Category Archives: Polar Bears

Polar bear expedition to Churchill November 2008, updates on bear, ecology and bear conservation, climate change, the impact of our daily living on climate change, affecting the food chain and the health of the bears. Northern lights, helicopter rides, and other Arctic adventures!!

The First Polar Bear I Saw Today

November 10, 2009
Churchill

3rd polar bear

The third polar bear I saw today

I wish I could describe the feeling I get every time I see a polar bear. The polar bear is one of the most magnificent animals I’ve witnessed in its natural habitat. The weather was perfect for spotting bears today and the bears were quite active. It’s been one year since I last saw the bears of Churchill and seeing our first polar bear today made the small Arctic town feel like home.

The picture of the bear to the left is actually the third bear I saw today. The first one was out near some Tundra buggies, moving away from the vehicle and the group of people trying to catch a glimpse of him. I did capture a picture of that bear, but it’s at quite a distance.

The second bear I saw today was lying peacefully along the horizon. We observed him for a while.  He was huge and didn’t budge an inch.  He was also quite far away, but I’ll include a picture of him below because it gives a sense of his size.

Bear on road

Polar Bear walking up the road

The third bear we came across actually came across us.  He was crossing the road we were driving on.  Ironically, we were looking to the right, toward the bay, in the same direction we’d seen the other bears.  “There’s one on the road ahead of us,” somebody in our group called out. It was a classic case of looking for something and not seeing what is right in front of you.  We slowed the bus and watch the handsome bear walk up the hill, along the road.  He was a really cool bear.  He’d take a few steps, look at us to let us know he knew we were there, and then keep on walking. It was just about dusk, and as the sun was approaching horizon, the bear seemed to be appreciating the setting sun.  Eventually the bear made his way down the hill, behind some rocks, and we lost sight of him.

The next bear we saw was also crossing the road.  This bear was running from some trucks that were following (or perhaps chasing it).  Once the bear crossed the street, the trucks stopped to take photographs.  We were told people may have been trying to move the bear away from some sled dogs.  The Arctic is a strange place – it’s mysterious.  It’s easy to jump to conclusions and think you saw something, but ask a few people and you’ll hear as many different perspectives as people you asked.  Sadly, a bear was killed today (further North than where we are).  The hunter and his grandson say it was self defense.  We’ve also heard that they were out hunting, with the intention of killing a bear.  Another person said the news reported that the grandson got stranded on sea ice, with a mother bear and her two cubs for a couple days. That doesn’t sound quite so innocent to me.  I cannot imagine how or why people hunt polar bears.

Swimming polar bear

Swimming Polar Bear

Thankfully, this bear crossed the road and realized everything was okay.  We saw the bear looking out at the water and looking back at us.  Then, the bear seemed to disappear.  We traveled a bit further down the road, rounded a corner and saw something I’d previously only seen on TV — the bear was swimming.

We looked at his fresh tracks in the snow and watched the bear swim for a while.

We saw several more bears walking across the tundra, and down through the trees.  Then, we saw a spectacular sunset and called it a night. . . almost. . .

As I sat here writing this, a few of us on the late-night shift heard the Northern Lights were out.  We quickly grabbed our boots and ventured outside again, this time in our pajamas.  Before we left the building we looked left, right, up, and down to make sure there weren’t any bears hanging around the door.  We sat in a vehicle, watching the glowing green lights in the sky morph and change shapes before our eyes. This is the second time I’ve seen the Northern Lights (the first was from the train last night) – a perfect bookend to an amazing day.  Just before we headed back to the Center we saw a shooting star among the Northern Lights.

Here are a few pictures from today:

bear on horizon

Bear on the horizon

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Look by water

Polar Bear Tracks

Polar Bear Tracks (next to a pack of gum for perspective)

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Reuniting with Polar Bears

Sunday, November 8, 2009 – Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Train from Winnipeg to Churchill

Polar Bear

One of the polar bears I met in 2008

When I returned from Churchill last November I knew I’d go back. . .  someday.  Last year’s trip was an extraordinary adventure that allowed me to come face to face with the amazing white bear.  My first Arctic expedition was sparked by a haunting dream that I was sitting with the last polar bear on Earth, trying to figure out how to save him.

My chronicles of adventure, stories about the bears, lessons about Arctic Ecology, and pictures were featured on MySpace’s OurPlanet for a month following my trip.  I partnered with MySpace to help raise awareness about the impact climate change is having on the Arctic region and the polar bears, through my personal account and eye-witness experience.  My inaugural journey is detailed earlier on My Travel Tales.

What I found following that adventure is that everybody I spoke with – friends, family, colleagues, strangers on airplanes – was extremely moved by my stories and pictures.  We all hear about climate change.  Most people are aware of it.  Some people refuse to believe it. We hear about it on the news.  People like Al Gore and organizations like Stop Global Warming make sure we have access to the latest information and tips about what we can do to help.  But for most people, the effects of climate change and our individual and collective responsibility for it, remains one-step removed.  It’s far more impactful when somebody you know, even if you’ve just met them, can share a first-hand experience with you.

For this reason and because I fell in love with the polar bears and the amazing scientist and his team with  whom I traveled, I knew I would be back.  However, I thought perhaps I’d return in 2010.  The world is large and I’d like to see as much of it as possible, so I often don’t do repeat visits when traveling abroad.  I knew I’d return to Churchill just as I know I’ll return to Bali, but this journey came more quickly than I expected.  In fact, as November approached and I was feeling disappointed that I wasn’t going on the sold-out trip, I received an email from Shannon at The Great Bear Foundation: “We’ve had a cancellation. You’re first on the wait list.”

I’m doing the trip slightly differently this year.  Last year I met the group in Missoula, Montana for a 24-hour bus ride, followed by a day and a half on train.   I highly recommend that route for first-time travelers because you get more time with Chuck Jonkel, the scientist who’s headed up this trip for 25 years.  As you make your way up to La Pas from Missoula, he points out the vegetation and wildlife and signs of climate change along the way.  He also teaches you about bears and has some amazing stories to tell.  It’s also a great way to get to know the group of fellow adventurers.  Most of the people who embark on this journey are word travelers and conservationists themselves and they have amazing stories to tell as well.

This year, I picked up the train in Winnipeg.  There’s an extra day on the train but it’s far more comfortable than the bus ride.  Chuck and the rest of the group are scheduled to meet up with us and board the train sometime in the middle of the night.  As with last year, I embarked on this journey alone.  As with last year, I’ve already made some good friends.  Although I should know better by now, it always surprises me how quickly a trip like this can turn complete strangers into a distinct family unit.

In addition to the bears, Arctic fox, Arctic hares, Northern Lights, hot chocolate and other wonderful experiences this trip offers, it forces me to get out of my daily routine.  It broadens my perspective more than many trips I’ve been on precisely because the people on this trip are all making the long journey together, with the passionate desire to see polar bears and observe their behavior in their natural habitat.  People on this trip come from diverse backgrounds, the majority of them do everything they can to avoid large cities. So the conversations alone allow us to connect about things that are different from my day to day.   Traffic, the internet, going out late to see live music – these topics don’t arise in conversation. Grandchildren, forests, wildlife, ecology, biology, and books are commonly discussed.

Monday, November 9, 2009
It’s now Monday morning.  Sometime in the middle of the night, Chuck, Shannon, Bob, Frank, and Jenny from The Great Bear Foundation boarded the train, along with the rest of our group.  They met us in La Pas after driving for 24 hours from Missoula, Montana.  Ordinarily, I might have been less-than-thrilled to be awoken shortly after finally falling asleep, but when I opened my eyes and saw my old friends, I couldn’t have been happier.  Unless you’re in a sleeper car, it takes a while to settle into a comfortable sleeping position on the train.  In my case it had taken 3 hours to get just comfortable enough, so before I jumped up to hug my friends from The Great Bear Foundation, I made note of how where my head, legs, back, and feet had been perfectly sandwiched in the seats.

After hugs and “hellos,” we stayed awake and caught up for a bit.  We reminisced about stories from last year, which included 30-below weather and some unruly (and exceptionally fun) behavior on the train.  Chuck also told us stories of his various haphazard adventures, “Only the incompetent have adventures,” he said with a chuckle.  “The weather’s been nice so far – I don’t see why it can’t stay nice another few days,” Chuck noted before heading back to his sleep.  Reunited with our group and a day closer to seeing polar bears, it was easy to fall back asleep.

When I awoke this morning, the sun had just risen and was reflecting off of a lake on our right.  I noticed that a good portion of group was no longer in our car.  “Where is everybody?” I asked Shannon, clearly not awake enough to realize they couldn’t really be far.  People had started to make their way to the dining car for breakfast.  Shannon and I joined them for the next seating and continued to catch up.  Even the merging of the two groups of travelers – Missoula and Winnipeg – was effortless.  Two became one overnight and now we have our polar bear family.

We’ve got another day on the train and are scheduled to arrive in Churchill at 7:00am Tuesday.  “What are you going to do?” a nice woman named Anya asked after breakfast.  “Y’know – sleep, read, and write . . .”    One down, two to go.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Time on the train passed quickly on Monday.  As we moved North from La Pas toward Churchill we picked up some commuters from the tiny villages along the way.  The locals were going into the next “town” to do their regular (possibly only once monthly) shopping.  The train only passes through every 2 days, so going to the grocery store is a 48-hour commitment.

But passengers continuing on to Churchill had one thing on their mind: polar bears.  As we pulled into the Churchill station just after 7:00am, we saw several fresh polar bear tracks and a lot of fresh fox tracks.  We also saw an unidentifiable dark brown or black animal heading East, away from the train.  It was either a fox or a wolverine (a few had been spotted just off the side of the road at about that same time.

We gathered our luggage as quickly as we could, loaded up the vehicles, boarded a bus, and headed for the Research Center that we will call home for the next few days.

To be continued. . .

Taking Action for Polar Bears

My Arctic Adventures Blog featured on MySpace

My Arctic Adventures Blog featured on MySpace

I woke up this morning to an email from MySpace – they’re featuring my blog on their Our Planet channel: http://www.myspace.com/ourplanet.  Many thanks to MySpace for sharing these stories and helping spread awareness about polar bears and how we can all help preserve the Arctic region.

Also, big thanks to Chuck (Dr. Jonkel), Shannon, Matt and everyone at The Great Bear Foundation for the amazing experience and sharing their wealth of knowledge.

The main reason I spent 8 days on planes, buses, and trains, traveling to the Arctic was to experience first-hand the affects of climate change on polar bears and Arctic ecology.  It seems awareness of climate change has increased and more and more people know that the survival of polar bears is threatened, but it can still feel like “a problem over there” — not part of our day to day consciousness.  I don’t believe this is malicious, it just isn’t top-of-mind for many people, most of the time.  I live in LA where it’s 73 degrees and beautiful almost every day of the year.  It’s hard to expect everyone in LA to think about ice caps melting and polar bears heading toward extinction, on a day to day basis.  People all over the world are consumed with their own survival, happiness, and daily responsibilities – global warming is not top-of-mind, even though they’re aware of it.

The thing to remember is that it’s all connected. The way we live, wherever we live, has an impact on the environment as a whole, which in turn has an impact on us. Dr. Jonkel (Chuck) reminded us that people are wasting time debating whether Global Warming is something people are causing or just “part of mother nature’s natural cycle.” He encouraged us to recognize that both points of view are valid – some of the climate change we see is mother nature “doing her thing” AND some of it is caused or accelerated by what we’re doing. All Chuck asked of us is that we help the part that we can control – the impact we have on the earth and the things we can do to minimize that.

Several groups have put together lists of simple steps to combat global warming in our everyday life. Stop Global Warming has a great list: http://www.stopglobalwarming.org/sgw_actionitems.asp

The NRDC is also doing work on climate change: http://www.nrdc.org/globalwarming/default.asp

Global Warming Solution is a Missoula, Montana based organization founded by a Great Bear alum. Their executive summary is really helpful:

http://www.globalwarmingsolution.org/pdf/Summary.pdf

Global Warming Initiatives, Inc is a really cool company that helps businesses to reduce their carbon footprint while at the same time saving money on energy efficiency:

http://www.gwi-nc.org/

The lists of simple steps are great in that they are easy to achieve and anybody can do things like switch to energy efficient light bulbs, etc. And if we get enough people to do these things, we can make a difference.

We can also support initiatives like the Western Climate Change Initiative:

http://www.westernclimateinitiative.org/

This is an alliance of seven western states and two canadian provinces working on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

We can pressure our schools, workplaces, and local and state governments to conduct greenhouse gas inventories, to determine how much impact they are having and how they can reduce that impact. It often saves money in the long run on energy costs.

The bumper sticker, “think globally, act locally” has never meant as much as it does today. The average meal travels 1,500 miles to our dinner plates, consuming fossil fuels for transport, processing, refrigeration, etc. One of the biggest changes we can make in our everyday lives is to buy locally, eat locally, and eat seasonally. By gardening or participating in CSA’s, we not only reduce the fossil fuels used to feed ourselves, but the plants we grow also help to produce clean air and to sequester carbon. Can or dry the extra food from your harvest, and you can eat your bounty year round. Grow squashes, potatoes, and other hardy vegetables that can grow late in the season and keep throughout the winter.

Chuck would say that one of the most important things we can do is to raise awareness of the polar regions. There are few people living up there, and their voices are rarely heard. Most people think of the north as a barren waste of ice. The more people learn about the Arctic, the more they will care about it. That’s the point of Chuck’s “Learning to Talk Arctic” lecture. As people become more familiar with the polar regions, they will care more.

I fell in love with polar bears during this trip.  I stood 30 feet away from them and watched in awe as they played, searched for alternative food sources, and walked across the ice with power and grace. I think about them every time I put gas in my car or ask a business to turn off the air conditioning when it’s cold outside (and inside). I think about the collective positive impact we can have by taking simple steps in our own lives and educating (and sometimes pressuring) business owners to make positive changes.  And then I do everything I can to help ensure the survival of polar bears and make a positive impact on the Earth.

Curious Bear

Curious Bear

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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