November 14, 2009
Today was our final day in Churchill. It always seems to come to a close too quickly. As we ventured out, another group arrived to take our place at the Studies Center. Depending on the weather, it’s possible the bears will only be on land for another few days or a week before the ice freezes and they’re able to commence their hunting and feeding season.
When we were reunited with our peers last night, those of us who went on the tundra buggy yesterday learned that the rest of the group also experienced a magical day. They too were treated to a bear approaching the bus in close proximity and a display of bears sparring just off the side of the road. And, of course, the candlestick sunset was in view to all those who were fortunate enough to be outside last night. Unobstructed by large buildings and developments, Churchill sunsets are spectacular and seem to overtake the entire skyline, not just the West coast.
Another bear visited us at the Studies Center last night. Most of us were upstairs for the evening’s class and did not see the bear. However, a few members of our group, too tired to focus on the evening’s lessons, were resting in the quiet lounge and were again surprised by a bear that pressed its face up against the window. J.D, Logan, Deborah, and David notified Studies Center staff about the bear and were able to capture a few pictures before the bear was scared off once more. I saw some of the pictures and if any are emailed to me, I’ll post them here. Again, the zoo imagery struck me with irony. Although Studies Center staff couldn’t allow the bear to remain in such close proximity, I was happy we got to experience the feeling of being locked behind bars while a large, potentially dangerous creature observed us curiously.
We saw a few bears today, including another that walked right up to the window of our bus. The bear got so close that we were instructed to close our windows. After some bear observations, we pulled off the side of the road to build an igloo. Chuck instructed us about how to cut and stack the ice to create the igloo structure. Once built, we took turns crawling inside the igloo to get a sense of the warmth and cover it offered from the elements. Chuck told a story about an igloo he built a couple years ago. He said that it was so cold and stormy out that as soon as he completed the igloo an Arctic fox darted inside and curled up.
It was noticeably colder today, with fog and snow drifting around us. We took a walk through the forest while Chuck pointed out the vegetation and various food sources it offers Arctic critters like hares and foxes. We picked and tasted crowberries. This forest outing was more pleasant than last year’s version that had us standing in 30 below temperatures, among several feet of snow.
On our way back to the center we stopped by a crashed plane that remains untouched among the rocks and terrain of Churchill. The plane has been nicknamed “Miss Piggy” and ironically crashed in 1979 while carrying a large load of soda rumored to be Coca Cola (a company that adopted polar bears as its mascot) over the region. I’m not sure why the plane hasn’t been hauled away, but it’s quite a sight to see lodged among the rocks.
We went back to the Studies Center, had a nice meal, and gathered our luggage. Our departure from the Studies Center was delayed briefly when, once again, we were visited by a polar bear. After the bear moved out of the area and we could safely leave the Center, we headed for the train station. We passed by our igloo on the way to the train station and pulled over to have another look. It was dark outside so Chuck crawled inside the igloo and illuminated it with a flashlight so we could get a sense of how it would look with a fire burning inside. We boarded the train, most of us expressing sadness to be departing the wonder of Churchill and the polar bears.
I was heartbroken to be leaving. Throughout the duration of our stay, we learned more about the political issues in Churchill that make it difficult to further protect the bears and prosecute some of the unscrupulous people that are exploiting them. Tourism generated by people wanting to see the polar bears is the primary source of revenue for the town, so people are resistant to further regulate tour operations. There’s a lot that needs to be done for the polar bears of Churchill, both locally and globally. There are initiatives I’d like to become more involved in, some that are more challenging to take on from a distance. Having witnessed the corruption of some tour operators and photographers, I began contemplating what it would be like if all humans left the Churchill area and let polar bears live undisturbed. The bears would still face the threats of our global impact on the Arctic region, but it seems several unnecessary day-to-day stresses would be eliminated without our presence on their land.
On the flip-side, it could be argued that studying the bears is a necessary means to help sustain their population. And I know from personal experience that my encounters with polar bears have sparked positive lifestyle changes in those I’ve shared stories with and those whom have read my blog. I certainly intend to make this annual journey for as long as the trip is offered and the bears are in existence. At the same time, I’d love to see some additional regulations implemented by the town of Churchill. Perhaps they could institute limited visitor permits, impose a tax on tour operators to accrue more funds to help study and sustain the bear population in the area, fine and prosecute those who bait bears for personal gain and profit . . .
The vivid dream I had that sparked my initial Arctic expedition one year ago involved an interaction with the last polar bear on Earth. He was sitting on the last piece of remaining ice, looking at me as if to say, “What are you going to do?” As I looked into the eyes of the polar bears we encountered during this year’s journey, I saw them asking the same question.
I intend to become more informed about the local issues in Churchill. I intend to find out how, as the people bringing an influx of revenue-generating business to the area, we can further influence additional changes to help protect the polar bear population in Churchill. I am also committed to further personal lifestyle changes to minimize my impact on climate change, as well as becoming more informed and involved in the global issues that threaten the sustainability of the polar bear population.
What are you going to do?