Day 1 Churchill: Polar Bears and a Snowy Owl

November 9, 2010 (I think)

I have a new pet peeve: alarms going off in the early morning hours, on an overnight train. After successfully ignoring the “beep beep,” “buh deep, buh deep,” and “eeeee, eeeee, eeeee” of several people’s alarms, I opened my eyes to see what time it was: 7:00am. New pet peeve revised: alarms going off any time before 8:30am on an overnight train.

Ultimately, it was good to be awake to watch the sunrise as we pulled into the Chuchill station. We packed up our carry-on gear which had spread across 4 seats, an overhead bin, and behind 2 other seats, during the course of the 2-day journey from Winnipeg to Churchill. After quickly downing a couple cups of coffee, we bundled up in our warmer gear and snow boots, loaded our luggage into a van, and headed to the place we’ll be calling “home” for the next several days. I’ll tell you more about that later.

We dropped our luggage off in our rooms, received a short “Orientation and Bear Safety” lecture and then quickly went out to look for bears. Chuck Jonkel, the biologist leading us, is highly intuitive. I’ve witnessed Chuck in action for 3 years. Once everyone is settled on the bus, Frank, who is more than just a bus driver, turns to Chuck and asks, “Where do you wanna go?” Chuck kind of tilts his nose up, similar to the way polar bears do when they smell a potential source of food, and seems to “listen” for where he thinks the bears will be. “Let’s head up to. . . ” – it doesn’t really matter what location Chuck selects, 9 times out of 10, we’ll see at least one bear when we get there.

Today was a bit unusual though. The visibility was low due to the weather and we drove around for a while without seeing any bears. “I haven’t seen a Snowy Owl in years. . . at least 3 years. . . that’s way too long,” Chuck said to Frank.

“Look! Chuck!! There’s one right there — a Snowy Owl!” Frank replied, emphatically pointing out the window.

“Can you start talking about how nice it would be to see a polar bear?!” I said to Chuck, trying to get him to use his psychic powers to guide us to the bears.

Snowy Owl

Can you find the Snowy Owl in this picture?

This is the first time I’ve seen a Snowy Owl in its natural habitat and it was spectacular. When Frank first noticed it, the owl was in flight, heading toward some rocks. It gracefully landed on the rocks and some naturalists (there’s an “ist” for everything) traveling with us set up spotting scopes so we could see the owl clearly. With the naturalists’ help locating the owl camouflaged among the rocks, I was able to capture the picture to the left. The Snowy Owl sat on the rocks, majestically, somewhat smugly, as if to say, “they don’t call me ‘wise’ for nothing.” Owls definitely know something we don’t know.

There’s an uneventful portion of the day when we headed back to the Center to get lunch. I’m only mentioning it here because people on this trip are following this blog and they WILL call me out if I write about the day as if it happened in one long chunk as opposed to multiple, smaller blocks of time. But nothing exciting happened during lunch so, we move on. . .

After lunch we boarded the bus to go look for bears again. This time, Chuck must have really been thinking about bears when Frank asked him which way to go. We saw 6 bears within an hour of departing for this adventure. 2 of the bears were quite close to the bus, the others were running down the road ahead. I’ll tell you more about that in a couple days. Here are a couple pictures:

Polar Bear

First polar bear sighting today

Polar bear

Polar bear tasting the air. Or, sticking its tongue out at me

We sat and watched the bears for a little while and then headed up the road a ways.  We didn’t get too far before we pulled over again because someone, who was not Chuck, yelled “Bear!” when she saw a block of ice or snow-covered tree. It’s ok, it happens.

While we were pulled over on the side of the road, willing the block of ice to materialize into an actual polar bear, a spontaneous Q&A broke out.  Chuck is responsible for devising many of the polar bear research tactics and is one of the most renowned polar bear biologists in the world.  He is a walking encyclopedia, but when he speaks he’s more like a grandfather you wish you had – “that crazy ol’ guy” with stories about helicopter crashes and fighting off a polar bear attack in Arctic waters.  You could sit and listen to Chuck tell stories for hours and I hope you have the chance to do that sometime.

The Q&A concluded as people started requesting a bathroom break, and of course, a trip to the one liquor store in town.  I always say you can tell what kind of trip it’s going to be when you see how many people get off the bus during that first annual stop at the liquor store in Churchill.

“Well, that’s one good thing — at least if we get stranded, we’ve got our wine!” Jeremy, who traveled all the way from the UK to drink wine in the Arctic, exclaimed as we drove back to the Center for dinner.

Yes, that is one good thing. . .

More bears – and stories – tomorrow!

One response to “Day 1 Churchill: Polar Bears and a Snowy Owl

  1. Pingback: Churchill Day 2: Fox, Polar Bears, Alarm Clocks | My Travel Tales

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