The terrain changes from farmland to tundra during our two-night train ride from Winnipeg to Churchill. This small town on the Hudson Bay greets us with 30 degree Fahrenheit temperatures. “Welcome to balmy Churchill,” says Shannon, executive director of the Great Bear Foundation. “I’m so glad that you guys decided to take our Polar Bear Ecology Field Course!”
About ten of us pile into a yellow school bus. Rows of small bench seats bring back distant memories of school days. Off to our first polar bear class at the Churchill Northern Studies Center, whose mission is “to understand and sustain the north.”
Let’s head out into the field, tundra that is, and bounce along snowy, ice-covered roads to pursue our mission, which is simply to see polar bears.
Ever try to spot a polar bear in a snowstorm on a vast, unforgiving tundra? Well, it’s not as hard as you might think. At least not in this part of the world. Approximately 1,000 polar bears gather here each year and wait for the shores of the Hudson Bay to freeze. They need ice in order to hunt for ringed seals. Eating seals is crucial to their survival.
These magnificent creatures descended from Grizzly bears around 250,000 years ago. This time of year, their metabolism duplicates that of a hibernating bear, but they don’t sleep like one. They saunter around until the ice comes. That’s when polar bears come to life, as well as lose tolerance for such close presence of other bears.
Once we spot a bear, Frank, our trusty driver/guide/photographer/instructor, turns off the engine. Classmates jockey for position by the windows. “Hush!”
We try to be quiet, but have difficulty containing the oohs and aahs during our first sighting. However, we become pros during future sightings, where the only sound comes from clicking cameras.
Watching these bears, just being bears in their natural environment, puts tears in Mare’s eyes, while I’m paralyzed in awe.
Red foxes pounce on unsuspecting rodents under the snow, while constantly on the lookout for bears as well!
Polar bears that misbehave get sentenced to Polar bear jail. No kidding. A specially converted holding facility provides an alternative to killing a bear, who might happen to get too close to humans in the quest for food.
Bears who don’t respond to being “hazed away” are tranquilized with a dart, and then transported to a bear cell. They are held there without food, to avoid habituating them to humans. Nobody wants bears to associate humans with food.
Eventually, each bear is placed in a huge net and transported via helicopter many miles away to a place where ice has formed. Yes, they do have about a sixty percent recidivism rate – repeat offenders! Still, this is an excellent alternative to euthanizing bears whose only crime is to seek out and eat food in order to survive.
Let’s break things up with a dogsled ride. Dave Daley is the “big dog” at Wapusk Adventures. He loves each one of his dogs, and gets to know their strengths, psyche, and motivations. If a dog misbehaves, he bites it on the nose. Then he gives it positive reinforcement within a minute. Dave sleds us around the “Ididamile” track. What a thriller, as well as fun exercise for the run-loving dogs!
Once back onto the bus, a mother with two cubs shows herself in temperatures of 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
It’s starting to get more like polar bear weather around here. Hopefully, the ice will not take too long to form, as it seems to take longer each year.
As if seeing polar bears and foxes cavorting in the snow isn’t enough, how about finishing the evening with a grand showing of the Aurora Borealis? We live in a wonderful world. Thank you, Abundant Universe!
Thanks for sharing- great pictures of a place I’ll certainly never go.
You’re welcome, Alice. One of our greatest pleasures with this whole blog thing comes from sharing travel experiences with folks who don’t want to go, but are curious to see it! So, thank you!
Great story and pictures, so glad you were both able to come to Churchill with us!
Thanks, Frank. We’re so glad as well. I can see how you could devote so much of your life to this whole thing. This is one of those trips that will stay with us. You’re a darn good dorm mate too!
Giselle, yes! We were happy just to stare at the tundra. Weather conditions change dramatically, and you never know exactly what you might see.
OMG, this is wonderful. And really informative. Seriously. Bear jail? Makes total sense, esp the part about not wanting them to associate humans with food, as a provider or as the actual snack.
And as always, Mare has outdone herself with the photography. Would love to see her show these as a series somewhere.
Marti, if I were in bear jail, I’ll bet that you would sneak me a meal. Ha ha, humans as a snack. Perhaps I should apply for a grant to fund polar bear probation officers! Seriously, Marilynn has the magic eye.
For you, I would sneak in a cake with a metal file (and maybe other ingredients) baked into it.
Oooh what a fantastic adventure! Unfortunately I’m having problems loading the photos, but still. I can only imagine. And will try again. Thanks the vicarious thrills via the prose and photos.
You would love this place, Jill. Sorry about your loading problems, but honored to provide vicarious to a fellow traveler.
Very cool, Ron! Polar bear jail makes sense because as you say, they are just seeking food. Those bears are so majestic.
Did the guides say anything about the ice coming later in recent years?
Thank you, Jeff. Yes, ice arriving later was a common theme from most everybody. Still waiting for ice to come in from the rivers. Hopefully, by the end of November.
Totally beautiful, all the way around, Ma & Pa!
Love this article and pictures!
Thank you, Tammy!
awesome Ron and Mare! It was great being with you on the trip!
We totally enjoyed being with you guys as well. Also glad that you guys got the governor you wanted in Montana!
Stunning scenery and incredible pictures Ron! I need to figure out a way to visit Alaska.
Thank you, Jules & Verne. Yes, Alaska is calling you!
What a wonderful post ! I love the pictures of the polar bear and the sunrise is just gorgeous ! I wish you a happy new year !
Thank you so much, and yes, that is a magical tundra. Happy new year to you also!
Amazing pictures !!!!!!!! Lara
Thank you. That was one magical place!