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!!

She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain…

November 10, 2008

From Winnepeg to Churchill via Train… 

 

Reflection of Brandon and Me on the Train

Reflection of Brandon and Me on the Train

We’ve been on a train all day.  If you didn’t know Chuck is a brilliant professor and revered bear expert, you may think he’s a madman. He has the look in his eyes when he speaks and sometimes it’s hard to tell if he loves you or if he’s disappointed you didn’t eat his homemade snacks.  But he loves us and is an amazing host.  He’s always passing out snacks, telling stories and answering questions about the bears.

 

We are in the middle of nowhere. Literally. For 500 miles we see the same view – trees with frost and frozen lakes.  The train is comfortable and the rocking lulls us into sleep – well, that and the sleep deprivation from 2 days prior.   So we sleep, eat, read, sleep, eat, and finally… we discovered the bar.  It almost seems like this is what we do now and I need to keep reminding myself that finally, tomorrow, we’ll be on the ice with bears and snow fox.

No internet, no cell service, no text messages or status updates.  How did we ever survive prior to all this technology?! Well, you get to know people, have real conversations, hear all the details. I’m also the only city-person on this trip, surrounded by mountain people.  They’re great, but they’ve literally never seen a Blackberry, some have confused my iPod for a cell phone, and every time I get the laptop out they ask, “are you gettin’ on the internet?”  It’s refreshing (albeit foreign) to be surrounded by people who are not dependent on technology, and in fact, many of them despise it!

Well, back to reading, sleeping, reading, sleeping.  We have another 14 hours on the train.  

 

The train we called "home" for 30 hours

The train we called *home* for 30 hours

 

Putting “Adventure” in Adventure Travel

November 9 – 10, 2008 

Yesterday we drove ALL day.  We met each other at the Great Bear center in Missoula, Montana at 7am, and carpooled for an hour to a college where we boarded a bus. The thing about “adventure travel” is the word “adventure.”

So the journey to Churchill (where the bears are) began with a day of flying, and is followed by 2 long days (12+ hours each day) of travel by bus. After which, we’ll board a train for a 24-hr ride up to Churchill.  We spent most of our time yesterday getting to know each other.  I am traveling with some serious ADVENTURE travelers. One couple goes kayaking in Alaska every year, to get close to the whales.  Another couple has been in a campground with 30 bears literally sharing their space.  I’ve heard too many stories to remember, but it’s a good thing everybody here is used to adventure because TODAY….

I’m writing this from the side of the highway, somewhere in Canada.  We slept for about 4 hours last night before getting back on the road at 7am this morning.  We made it about 15 minutes and then we saw the first accident – an overturned truck in the center divider, surrounded by emergency vehicles.  A short distance further we were met by taillights of about 2 dozen vehicles pulled off the side of the road. Ice!!!

Stranded on the side of the icy highway

Stranded on the side of the icy highway

Our bus *slid* into its place on the side of the road. And now we wait.  Word is there are 4 accidents up the hill ahead of us and the highway is closed for 20 miles due to ice.  Our best bet is that the salt trucks come shortly and it’s safe for us to journey on.  Our scheduled drive time today was 11 hours, but with this delay, who knows… And unfortunately for all of us, we began our day with extra large cups of coffee, and there are no bathrooms in sight.  We’ve watched several drivers try to plow over the ice, only to slide sideways and fall in line on the side of the road.

This could throw a lot of people into a bad mood, but not this group.  They’re sharing adventure stories galore: “Oh this is NOTHING… one time….” At one point or another we’ve each gotten out and practiced dance moves on the ice.  I grew up in the mountains, with snow and ice every winter, but short of an ice skating rink, I’ve never been on ice like this!

Thankfully, I have a new adventure friend, Brandon.  He’s also joining this trip solo and we found each other day 1. He’s my seatmate on the bus, the friend I share all my meals (and iPod charger) with, and when we get to Churchill, we have grand plans to go off the beaten path and get as close to the bears as possible.  Brandon just got his Masters in environmental studies and is now traveling the world, crossing things off his “list.” He has a girlfriend back home who’s studying massage therapy.  We could all probably use a massage now.

Well, I’m going to put the laptop away for now, to save battery… we could be here for a while.

18 hours later November 10, 2008….

We had a 5-hr delay on the side of the highway.  There was a Greyhound Bus driver who let us use the restroom on his bus – phew! We napped on and off, I finished a book I was reading, Brandon and I made each other laugh. At one point, several people got off the bus and shoveled dirt in the road so we’d have some traction when it was time to leave again.  

Dr. Charles Jonkel teaching about Polar Bears during our long delay

Dr. Charles Jonkel teaching about Polar Bears during our long delay

Chuck Jonkel who’s been studying bears for more than 40 years and leading this trip for 25 years spoke about the bears and climate change.  He said he once tagged a 1,500 pound bear and a friend of his tagged a 2,200 pound bear (possibly the largest on record). But due to lack of food supply, bears are smaller now and less able to fight the elements and food shortage for survival.  He said it’s true that bears can swim, but not the great distances now required to get to the ice where the seals are and that they’re strong enough to fight the currents so they often drowned.  Chuck spoke about some friends who live in the area: last January they were awoken by a sound they hadn’t heard – rain.  By January everything should be frozen, and rain was a sure sign of warmer climate. 

Chuck said that some bears are adapting, eating berries and other fruit off trees – but it takes a lot of berries to feed a bear! “When you talk about bears, people listen!” Chuck exclaimed. “So we should talk about the bears, because they’re dying and we need to do something about it.  The problem is more extensive than the bears, but if we use the bears to get people’s attention, to make a change, then it will help change everything.”  He explained that bears are at the top of the Arctic food chain and are a rare species of terrestrial animal that relies on its food supply from another source (the sea).  

And then the wheels turned and we heard the crunch of ice below as we slowly made our way up the hill after our long delay. 

Everything was going well and we were on our way.  A few impatient semis sped by in the left lane, clearly going too fast for the elements.  So it should be no surprise that just 15 minutes after we began moving, the road was closed again.  This time due to an overturned semi that was carrying cyanide.  We weighed our options – wait for a hazmat clean-up or double-back and take a longer route. 

We ended up taking the long way and at 5:00am we just pulled into the ski chalet where we had planned to spend the night.  Instead, it’s a quick stop for breakfast and then off to catch the train. On the drive up we saw some antelope on the side of the road.  Chuck said it’s the furthest north he’s ever seen the antelope. Usually it’s too cold for antelope up here and they head down to Montana.  But again, warmer temperatures everywhere are changing things.  There’s no more “usually.”  It’s “What now?”

We’ve heard reports that it’s 20 degrees in Churchill (also warm for this time of year) and there are a lot of bears milling about, waiting for the ice to form.  In fact, the other night a bear dented in the back door of the research center where we’ll be staying beginning Tuesday. 

I haven’t had internet or cell service for two days and I’m not sure when I’ll actually get to post this.  But during the 5-hour travel delay, notes from friends and Facebook status updates kept me going! (So thank you!)

‘Ologists

View from my room on the river

View from my room on the river

 

I arrived in Missoula, Montana last night.  Monica, who works at the Bear foundation, picked me up at the airport and introduced me to Montana by taking me to the local dive bar.  I met a bunch of great people at the bar – some of the nicest people in the world (and not just because they had a few drinks in them).  

When people heard I was going on this trip they asked, “what kind of ‘Ologist are you?!” expecting a response such as, “Biologist,” “ecologist,” or “geologist.” Instead, I responded, “I’m a fun-ologist!” I’m here to live, have fun, and meet people (and polar bears). To share these experiences and hopefully inspire others to embark on their own adventures, raise consciousness, affect positive change. 

In the time that’s passed since the dream, I’ve changed. Not who I am of course, but how I live. It wasn’t a fully conscious decision or something born out of guilt or obligation.  It just started happening.  I was taking shorter showers, recycling everything that could be recycled, trading in plastic bottles for Nalgene, and replacing household cleaners with non-toxic, biodegradable alternatives. 

It’s not that I had ignored all the information until now.  I made several shifts to help the environment prior to the polar bear dream: walking to work every day, replacing light bulbs, using all appliances in energy-efficient mode, never using the air conditioning or heat (living in Santa Monica makes that one easy), maintaining air pressure in my tires for the rare occasions I actually drove somewhere, recycling the obvious things (but not everything).  I had seen An Inconvenient Truth, March of The Penguins, An Arctic Tale, the news…

But after the dream came a true awakening. I don’t need to think about it anymore.  It’s no longer a decision I’m making.  It’s just the way I live.  It feels effortless. As I learn about additional alternatives, I adopt them.  Seventh Generation products are everywhere in my home (shouldn’t ALL toilet paper be made from recycled paper?!? Do we really need to be using new trees to wipe our a$$?!). 

Different thoughts cross my mind now:

  • What if every hotel, gym, office building, and restaurant used toilet paper made from recycled materials? What if every household did the same?
  • I’ve showered, shampooed, and conditioned using a 5-gallon Sun Shower when camping
    •  low-flow shower heads (which most of us have now) still flow approximately 2.5 gallons of water per minute.
    • My 5-gallon sun showers have lasted as long as 5 – 10 minutes and was all that was needed to be thoroughly showered.
  • Why is everything over-packaged? A small gift ordered online arrives in a huge box, sometimes only to be found lying in yet a smaller box, among Styrofoam or plastic “filler.”

I now turn off the water while shampooing, conditioning, and shaving.  I recycle everything that can be recycled. All “paper” products are made of recycled or alternative materials. I see things differently – I now prefer those air-blowing hand dryers in public restrooms (when I see paper towels, I see trees). While at Club Med 2 weeks ago I noticed they were using styrofoam cups in the cafeteria.  There were nearly 600 people there that week – if only a third of them took a cup, during the 3 meals per day, that’s 600 cups per day, times 7 days… there has to be a better way. But sitting in Turks & Caicos, surrounded by water (although the ocean is receding there by 10″ per year as well), it can be easier for people to not see the impact our daily choices (like styrofoam cups) have on the environment.  It’s likely also more difficult to find responsible alternatives on an island. But we should try…

The shift was natural.  It doesn’t feel extreme. And I know there are more changes I can make that would have a positive impact on the environment. It’s all connected – the dream, the polar bears, the way I live.  What I do here, today, affects the polar bears I’m going to see in a few days. 

 

Lesson 1: Getting There

When you’re going on a big trip:

  • Don’t wait until midnight the night before to pack
  • Especially if you’re leaving at 5am
  • And when you finally crawl into bed at 2:30am, don’t set your alarm for 30 minutes later than you should wake up, in an attempt to convince yourself it will only take you 15 minutes to shower, get dressed, get all your stuff together, and get out the door

Traveling as often as 4-5 times/month has allowed me to become really lax about the details.  Packing always seems to happen, I’ve got the system down.  In fact, usually the suitcase hasn’t been entirely unpacked from the last trip. Actually, that WAS the case last night — my suitcase, full of swimwear and tank tops from my recent trip to Turks & Caicos, was still packed.  Realizing that wouldn’t get me very far in the Arctic, I began packing at midnight. Most of my stuff had been laid out the night before, but I didn’t factor in the possibility that it may not all fit in my suitcase.

 

My guest room became a mini REI. Enough stuff to cover a queen bed - no wonder it didn't fit in my suitcase!

My guest room became a mini REI. It covers a queen bed - no wonder it didn't fit in my suitcase

I don’t know if one can actually be “prepared” for an adventure like this, but certainly there are some steps that can be taken.  For example, WARM clothes. The cold in the Arctic is not like anything I’ve faced previously and a stark contrast to our typically 75-degree days in LA. I didn’t realize how bulky warm clothes actually are until I tried to shove them all into my suitcase last night.

 

I needed to get a new camera – a digital SLR to better manage the lack of contrast between white bear and white snow, the distance between us (which will likely be slightly more than a dozen feet this time around), the ability to shoot pictures in rapid succession in order to capture action shots, special lens and settings that will also allow me to take pictures of the Northern Lights. And a video camera, a more compact laptop (the only thing that actually fit easily in my luggage), extra batteries for all electronics (batteries only last about 1/3 of their typical life when in freezing temperatures), snow boots. . . 

I’ve been watching polar bear documentaries and stories on National Geographic.  I’ve been reading about the bears and the impact of global warming.  The more I learn about polar bears, the more mesmerized I become.  Instinctually they know to use the force of their weight, pounding through their front paws, to break through ice to reach their next meal.  They look cute and cuddly, but they can be 6 to 10 feet tall and weigh as much as 1,500 pounds (or more). Bear numbers are declining, cub mortality is higher, and bears are generally skinnier and smaller than they were just a couple decades ago. Scientists estimate there are only 20,000 – 25,000 polar bears remaining.  

I read and re-read the materials and safety information I’ve received from the leaders of the trip.  This is not a luxury safari, nor 4-star hotel vacation. This is an adventure trip – sometimes sleeping on the floor of research centers in sleeping bags, traveling in crowded busses, volunteering in the towns we travel through.  The travel guide they sent reads: First and foremost, we go as travelers, not tourists. Our goals are learning about North America and continentalism; glimpsing the past; doing hands-on things; meeting new friends; helping other people; being local; and of course, seeing polar bears in their habitat.

The “bear safety instructions” make me smile.  Not that I don’t take them seriously, I absolutely do! But merely a smile of satisfaction knowing that in a few short days I will be face to face with these magnificent animals – not in a cage at the zoo, but on the ice in the Arctic.

I’m also excited about the people I’ll meet on this trip. As the night grew later and my ADD kicked into high-gear, I started day-dreaming (or maybe I actually fell asleep for a moment) about who I’d be sharing this adventure with. What are their names? How old are they? What do they do when they’re not exploring the world? Where do they live? 

Needless to say, the taxi driver was actually yelling at me this morning because I was late. Meanwhile, he was parked 3 blocks down the street from my house, but I wasn’t in a position to say anything about that. Thankfully, I made it to the airport 5 minutes before the bag-check deadline and zipped through security. Now I’m on a layover in Denver where it’s currently 45 degrees – guess I better get used to the temperatures dropping!

My cat, Gulliver, in the box my new camera came in. Photo taken with my old point & shoot because I haven't learned how to use the new camera yet.

My cat, Gulliver, in the box my new camera came in. Photo taken with my old point & shoot

 


 

My First Encounter With The Polar Bear

resting-bear2

 

We were eye to eye.  His fixed gaze made me forget the chill in the air. It was a clear, sunny day; the reflection of light bouncing off the snow was nearly blinding.  I couldn’t take my eyes off him.  He was absolutely magnificent. A living paradox. A creature of incredible strength, begging for help.

 

And that was my first encounter with the polar bear.

 

It was one of those moments when the world seemed to come to a halt.  We were all alone – the bear and I.  It felt like we were on the last remaining piece of ice.  This huge, yellowish-white being was only a dozen feet away from me.  He could easily crush me. 

 

But somehow I didn’t feel fear.  Maybe it’s because I’ve always rejected fear in an act of rebellion against over-protective parents.  Or maybe it’s because I knew the reason for this encounter is that I had actually already hurt the magnificent bear. The look in his eyes was pleading.  He was happy to see me, but looked at me as if to say, “What are you going to do??”

 

And then I woke up. 

 

The dream was vivid.  I felt everything happening as if I were experiencing it consciously, awake.  I’ve had other dreams that felt this way and they’ve all come true, so I didn’t take it lightly.  They say how you feel after the dream is as important as how you feel during the dream. I didn’t feel afraid.  I felt urgency.  The polar bear was asking me what I was going to do to.  His situation was dire and I felt a great responsibility to help him.  

 

The dream took place in the early-morning hours of Sunday, June 29, 2008. I couldn’t shake the reality of it or the look in the bear’s eyes as he pleaded for my help. I rushed to the coffee table downstairs and picked up a magazine I found at the gym earlier that month.  The cover story was: 10 Life Changing Adventures.  I remembered reading about a polar bear expedition among the other 9 adventures now on my “list.”  I re-read the article and then jumped online to learn more about the trip. There wasn’t too much information so I sent a simple email:

 

Please send me registration information on the November 2008 trip.

 

When I awoke Monday morning I was thankful to receive the quick reply:

 

Hello,

I have attached info and a registration form on the course.  Just so you know, right now the course is full, so we are putting people on a waiting list.  We have had people back out in the past, so let me know if you want me to put you on the list. ~Monica

 

I could have been disappointed by the message. But I knew I’d be going on this trip.  It didn’t occur to me that it would be full.  And if it was, it just didn’t seem to matter – I couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else.  I quickly completed the registration form, but before I could get it to the fax machine I received this message:

 

Hello Again,

It turns out we may have one more spot available, so let me know if you are interested.

Monica

 

And thus begins my second encounter with the polar bear. I leave for the Arctic on Friday and will be blogging, posting photos (and video when available) daily.  More on this later, but I’m traveling with 2 scientists who have studied bears and Arctic ecology for more than 40 years.  So if you have any questions you’d like me to ask them, please send them to me (click “Stay In Touch” tab above) and I’ll post replies here.

 

Where Did You Come From?

“Where did you come from?” the young Balinese man inquired.

“California,” I responded with a smile.

“Oh… UNITED STATES!” The notion of California was too small for this man to imagine – the United States is a world away from his world. He went on to explain that most Balinese have never traveled outside of Bali, not even to the neighboring islands by boat. He then asked several questions about what it was like to be on an airplane, to have TV, to see the world. . .

In that moment, I was reminded just how fortunate I am, with opportunities to explore the world, learn from many people and cultures, and have unforgettable adventures. When I reflect upon how much I learned in Bali alone, it’s really amazing. Among the most noteworthy:

  • I’m the only American to have traveled to Bali this year who did not read “Eat Pray Love.” (I’ve since read it)
  • It is possible to create a completely sustainable school where, in addition to standard curriculum, children learn through experience, sharing of ideas, cooperative activities, and movement arts. A place that is powered by a hydro-generator. A place where the stoves are fueled by methane made from cow’s waste (no, it doesn’t smell). MUCH more about this later, but if you want a sneak preview, visit Greenschool.org!
  •  People are happier without $4 lattes, cell phones, iPods, and instant messengers. In fact, forget about “instant” – take your time, share stories in person, create music together and then… dance!
  • Food tastes better when the land it’s grown on is revered.

I can go on about Bali forever (and I will in other posts), but this is just a quick example of the importance of travel and why I’m starting this blog now.  This year alone I’ve been to: Vail, New Orleans, Costa Rica, Bali; with repeated visits to New York, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara.  Add to that list Turks & Caicos and the Arctic (to see the polar bears) before the year’s end.  Some people travel much more frequently, others much less.  For me, the adventures and people I encounter while traveling are integral to who I am.  They shape (and re-shape) my world-view, inspire me infinitely, and help me become better at everything I do: relationships, work, and play! I have a long list of places to visit and many tales of adventures past to share.

The reason I’m beginning this blog today is because I’m preparing for a polar bear expedition in the Arctic. I’ve wanted to see the affects of climate change on the Arctic region and its inhabitants for some time and now have the opportunity to travel with 2 scientists who have studied bear conservation and Arctic ecology for 40 years. Friends, family, colleagues and strangers have all responded to this idea with great enthusiasm and interest, and journeys like these are meant to be shared!

Next up: Turks & Caicos and Getting Ready to Meet Polar Bears.

Gregory "Andro" S., pre-schooler I'm sponsoring at Green School

Andro, a preschool student I'm sponsoring at Green School