yduJ visits Polar Bears

Several years ago, some friends of ours went on a trip to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada to see polar bears, and when they returned, they raved about the trip. Since I like to go on interesting vacations, I put it on my list of places to go eventually. The last two or three years, we have been going on trips to warm climates, and on one of them, Ken complained of the heat and said he wanted to go somewhere cold soon, so I said "let's plan that trip to Churchill, then!" We got the relevant information from our friends about the tour company they had used, along with some more pep talks, and we started checking into the situation.

Most polar bears spend their entire lives on the polar ice cap, hunting seals. However, the southernmost polar bears live on Hudson's Bay, which melts in the summer. So these bears end up on land sometime in July when the ice breaks up. They can't really make any kind of a living on land, and so mostly they live off their stored fat, waiting for the ice to freeze again, which it does sometime in mid-November. It turns out that for various reasons of currents in the bay, the waters near Churchill freeze first, and basically the polar bears all know this, so they spend their summer slowly migrating towards Churchill (slowly, so as to conserve their energy), thus there is a high concentration of bears available for tourists to gawk at there in October and early November.

Churchill itself is a small town which has had various military bases and seaport activities over its history, and which currently houses about 800 people year-round. During the six-week bear season, more people show up to feed, clothe, house, and guide tourists. Then, of course, there are the tourists themselves.

This is "the good bits" version -- I wrote a lot more in which I whined about our particular tour operators.

Upon arrival in Churchill after a stopover in Winnipeg, we had lunch and the "ten cent tour" of Churchill. It's not very big place -- a 10 cent tour is about what it's worth :-) We then had a couple of hours of free time before dinner, but we weren't exactly sure what we wanted to do with this time. We did end up looking at a few souvenir stores, and walking out to the seaport, where there is a huge grain storage and processing facility -- a lot of Manitoba's grain is shipped via Hudson's Bay through the port of Churchill, first getting there by rail (there are no roads that go to Churchill -- only rail). Then there was dinner and an evening slide show and orientation of what we could expect to see the next day.

The bus picked us up at 8 a.m., and delivered us to the tundra buggies about half an hour later. I've been describing the tundra buggies as "shark cages on wheels" and also as "whale watch boats on land". They are constructed by starting with a frame from a used fire truck. They have monster truck tires which are very low pressure, with the hope that they will reduce impact on the tundra. In fact, they pretty much tear up the tundra, but they don't just drive willy-nilly, but rather stick to standard routes, and since they only go about 5-10 miles an hour, they really only can reach about 20 square miles total, which is a pretty small percentage of the tundra. On top of the frame is basically a bus, although it is wide bodied, which is convenient, having a very wide aisle between the rows of seats, for wandering back and forth without banging into your fellow passengers. The windows open, but they caution you not to stick your head out when a bear is very close (mostly we ignored this advice, since the bears were considerably below us.) Behind the bus part of the tundra buggy was an open-air platform (at the same floor level as the rest of it) with a 4 ft. wall surrounding it, so that you could get a better view than through the windows. Since we were to be on the bus for 8 hours, there was also a porta-potty.

So, they drove out onto the tundra, bouncing us very high as they went over ruts and rocks. Shortly, we came upon a bear! Everyone was all very excited, and many pictures were taken. In fact, there was a bit of bear interaction, because a female with two cubs was approaching this mostly sedentary bear, and he had to take notice of this and decide whether or not she was going to cause him trouble, and he decided to get up and leave as a result. Mostly, the bears don't like each other. They are in much closer proximity to each other in the tundra around Churchill as they wait for the ice to freeze than they will be out on the ice later in the winter. While we were snapping pictures, the tundra buggy actually turned off its engine, so it did not behave like most people in cars do, leaving their cars idling for hours while they sit around in a parking lot. I was pleased at this small show of environmentalism. After a while, we started back up and headed off to look for more bears.

We saw about 20 bears each day, in varying configurations. The females are always accompanied by cubs, usually two, in rare cases one. Cubs are either ten months old, or one-year and ten months old. This year's cubs are very very cute, and look somewhat like large dogs. Last year's cubs are much more bear like, and almost as big as Mom. She will chase them off in the spring when it's time to mate again, and then they will have to make it on their own (this is a time of high bear mortality -- until they get good enough at hunting). Males wander around individually, and when they chance upon another male, they may stage some sort of mock battle, or one of them may just shamble the other way (running being too much work at this stage of hunger). We did see a couple of males reared up on their hind legs batting at each other, but they really didn't have their heart in it, as they would sit back down and stare at each other for several minutes before trying again (during which time we mostly got bored and drove off to another location). We saw one pair that we first thought was a mother and last year's cub, but since they were too close in size, we decided it might be a sibling pair of adolescent bears -- ones who were chased off a year or so ago, but are sticking together for increased survival chances. Apparently this is fairly common, until they reach puberty and then can't stand each other. Often, the bears we saw were asleep. It's fairly amazing how little cover is required to camouflage a white sleeping bear on the snow. We would often be slowly driving through the tundra when someone would say there's a bear over there, and it would take a while before everyone had actually spotted it.

One place there were always bears was at the tundra buggy camp. In addition to offering these daily tours like we took, one could sign up to spend the night out on the tundra, in a bunk house that was a set of converted tundra buggies. The reason there were always bears around this camp is that they cook food there, and so it smells good to the bears (even though they aren't cooking seals). The guides make somewhat of a big deal about "not changing the behavior of the bears", but this polar bear camp kind of gives the lie to that. On the other hand, it doesn't really seem to be that bad of a thing, as the bears are obviously just hanging around bored anyway, and so they're happy to have tundra buggies to investigate, and as soon as the ice freezes they take off for a healthy, man-free winter environment.

Tundra buggies have in common with whale watch boats that when one buggy finds a bear, the other buggies come running to see what it has found. So, in addition to watching bears, we got to watch a lot of people watching bears. This was especially true at the tundra buggy camp, where we hung out for well over an hour to eat lunch in the company of the camp, many other buggies, and ten bears. The next day, when the buggy driver suggested eating lunch at the camp, since we hadn't seen quite as many bears yet as the first day, some of us complained that we would rather have lunch in a quiet unpopulated area even if it had fewer bears, so we went to the beach, where we watched eider ducks swimming around in the water, and we had the beach to ourselves (at least until another tundra buggy decided we must have something and came to hang out with us.)

There isn't much other life on the tundra, at least that's a big enough to see from a tundra buggy. The other thing that we saw during the daytime was a bird called the ptarmigan, which is almost pure white, and mostly sits very still on the snow, which makes for difficult seeing. We managed to take one picture of a ptarmigan on top of a rock, so you can actually see it. We also took a picture of the tundra, and in theory there are some ptarmigan in it, but I haven't been able to find them.

In the evenings, they offered optional activities. One we enjoyed was a talk given by a Metis woman about her life. The Metis are mixed breed (the word means mixed in French, and has the French pronunciation) of native peoples and Europeans. Naturally, with the Hudson's Bay company bringing lots of European men to Canada, they ended up taking wives from the native peoples, and having kids. These people ended up with their own culture which was different from either the natives or the Europeans. I don't quite understand the whole sociology of it. However, this woman, Myrtle, grew up in a small town in northern Saskatchewan, one of 12 children. Their family did trapping for living, and also lived off the land. The trapping was really just to buy things that couldn't be produced locally. She told us all kinds of interesting stories about how the trap line worked, the things that they ate (muskrat tails? Doesn't sound appealing to me!), and various ways that the European influence was maintained -- for example they went to a Catholic school (trudging five miles through the snow :-) I don't know how much of this "living off the land" lifestyle still exists in these days of modern technology -- Churchill even has Internet connectivity (although I didn't actually login from there -- I thought about it, though).

Our third full day in Churchill started out with the $3 tour of Churchill. There were actually some interesting things that we learned on the tour, but it was three hours in one of those ubiquitous buses, driving half a block, stopping, idling, and having the bus driver tell us "and that's the house that was built in 1947 by this crazy guy". There was about one hour's worth of actually interesting material on the tour -- it's not just that Churchill is completely boring. We got to stop off at a place where there were a bunch of sled dogs, and go down the line and pet them all. And we got to see that Churchill really is kind of boring, and the local thing to do is to put graffiti all over the rocks of the tundra near town. They think they're making history -- it kind of seems a little ugly to me, but of course there is a lot of tundra and the graffiti is mostly confined to one area. If the city were one of many thousands of people, it would quickly get out of hand. Indeed, a lot of environmentally poor activities don't really do much harm, except that there are too many people, and so in aggregate they cause harm. But, up in the north of Canada, there just aren't very many people, and so they get away with it.

One stop we had on the tour was at the "polar bear jail". We didn't get to go in and admire the inhabitants. The way this works is that any bear which is found in town, or trapped by the "have a heart" style traps surrounding the town, gets transported to the jail (the traps are conveniently located on a trailer already, and so it's pretty easy to just tow it to jail). The jail is a converted old Quonset hut, and it holds 25 bears. Since the bears are not generally eating while they wait for the ice to freeze anyway, they aren't fed. The basic idea is to make jail be an unpleasant experience, to encourage the bear to think that town is just not interesting. When the ice freezes, they take the bears out to the bay, and release them, and the bears think "ice! just what we need!", and disappear out onto it. If they end up with more than 25 bears in jail, we get the "revolving door justice system" and the earliest bear in gets airlifted 40 kilometers north, with the hopes that it will not come back. If it returns, it gets another stay in jail, and if it returns a third time (just that year), that's "three strikes you're out", and usually they are placed in a zoo. Of course, in order to tell if the same bear has been back, they need a system of tagging the bears, which they have. Basically, any bear which gets tranquilized for any reason, gets tagged and various information logged. For a while, people used to go out in helicopters and tag bears. I don't know if they are still doing this, but it was quoted that 80% of the bears in the Churchill area have been tagged at one time or another. So they know quite a lot about the average ages and health of bears, by tracking them for years. (Bears live for about 20 years.)

Earlier I said that there were no roads to Churchill, but this has not always been true. The bus driver told us that while they were putting in the power lines to Churchill from the hydroelectric plants in the south of Manitoba, they needed a road. So they built one -- out of ice! It only lasted for the winter, and then it melted. This construction technique is apparently fairly common near the arctic.

We bought our collection of T-shirts and went to the Eskimo museum with our afternoon. The Eskimo museum had quite the interesting collection of artwork. Most of it was not aboriginal stuff, but was fairly modern themes done in a traditional style. E.g. cribbage boards and chess sets! They also had some stuffed and mounted animals, which was of course the closest we actually got to a polar bear.

This evening we had our third and final tundra buggy ride. Because it gets dark at night, it's hard to see stuff. Duh! So we had a large spotlight to shine on the tundra. (What's this about not intruding on nature?) We saw a couple of sleeping bears on our way out, and then we saw our first fox! It was fairly far away from the buggy, and small, and it was clearly on a mission. We watched for several minutes as it ran down a ravine. Foxes are very different from bears, because they are not just hanging around waiting for something, but they are living their lives. They are constantly in motion. Darting this way and that, stopping briefly to check out the roots of a tree, moving quickly when they have someplace to go. We watched until it was out of sight. Then the buggy ambled onward. While we were stopped for dinner, another fox graced us with its presence. This one came very close to us (although unlike the bears, it was not at all interested in the buggy), and so we got to take pictures and generally admire its antics. It didn't seem to care that we were shining a spotlight on it, but just went about its business, digging in the snow (looking for lemmings), dashing from one spot to another, and even once making an amazing leap straight up into the air (we theorize that it was trying to break into some crusty snow by throwing its weight at it.) Foxes are only about 10 pounds, and they looked like miniature bears (white and dog shaped), except for having a tail, which is very short on the bears. This fox that we were watching stayed with us for about 20 minutes, while we took pictures (ours did not come out at all well) and generally watched the show.

Our final adventure was to be a helicopter tour of the tundra the next morning. We figured when we were signing up for this trip that we were already spending so much money, the extra $300 for the helicopter was in the noise. The helicopter seats six: pilot and one passenger out in the nice big bubble in front, and four passengers in seats in a compartment behind the pilot, two facing frontward, and two facing rearward. Ken and I and another couple from our tour were scheduled on this trip, and one of our guides deadheaded in the fifth seat. We flipped for who was going to get to sit in the seat up front to start -- Ken won. I managed to score one of the front facing seats in the rear compartment. I had been in a helicopter once before, but it was a two-seater, and so I had been up front with the pilot, which is vastly superior. Of course, it was cold outside, and so the windows steamed up, despite a defrost air stream, and there just wasn't very much surface area to look through. We flew at about 100 feet above the ground, and about 100 miles an hour. Ken and the pilot could see, and they would sometimes point out that there were bears, and then maybe those of us in the back could get a glimpse of those bears also. Mostly I remember looking at the shallow bay waters that we were traveling over directly below us. After some time, we set down on top of a little rise, and swapped people around. One of the other folks got the front seat, and I ended up volunteering to sit facing backwards. This was a mistake -- while I hadn't really had any motion sickness problems before, despite the cramped quarters, I began to when facing backwards. (Then again, perhaps it wasn't a mistake -- Ken probably would have actually thrown up, while I just felt mildly bad.) We set down once again, all the way out on the edge of Cape Churchill, and swapped around again, and this time I got the good seat. All in all, I didn't think this was worth anything resembling the $300 we had paid. Certainly being in the back of the helicopter was much worse than being on a tundra buggy, and being in the front seat wasn't all that much better. We got to see something like 15-20 bears, and Ken saw a fox. However, mostly the bears were scared of the helicopter, and started to run away from it, and so the pilot would take us away from them, so as not to irritate the bears too much. Those that were not scared of us, we didn't stick around for very long to observe, while on the buggy we would have stopped and taken photos for 10 minutes. Also, the pilot had to do all kinds of swerving maneuvers in order to allow those in the back to see the bears, which no doubt exacerbated motion sickness. (I suppose this paragraph actually belongs in the whining version :-)

So there we were, still in Churchill, with about four hours before our plane. A little last-minute T-shirt purchasing (I bought five!), and then I noticed that it was snowing, and the snow was "perfect snowman snow", and I decided that I would leave Churchill with a minor work of art, which I added to a local park. My snowmen are very traditional, and not very well decorated, but it was fun to build it. What I want to know now, is, did it melt? Or did it last the winter? I think, if the proprietors of our motel were native English speakers, that I would call them up and ask!

I brought home with me information on planning your own trip, so that anybody else who wants to try it will have a better starting place than I did. If I get really energetic, I will try to scan in some pictures as well.