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Irene's Adventures

Churchill, MB - Polar Bear Tour

CANADA | Sunday, 12 November 2017 | Views [210]

 Polar Bear

Christina's boys bought her a polar bear tour in Churchill, Manitoba for her 60th birthday and a group of her friends decided to tag along. The polar bear tour had been on my bucket list for a very long time, so this was the perfect opportunity. Our plane left at 6:00am, so it was a very early morning for us all.

Christina's 60th birthday 

Once on the Air North, our guides began to give everyone an education about polar bears and to explain what we were about to see and experience. First of all, we were not going to be on the tundra. Technically, tundra is the complete absence of trees. Ecotone still has some trees. It is the transition area between boreal and tundra.

 landscape

Then the naturalists had samples of claws from a ringed seal, a black bear, a grizzly bear, and a polar bear passed around the cabin of the plane. The ringed seal has very sharp claws, for scratching breathing holes through the ice. The black bear claw is about as long as the seal but fatter around, better designed for capturing prey and digging. The grizzly bear claw is much longer and better still adapted for hunting. The polar bear claw is shorter than the grizzly but longer and heavier than the black bear. It is more similarly hooked to the black bear but sharper than the grizzly. It is good for hunting as well as traction on the ice. The polar bear has much more fur on its feet. The padding on its feet are nearly covered in fur – necessary for keeping their feet from freezing.

 Grizzly & polar bear claws

A sample of polar bear fur was passed around. The hair is very long – longer than my fingers. The shorter hair next to the skin is not soft, as I expected, but very course. It reminded me of very thick quilt batting. A sample of ringed seal fur was also passed around. It was pretty much as expected, short and very very thick.

Lastly, a polar bear skull was passed around. It was huge. The teeth were about the size and length of my longest finger and sharp! Brian Keating, one of the naturalists and a National Geographic fellow, pointed out the larger than normal channel for the auditory nerve. Polar bears have very small ears, so as not to freeze, but above average hearing. They also have a keen sense of smell. They can smell a seal from 32 km away and from under 1 meter of snow. Seals will sometimes dig a breathing hole under a snow drift and create a kind of igloo. Polar bears will pounce through up to 2 meters of snow to capture the seal. Only female polar bears are collared for scientific research. The male's neck is thicker than his head and the collar would simply fall off. Polar bears have very long necks and a tapered head, which is perfect for sticking down into a seal air hole.

 Irene Cabay & polar bear skull

Polar bears are NOT carnivores. They are livabors. They eat fat. They will eat the fat off a seal but leave the meat. They convert the fat on a 1 to 1 conversion. For every kilo of fat they eat they put on one kilo of fat themselves. They will eat meat or anything else that is handy when they are hungry enough. There used to be a garbage dump in Churchill but the hungry bears used to rummage in the dump and eventually make their way into town. There is now a remarkable recycling program in place in Churchill to eliminate this dangerous problem.

Bears still make their way into town, however. At Halloween, volunteers patrol the streets with rifles to keep them safe for the Trick or Treaters. There are also rifles mounted above the driver on the school buses. A few years ago a lady was attacked by a polar bear. A man was out shoveling his walk and heard her screaming. He ran to her rescue and beat the bear with his shovel. He was mauled more than the woman. Both survived after others ran to the rescue with rifles. The man was awarded a medal for his bravery. This is not a town for wimps. There is always a 10:00 pm curfew.

rifle in school bus 

Problem bears are rounded up and put into Polar Bear Jail. When we were there, 5 bears were in jail. They had broken into 12 houses looking for food, mostly into garages where meat was hanging after a hunt. In jail, they are given water, but no food. This may seem harsh, but consider the bear's life. Unlike other bears that hibernate, polar bears take to the ice to hunt seals, beluga whales, or walrus during the winter. They hunt what they can during the winter, sitting by a breathing hole for up to 6 hours in hopes of catching a seal. Only one in 20 attempts is successful. It is when the ringed seals give birth that they can finally feast. The baby seals are plump balls of blubber and easy to catch. This is when the bears put on the fat they will need to survive the summer on land after the ice melts. When they come back to Churchill they can have as much as 6-8” of fat on them. Then they live off the fat but do not eat, hence not feeding them in jail. When the ice returns they are sedated, hauled out to the ice, then given something to reverse the sedation. In this way, they do not become reliant on humans.

 

The reason polar bears hang out in Churchill is because Hudson Bay freezes in the winter. As the cold begins to creep down from the north, the counter clockwise current of the Bay pushes the ice along the west side bank. There is an outcrop of land that acts as a barrier to the ice. Therefore, when winter approaches the ice gets hooked on the outcrop. In the spring, the reverse happens. The counter-clockwise current prevents the ice from floating further south. The bears follow the seal pups which sit on the ice and the ice stops at Churchill.

 

The females do not go into heat while on the ice in winter. Instead, they come in estrus on the land and only when the males start to mount them. Estrus would be a waste of time and energy on the ice. Each egg can be fertilized by a different male. However, the fertilized egg suspends itself until the female finds a den in the fall. The bred female does not go out onto the ice. She finds a den, at which time the fertilized egg attaches to the uterine wall and begins to grow. Sometime in February, she will give birth to blind, hairless, and toothless blobs that weigh less than a half kilo. When they are born, she holds them in her paws and breathes on them to keep them warm. This is absolutely remarkable since she has not eaten for months and undoubtedly hungry. Sometime in April, she will punch a hole through the snow of her den to let in cold outside air so the cubs begin to toughen up. In May she will take her babies out and lead them down to the water, where the seal pups are just beginning to be born. She can finally eat and feed her own babies. She, herself, must fatten up a lot in order to feed her cubs through the lean summer.

 

When the plane landed and we were hustled through the tiny airport and onto the waiting school buses to take us to the Tundra Buggies. There was a rifle mounted above the school bus driver. Once at the Tundra Buggies, we exited the school bus, took one step down onto the ground and immediately stepped up a through what reminded me of a cattle chute. There was a set of wooden steps with a wooden wall on either side. The steps lead up to a deck where we could walk directly onto the viewing platform of the 12' Tundra Buggy. The barricaded steps reminded me of something my brother-in-law once told us. He had been working in the Arctic. When a group of men entered the bunkhouse one evening the last fellow to enter didn't make it. A polar bear had snatched him as he was going up the steps. OK, then...

 

The buggy was huge. The buggy itself was twice as wide as a city bus. There were double seats on either side with large windows that opened for good picture taking. The aisle was about 2 meters wide, wide enough to stand up, walk around, enjoy a coffee or hot chocolate that was served up by the driver whenever we stopped. He also served up hot soup and a variety of sandwiches. There was a bathroom in the back, too.

 Tundra Buggy

Everyone had to be seated while we were in motion. The roads were left over from the military presence during WWII and later as a training installation. The idea was it was it was similar to Russian terrain and a good place to train during the Cold War. Today, research scientist utilize former military facilities and roads. With the ground being boggy, the frost heaves had the roads terribly rough. The driver did not accelerate much at all. At the end of the day, the driver had Christina drive the buggy a short distance along a straight and relatively smooth section as a birthday surprise. He gave her the birthday card that everyone on the plane had signed that morning while we all sang her Happy Birthday. She later told me the five foot tires made it really hard to steer.

 Tundra Buggy

There are very few trees – either small shrubs or scrawny spruce trees. The spruce trees are stripped bare on the northern side due to the harsh winds. Due to the cold, the snow is not soft and fluffy but more crystallized, like sugar. When the wind blows, which is nearly all the time, it is like a sand blasting on the tree. Only the very bottom few branches survive the perimeter of the tree because those branches get covered with snow and protected from the wind.

cold ecotone

It took us about an hour to reach the Tundra Lodge. The Lodge looks like a train sitting out in the middle of nowhere. One can rent accommodations and watch polar bears from the comfort of the sleeping car, dining car, or viewing platform. It is super expensive, costing about $6500 for a 3 night stay plus a day on either end in Winnipeg. (Northern Lights stays cost $5300 for 4 night stay + 2 nights in Winnipeg.) This is a guaranteed place to see polar bears because the smell of food from the Lodge attracts them.

polar bear hotel

Everyone was awestruck to see a huge male just waking up from behind a small shrub. He rolled around like a dog, wiggling his back into the snow and swinging his feet into the air. Even from the distance we were from him we all amazed at the size of his feet. They were the size of a large pizza! He got up and shook the snow off himself, similar to a dog out of water. It was like a small blizzard as the snow flew off.

Polar Bear

He must have smelled a vole under the snow because he gave a pounce. Finding nothing he then sniffed the air from our direction. It gave me a weird feeling. Does he smell us?? Then I realized we were between him and the Lodge. He slowly started walking in our direction. I stopped using the zoom feature on my camera. He was filling the lens! He came directly to the back of our buggy before turning slightly to go under the buggy behind us. Everyone who was out on the viewing platform quickly went back into the buggy to get better pictures out the side windows of the buggy.

Polar Bear

He went up to the lodge and sat on his haunches like a dog waiting for a treat. Then he stood up. He made the 5 foot tires look car size. A woman was in the lodge, looking down at the bear. The bear stood up and sniffed up at her. Had she reached out the window she could have touched him. If he had reached up he could have touched her!

notice woman in window

He found a piece of foam insulation from between the lodge cars, snatched it away, and began chewing on it. Eating the foam insulation can be fatal. A large dune buggy looking machine came from around the Lodge and scared the bear. He dropped the insulation and ran away. A man drove beside the dropped insulation and very quickly jumped out of the buggy to retrieve it.

bear with foam insulation

We had our soup and sandwiches for lunch before going to a different location. We were going across the ice and I asked the driver how deep the ice was. He said the thickness of the ice is not the problem, it is the softness of the slough beneath it. He pointed out a rough patch of ice where he said he had gone down a few days prior. Once in the mud beneath the ice, he was completely stuck. He called for another buggy to help pull him out. That buggy also went through the ice and got stuck. A third buggy was called, but after assessing the situation called for a fourth buggy. Two buggies hooked up to a single buggy in order to pull him out. Then repeated the process for the second buggy. The situation gets rather dangerous because while stuck the back of the 12-foot buggy is now only 4 feet off the ice and easily accessible to bears. Hooking up the huge tow-straps, that every buggy carries, is also dangerous because, again, you are accessible to wandering hungry bears. (Even though bears are livobors, they are nearly starving and will, therefore, eat anything.)

Our second bear was sleeping behind some shrubs and seemed completely oblivious to us. While we were having a hot chocolate, the bear awoke and was playing with a willow branch very much like a small child plays with his toes. After a while, the bear seemed to be annoyed by us watching him and he slowly wandered away.  His fur insulated his body so well, that there was no half melted snow where he had been sleeping.

polar bear yoga

Off in the distance was a mother bear with two yearling cubs. We were told the cubs weighed about 100 pounds and were the size of a large German Shepard dog. They were playfully wrestling each other on their hind legs, like a boxing match. We kept our distance so as not to stress the mother out. She had to survive the lean summer while feeding these two huge babies. Her fat reserves were stretched to the limit.

Polar Bear with one year old cubs

Considering this is northern Canada in winter, the days are very short and it was time to head back to the Buggy Barn. Although it had been cloudy all day, the clouds disappeared late in the afternoon to give us a most spectacular sunset. The ice crystals in the air created a light column while the sun cast a pink hue to the blue ice.

sunset

From the Buggy Barn, caught another school bus into the town of Churchill. Whereas other towns may have signs warning of deer crossing on the roads, Churchill had signs cautioning to look out for bears. We were told we had an hour to browse through the 3 available gift shops before being picked up at the hotel. The bus driver dropped us at the northern most part of the street so we at least had the bitterly cold wind at our backs as we made our way through the shops and back to the hotel.

­

The town used to have a train service to bring supplies, groceries, heating fuel and tourists. The rail got washed out in the summer. The winter heating fuel had to be brought in by barge before Hudson's Bay froze for the winter. I asked what happens if they run out. I got a shrug and troubled look as a reply. Groceries and other supplies will be flown in. There is a debate as to whether the rail line will be repaired or not. Some feel it is not economically feasible. Others say it will be repaired because it is the life-line to the community. That said, a lot of the tour people we talked to said that as soon as this polar bear tourist season is finished, they will be heading to warmer places. They will return next season. The town used to have 5000 people, they are down to 600. My feeling is, as long as there is an airport people will continue to come for the tours. The research people will also fly in with their equipment or have it barged in, ready for winter. There will be tourist facilities and maybe the odd die-hard local to run them. There is also talk of an ice road, but the locals don't think it is viable as the frost would wreck havoc with them, making them impassable.

The plane ride back to Edmonton was festive. Everyone was still on a polar bear high. The naturalists summed up things we had seen. Things suddenly made more sense after actually seeing the bears. One of the naturalists had enlarged photos for sale of bears and birds that he had taken earlier that week. I bought a nice 5x7 of a bear walking, similar to what I had taken my own picture of earlier that day. The airline was passing out free wine and could hardly keep up with the demand while they served us a delicious hot meal. Brian Keating told the steward to hand him the bottles and he began pouring wine to whoever raised their glass. It might have been against airline protocol but it certainly made for a jovial and fast journey. We landed in Edmonton at 8:00 pm. I am sure everyone went home wondering, as I did, if this day really happened, or was it all a wonderful dream.

Polar Bear 

 

 

 

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