vantage and safe platform well out of reach of the bears. Lurching and rocking across the frozen landscape, we made our way toward the coast.

The first glimpse of a bear in the distance is electrifying, and to finally see one up close is unforgettable. But the real fun comes in watching the gamut of bears and their behaviors over four days and three nights on the tundra. These are magnificent creatures, and whether it's a female protecting her cubs, or the sub-adult males sparring for status, it's impossible to look away. Most unexpected perhaps were the non-stop comic antics, as if the bears were putting on a show. Polar bears look strangely anthropomorphic anyway, and it's easy to ascribe human motives as they roll around on the ice on their backs, or slide down a snowy slope, or frolic with a piece of seaweed like a kid playing with a toy.

Researchers have determined the proximity of people and buggies in present numbers do not stress the bears. In fact, the polar bears exhibit an irresistible curiosity. Buggy drivers are trained to avoid pursuing the creatures, or even approaching too close. On the contrary, often it is the bears who came to us. One big male who had been snoozing in a snowdrift, got up and lumbered across the 20 yards to check us out. With a grace that belied his great size, the bear stood on hind legs to peer up at me, not two feet away, as I hung out on the rear deck of the buggy. The big bear, who would no doubt eat me if he could get to me, seemed serene and comfortable there in his habitat. Being eye to eye with a polar bear like that is one reason people come.

Life at the Lodge
As the light fade each day, around 3:30 in the afternoon, our buggy heads back to the lodge. Most visitors who come to see the bears stay in Churchill hotels at night, and do day trips out on the tundra to view polar bear activity. Frontiers North, however, offers an opportunity to actually sleep and live among the bears in what is called the Tundra Buggy Lodge. A bit of a misnomer, the "lodge" is in fact a group of specially outfitted trailers on oversized tires, equipped as needed: a kitchen and dining car, a club car, and a bunkhouse. Various support trailers house the staff of four, the generators, the propane tanks and satellite communication gear. The whole thing is towed out each fall, piece by piece, to Polar Bear Point, about halfway between the town of Churchill and Cape Churchill.

Arriving at the lodge is a little like arriving at the space station aboard the shuttle. The buggy backs up hard against the bunkhouse so the humans can disembark without becoming a bear hors d'orve. After putting away our cameras and binoculars, there's time before dinner to share digital images on the laptop in the lounge and compare notes on the day's action. My trip was fairly typical, with photographers and travelers from Japan, Australia, the UK, Switzerland, France and Germany joining the North Americans to make a full house. Dinner is served around seven in the dining car, which has to be only restaurant around where you can enjoy a meal while polar bears stroll by just outside the window.

At bedtime, it's time to head for the bunkhouse, where two levels of sleeping berths, separated from the aisle by privacy curtains, give it the feel of a Pullman railroad car. We got the usual November mix of weather, some good, some bad, but one night was a memorably stormy one. Winds in excess of 70 kilometers per hour set the bunkhouse car rocking big time, and the gale plastered snow on my window, even while I remained snug and comfortable in my bunk. I love wild places, and the ability to spend three nights in that hostile environment, virtually surrounded by bears, is part of the fun, and well worth the extra expense.

Perhaps the best feature of living out among the bears is that you don't have to spend time traveling all the way back to town each morning and afternoon. From the lodge, we were in our buggy by 8 a.m for another full day of bear watching, and returned only at dusk. And even when you're back at the lodge, there are bears wandering around outside. It's a surreal experience. The one thing you can't do, however, is take a hike or go for a run, as the bears would kill you and eat you. This is one adventure where you won't get much exercise.

Polar Bears and Global Warming
The viewing, surprisingly, got better the longer we stayed. More bears seemed to arrive each day, and just when we thought we had seen it all, we got the surprise of the trip: In the distance, a female and three 10-month old cubs appeared, moving cautiously toward the bay. Three cubs are rare at any time, but especially now, when a warming climate reduces the amount of time bears can hunt. Females with cubs face an unexpected danger: hungry males often predate on young bears. Frontiers North guide Jeff Cooper noted that the simple fact this mother had kept her cubs alive for almost a year likely meant that the she had experience. Watching this female approach the coast, cautiously avoiding other bears, always keeping her cubs close, was a highlight of the adventure.

We all felt lucky on this trip, seeing upwards of a hundred polar bears, including females with one, two and three cubs. We also got a good look at a number of snow ptarmigan in winter plumage, arctic hares and even a gyrfalcon. You need a little luck on this adventure, as timing is everything. If you come too early, the bears have not yet arrived. Come too late, and the bay is frozen and the bears are gone. So you pick a date, and take your chances. "Freeze-up" happens at a different time each year, but usually around early to mid-November. Recent warm autumn seasons in northern Manitoba, however, have made bear season a little more difficult to predict.

In some ways, the bears are the coal-mine canaries of global warming. Just as the date of freezeup now comes a little later than before, the summer thaw comes a little earlier. Scientists from Polar Bear International, the non-profit agency that studies the creatures, estimate that the bears have lost three to four weeks of ice time in the past half century. At present, the polar bear population remains healthy, with western Hudson Bay numbers estimated at about 25,000animals. Further warming at the present rate, however, could present a grave problem to the bear population.

For now, this arctic wilderness remains the domain of the great bear. And in a few weeks, the lodge will be towed away, the buggies will head back to town, and the bears will disappear into the vast frozen world of Hudson Bay. The longer you stay, the more strongly you come to realize: this place belongs to the wildlife, not to us.

Getting There
The journey to Churchill, Manitoba, to watch the fall polar bear migration begins in the provincial capital of Winnipeg. Plan to spend a day or two exploring the city. From there Frontiers North offers a variety of ways to see the polar bear migration, including your choice of charter flight or rail journey to Churchill, and accommodations in town or out at the Tundra Buggy Lodge, or both. The number of visitors is limited to protect the bears, so some of the most popular opportunities may require reservations a year in advance. For more information on Winnipeg, and other wildlife-viewing opportunities in Churchill (including Beluga whales in summer), go to Travel Manitoba.

 


Comments

Polar Bear Tours

There are lots of options for polar bear viewing in Churchill. Natural Habitat Adventures also offers a lodge on the tundra, this one with private train-like cabins for each guest. Also on offer are trips where guests stay in town and go to the tundra daily. The web site is: www.nathab.com

Posted on December 11, 2008 - 4:35pm
by Visitor

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