Monthly Archives: November 2008

Learning About Polar Bears With Ian Stirling

Mid-way through our stay in Churchill we discovered that Ian Stirling was coming to town and would be giving a lecture on polar bears and climate change the night we were scheduled to return home.  This was one of those moments you’re thrilled that your train is 7 hours delayed! Ian Stirling is a renowned scientist who has been studying polar bears and Arctic ecology for more than 30 years.  Thanks to train delays, we were able to attend Ian’s lecture.  When Ian saw Chuck in the audience he told a story about how Chuck once led him into a bear den… while the bear was still in the den.

Here are some video clips (2 parts) of the lecture.  These are some general facts about polar bears, their reproductive cycles, and their place in the food chain.  

Ian Stirling Lecture Part 1

[Youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXfw2G9-_3U]

Ian Stirling Lecture Part 2

Videos: Hanging Out With Polar Bears

These videos were taken during our second to last polar bear outing.  Prior to this day, it was 20-30 degrees Fahrenheit which was too warm for the ice to form and move to the shore of The Hudson Bay. Polar bears rely on this ice so they can go out and hunt. Thankfully, as we were leaving Churchill a cold storm moved in.  Locals were enthusiastic and hopeful that this storm would finally bring the ice to shore so the bears could eat. The bear’s hunting season is getting shorter each year – the ice shelf forming later and breaking up an average of 2-3 weeks earlier than it used to. 

The first video shows a polar bear seemingly walking with a destination in mind, but he stops for a playful time out before continuing on his way.  

The next video shows a bear shielding himself during a windstorm and 19 degrees below temperatures!

We only saw one mother bear with a cub during our trip.  And days when we saw 8 bears, we should have seen 20-30 bears according to Dr. Jonkel (“Chuck”) who has been leading this trip for 25 years. Chuck made sure we understood this is not a good sign.  It’s not only further evidence that the polar bear population is decreasing, but indicates that reproduction is decreasing as well. 

So, what can we do? That’s coming next!

Learning How To Talk Arctic

Several people have asked where I was, geographically, during the polar bear trip.  It’s hard for most people to picture how far North we were. Our location in Churchill, Manitoba (on the Hudson Bay) is important because this is where the ice forms earliest.  The bears rely on the formation of the ice shelf so they can go out and hunt.  So the bears come here first to await the formation of the sea ice.  It’s also important because there are some pending international decisions that affect this region. Here’s a map to give a better sense of where we were and how this plays into foreign policy that affects the polar bears:

Churchill, Manitoba

Churchill, Manitoba

On the evening of November 12th, following a day of Arctic adventure and spotting bears, Dr. Charles Jonkel (“Chuck”) taught us about the relevance of where we were sitting and some critical changes and decisions that will affect the polar bears.  

Chuck explained that the Polar Basin is actually quite small.  We need to do more than we’re doing now to preserve the ecology here. We need to increase awareness and let people know how to impact positive change. The polar bear is particularly vulnerable. It’s a rare example of a terrestrial animal that lives on a food source under the ice – the ringed seal.  The polar bear is an animal that depends on 2 totally different environments to survive, which makes it vulnerable in 2 ways: threats to its environment and threats to the environment of its food chain. 

Chuck spoke about the crucial stretch of the Northwest Passage, which was blocked for 65,000- 100,000 years with old ice, unusable.  About 15 years ago Americans discovered the Northwest Passage. Canada claims the Northwest Passage (including Hudson Bay) belongs to them, but this is in dispute with other countries that border these waters including America and Russia.  The ice in the Northwest Passage melted out 3 summers ago, bringing Asia and North America 2,000-4,000 miles closer (because now we can cut straight through, instead of having to go around).  This will have a huge impact on shipping industries, importing and exporting.  Now there’s major money involved and countries are battling over this region. There are no treaties  governing the area yet, but they will be written and countries will be fighting for control.  It’s important that we understand the politics at play here because the countries that border this region will have tremendous impact on the Arctic ecology (for better or worse). 

Other information Chuck shared with us during this lecture are: 

  • It’s harder for bears to get to their food source (seals) in Alaska now. Cubs and moms can’t swim 100-125 miles.  Jonkel thinks it’s possible there will be no more bears in Alaska in 5 years.
  • The bear population is decreasing in Churchill as well.  10 years ago we would have seen 35 bears today.  We saw bears today, but not 35 (approx 8).
  • Last June Russia started drilling off-shore.  They hired a company to teach them how to do it (“a non-conscious French company”). They turned down an offer from Chevron who was trying to teach them responsible ways to drill.  Instead, they’re working with people who are not concerned about protecting the ecology.
  • Fishing boats are coming in and competing with the polar bear’s foodchain.  Millions of dollars are involved in shipping areas so there’s going to be a big fight if we want to regulate this to help preserve the environment. 
  • Greenland is 5 times as big as Montana, with 2 miles thick of ice.  The ice is melting.  Greenland controls what happens with continental glaciacian.  We’re at the tail end of the 4th continental ice age. There could be a 5th one.  Greenland is functioning as a thermostat – could trigger a 5th ice age. 

Chuck suggested we continue to learn about this region and pending policies that impact it.  He prompted us to write letters to the Russian and Canadian governments.  If nothing else, LEARN about it. Chuck said the reason he was “teaching us to talk Arctic” is because when people hear something they don’t understand, they tend to tune it out.  He wants us to be familiar with the region, the terminology, the animal and plant life so that we can participate in the discussion. 

Filling In The Blanks – More Arctic Adventures

 

November 16, 2008

We’ve just begun the long journey home.  We’re currently on hour 8 of our 29-hour train ride.  There are so many details and stories that didn’t get covered in the previous blog entries. 

Dr. Charles Jonkel and Me, Missoula Montana Nov 18

Dr. Charles Jonkel and Me, Missoula Montana Nov 18

 

One thing that’s clear is that we’ve all become family. It was evident when we joined another group of individual travelers on a tour the other day. Our group entered and immediately the woman from Polar Bears International said, “you guys have really been traveling together. You’re yelling at each other (in a fun way), teasing, laughing, and so comfortable together.” And when we boarded the train late last night I looked around at the few of us who have become a micro-family and said, “we’re gonna miss each other. “ Brandon replied, “Yeah, I didn’t think it would be possible.” And everybody laughed. He went on to explain that when he met everyone initially he thought, “ok, cool. They’re all right.”  But as we spent the week together, in crazy travel circumstances, and experiencing the world of polar bears, we truly became family.  That, of course, includes the whacky aunt and occasional person yu wish hadn’t married into the family. But everybody’s unique personality is what made the group dynamic work. 

The other thing that’s unique about this trip and supports that “family” dynamic is that we ate every meal together. I’m not sure how many families do that anymore, but it’s a powerful reminder of how important that time is.  We ate in a dining room, no TVs, no computers, no cell phones (they wouldn’t have worked anyway) – just people sharing their experiences, making each other laugh, and racing each other to the best desserts. 

Looking for tundra berries in the snow

Looking for tundra berries in the snow

 

Anyway, more about our adventures in Churchill: There was one day when the weather wasn’t conducive to seeing polar bears.  It was snowing, with 30 mph winds and near white out conditions.  When the weather gets like this, the bears hunker down and sleep, conserving energy and hoping that the cold front is enough to bring on the sea ice. Now, if the polar bears think it’s a good idea to curl up and sleep all day, you’d think the people may follow their cue.  But no, we’re a little bit nuts and Chuck took us out for a walk in the forest.  We dug down through about 2 feet of snow to find tundra berries and other vegetation.  It was 9 degrees below zero and pretty damn cold.  But Chuck wanted us to learn about the vegetation, what the Arctic critters eat and how they gather their food through the snow. This past year saw a plentiful production of berries and a lot of snow.  So, instead of being buried under the permafrost, where the animals couldn’t reach them, there are plenty of berries accessible this season. That’s good news for the terrestrial animals of the Arctic.

Kelly playing in the snow

Kelly playing in the snow

 

It seemed like we were the only people crazy enough to be outside in this weather. The roads were empty. There was a moment when I’m sure everybody was re-considering why we were outside instead of sipping hot chocolate back at the research center.  But before you can even verbalize that thought, you remember that you traveled to the Arctic – you didn’t come here for hot chocolate and warm weather. And at that moment, everybody started falling backwards into the snow.  It’s an amazing feeling to know you can fall safely backwards and not get hurt. In fact, you didn’t even feel the impact of the fall.  It was just poof and then outbursts of giggling all around. 

 

More to come soon, including: Ian Stirling lecture, video of a polar bear at play, and some simple things we can all do to help the polar bears.  In the meantime, here are a couple more pictures

 

Roads were empty except for our crazy group

Roads were empty except for our crazy group

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arctic puppies play with snow balls!

Arctic puppies play with snow balls!

 

 

 

Packed up for the return home

Packed up for the return home

 

Living The Dream: Sharing Ice With Polar Bears

 

Polar bear resting on ice

Polar bear resting on ice

This journey to the Arctic began with a powerful dream about a polar bear. In my dream, I was face to face with a polar bear, on the Arctic ice.  Well, today I was face to face with several polar bears (23 to be exact).  It was breathtaking. I had to keep reminding myself that I was here and they were here. This wasn’t a National Geographic program or a film – I was literally on the ice, with the polar bears. 

Today we were much closer to the bears than we have been in the past. We watched them build “day beds” in the snow, where they could shield themselves from the wind and rest. We saw them eat kelp, which we learned provides the bears with salt and water, but isn’t very efficient due to the amount of calories it burns to process it (and bears need to hold onto their calories). We saw them lying side-by-side. 

 

Bear in Day Bed

Bear in Day Bed

Today was the coldest day of our week in Churchill.  It was -9F and -23F with windchill.  Most of the bears were conserving energy.  The bears can’t hunt until the sea ice comes to shore and unfortunately that hasn’t happened yet. The bears know they need to hold onto their calories so that they have a reserve until they can go back out and hunt again.  I asked Chuck how this differs from 15 years ago.  He said that 15 years ago, at this time of year, all the bears would have been 20-30 miles out on the ice, hunting.  They’d stay there all season and come back to shore as the sea ice breaks up in Spring.  However, due to climate change, the sea ice now rolls in with the wind for a day, the bears go out and try to hunt, and then have to come back to shore before the pieces of ice go back out to sea. There was one day before we arrived when the bears were out on the ice all day (and nobody saw them).  But there hasn’t been any sea ice since we’ve been here and the bears are hungry and tired.

 

Arctic Hare sheltered by a rock

Arctic Hare sheltered by a rock

We also saw an Arctic hare – the first one of the trip. It was hard to see him in the white snow, sheltered behind a carefully selected rock.  Arctic hares have an average life-span of 2 to 3 years. We spent the entire day on the tundra, watching the animals in their natural habitat. 

There’s a lot more to share and many, many more photos, but it’s time for our evening lecture/lesson so I must sign off.  

Tomorrow we begin the 4-day journey home and I’ll be without internet access most of the way.  But I’ll post more blogs when we return! 

In the meantime, you can view some more pictures here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=44304&l=d9334&id=508093336

and here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=44306&l=5452a&id=508093336

Update on Polar Bears and Dogs

 

Bear looking right at me

Bear looking right at me

Last night I abruptly finished blogging so I could join a group for a night cap. My intention was to continue with details and stories from the day, but you’ll recall I’m hanging out people who do not understand why I’m spending “so much time on the computer.”  When I remind them why I’m sharing these stories, they ease up a bit.  But when you mix whisky with mountain people, this city girl doesn’t stand a chance – there are no excuses that will suffice not to join them.

 

It’s a good thing I did join the group though.  Aside from a lot of laughs and stories, we learned some additional news about the polar bears and dogs we saw “playing” yesterday. It turns out that at least one of the dogs was killed during the encounter and several others may have been injured. It’s important to tell this part of the story because it’s the part nobody wants to talk about.  People want to do what I did last night and share the “cute dog and bear pictures.”  And many people probably aren’t aware of the full story. Thankfully, I’m traveling with scientists and people who know this community well and were able to educate us further about what had happened.  So here’s the story:

There’s a man in Churchill, Brian Ladoon, who owns a large piece of property that he keeps fenced in.  He charges people to take them on his property to see polar bears.  How does he guarantee there will be bears on the property?  Well, he also keeps sled dogs on the property and I’m told he leaves excessive food out for the dogs. The left-over food attracts the hungry bears, so there are typically quite a few bears in the area.  In fact, while we never paid to go on his property (and never would) we’ve looked over the gate and seen bears here. The two sleeping bears were on his property, as well as the mom and cub we saw traversing the tundra to get to the property. 

Last night I spoke with several scientists who saw the interaction we did and here’s what they believe happened: the mom and cub came onto the property to get the food. They knew the food was there and they knew the dogs – they were clearly heading straight that direction and continued on their way as soon as they got the food.  When the dogs barked and tried to guard the food, the mom wanted to protect her cub, so she pounced on them or tapped them with a paw. Everyone I spoke with agrees the bear had no intention of killing the dogs – she could have done that easily. She was merely trying to get food and protect her cub. In terms of what a bear can do, she was relatively gentle with the dogs, but it only takes one swipe of the paw for a bear to kill or severely injure an animal the size of a dog.  Once she got her food, the mom and cub continued on their path and left the area.  

I’m happy to have learned this and to be able to share it with you. There have previously been several stories and pictures circulating online that show dogs and bears as “friends.” While the bear didn’t intentionally hurt the dogs, they’re not friends either. They’re animals sharing space, struggling to survive with limited resources.  Evidently the organizations in Churchill are aware of the many problems caused by this man who is luring the bears onto his property, but they’ve yet to do anything about it.  It’s a very small town and many people speculate that the man who owns the property is either a friend or a relative of people who work at the institutions who are supposed to regulate this. So it’s a political, turn-the-other-cheek game as opposed to stopping this activity. 

Other information that was shared with me last night:

  • Most of the sled dog companies here lose no more than 1-2 dogs per year (usually due to the elements or illness).  The man who owns that property for “bear tours” loses an average of 20 dogs per year — all due to bear attacks. 
  • Brian Ladoon (who owns the property) claims to run a humane dog breeding business.  Yet, his dogs are compromised daily by his polar bear practices
  • People are not supposed to feed the bears. If you’re caught feeding a bear, you will be arrested and fined. Essentially, Brian feeds the bears daily by leaving excessive food out “for the dogs.”

Here’s what I know from my experience in Churchill:

  • If you want to see polar bears, you do NOT need to pay some guy to go on his property.  The bears live here and you can typically see quite a few every day, roaming the Hudson Bay area.  They sometimes come into town or down to the Northern Studies Center (where we’re staying).  But they’re almost always visible along the shoreline of the Bay. This is one of the places with the highest concentration of bears anywhere in the world.
  • So if you do come here, please do NOT give that man business
  • An alternative to see more bears is to take a Tundra Buggy tour. This is controversial as well due to negative impact on the environment and socializing of the bears. However, there are a couple tour companies who come HIGHLY recommended by bear conservationists and scientists.  These companies are committed to minimizing environmental impact and teaching people about the bears (as opposed to a show and tell, safari-esque tour)

I’m going on a Tundra Buggy tour tomorrow and will share stories and photos from that experience.  The company we’re using is one of the eco-friendly tours, of course!

Also, a group of us (with “help”) are making a coordinated effort to bring facts about the polar bear/dog property owner to organizations who should be regulating this. Due to the political nature of the small community, this needs to be taken to institutions outside of Churchill. The pictures we took yesterday actually are helpful in documenting what happened. And it’s fine for people to see the pictures of dogs and bears side-by-side as long as we all understand what I learned last night.  These animals shouldn’t actually be co-mingling. 

After much discussion about this topic (and a few drinks), other stories were shared with us.  Stories of bears that have broken into public buildings and raided the kitchens, bears that have climbed onto the roof of buildings waiting to pounce on the next human who walks out the door, people who have nearly escaped bear attacks. It’s sobering to hear these stories, but essential that we do. When you’re face to face with the bears (as we have been), or watching them at play, observing their curiosity and intelligence, it’s natural to think they’re cute.  And they ARE cute! It makes people want to cuddle the bears, pet the bears, take them home as pets. But part of the reason we’re attracted to the bears is their sheer power and we need to remember this.  They are magnificent, beautiful, clever, and intelligent animals.  They’re also very dangerous! 

We have a lecture now (there’s a lot more to learn), but I’ll try to post more tonight.  We had some fun, snowy adventures today.  Also, I have some simple steps we can all take to help with polar bear and Arctic conservation. I’ll post those at the end of the week. It doesn’t take much to make a significant impact and affect positive change. 

By the way, I’m here 2 more days. If you have any questions you’d like answered by the scientists who accompany me, post them here and I’ll post responses for you.

Bears, Bears, Bears!!

(note: you can see full-size images, by clicking the thumbnails below)

Once again, the best stuff seems to happen when most people have gone to sleep.  Last night a group of us gathered in the dining room for some late-night story telling and creative inspiration (aka whisky).  We sat with Rupert Pilkington, another bear researcher at the Center, and he told us some bear stories and personal adventures.  

After 4 hours sleep, we woke up at 5:30 this morning to go on an early morning bear watch with Chuck.  We were looking for polar bear tracks so which would help determine our afternoon bear-watching route with the larger group (only 8 of us went out this morning).  We did see some tracks, but they were quickly buried by the falling snow.  Chuck speculated that we may not see many bears today, with the possibility of a white out.  Before we headed back to the Center for breakfast we saw 2 Arctic foxes (cute white fox that always look happy) running across the snow.

Polar bears crossing the Tundra, on their way to play with sled dogs

Polar bears crossing the Tundra

Thankfully, the weather cleared up and we saw bears today.  This was our first “official” bear outing and it was amazing. As long as I’ve dreamed of this trip (literally) I never could have imagined the feeling that overcame me when I saw the first bears.  They are absolutely phenomenal.  They’re playful, smart, curious, and strong.  It’s still hard to believe we shared the ice with them today.  We watched a mom and cub traverse across the tundra for a while and then jumped back in our bus and headed in the direction they were heading.  

 

 

Polar bear looking at right at me

Polar bear looking at right at me

When we arrived at our second stop, we immediately saw 2 bears resting under trees.  One of them looked at right at me.  Another got up, checked us out, turned around, and went back to his nap.  Then, at a distance, we saw the original 2 bears heading our way.  We now had our eyes on 4 bears – 2 napping and 2 moving swiftly in our direction. 

The other thing I should mention is that there are a bunch of sled dogs tied up in the area. I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen the photo of the polar bear playing with a dog that circulated a while back, but I witnessed it today! Initially the dogs howled when they saw the bears.  The larger bear (Chuck thinks it was the mom) literally pounced on and pinned one of the dogs to the ground.  And then, she let him up – unharmed. They chased each other in circles, stood side-by-side, and played for about 10 minutes.  If they wanted to, the bears could have easily killed the dogs.  But after they were finished playing, the bears continued on their way.  

More tomorrow… there are some people waiting for me in the dining hall 😉 

Resting Bear

Resting Bear

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Polar bears playing with dogs

Polar bears with dogs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Good friends. Polar bears and dog at play

Polar bears and dog

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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