The Polar Bears of Churchill, Manitoba
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!