The Journey To Africa

December 9

IMG_2752I’m sitting awake on the second of three flights to South Africa. I should be sleeping now to get my body adjusted to the new time zone, but alas the Tylenol PM has worn off. Back-up plan activated: melatonin, red wine, and writing until the next wave of sleep kicks in. We’ve got 15 hours on this flight, so there’s time for it all.

It’s worth mentioning that my soundtrack at the moment is Tom McRae‘s album, Lowlands. It goes well with the red wine and dimmed lights of the aircraft cabin.

There’s something else: a Twix candy bar has never tasted so good as it did 5 minutes ago. We’ve been traveling since Saturday night. The journey began following 2 weeks of prep and packing. The task was made all that more challenging by the luggage weight restrictions. Due to the fact that we’ll be traveling to safari on smaller aircraft, there are strict baggage considerations. “44 pounds” has never been so meaningful. With the taxi waiting outside, I left a pair of pants and a raincoat behind. It seems trivial – how much could that really weigh? 1.2 pounds to be exact. So, some clothing gets sacrificed on behalf of my camera equipment, which I’m not sacrificing, despite its 17 pounds.

In all the packing and getting things set up at work, time was compressed leading up to this journey. There were some friends I just didn’t have time to see before I left town. I’m looking forward to sharing stories when we reunite.

One of my favorite things about life is how we can feel the presence of those we love, even when we’re 35,000 feet above ground, half a world away. My current sipping of red wine straight from the bottle brought laughter at the memory of the wine shortage on a recent train ride to visit the polar bears in Churchill. My friends Jeremy and Heather conspired to get off the train during the next “stop” and find wine. This was a two day journey and stops were infrequent, in the middle of nowhere, and brief. It’s up to the passengers to get themselves back on board before the train leaves. The train won’t wait for you and the crew won’t turn back. So, unless you’d like to be left behind in sub-zero degree weather, you may step off the train for some fresh air, but that’s about all you have time for.

Jeremy and Heather set their minds to acquiring wine. They were gone far too long, but much to everyone’s surprise, the train didn’t budge in their absence. Resourceful as ever, these two encouraged a couple of the crew to help facilitate their mission. Turns out, the crew was stopping at a market to pick up some supplies, so Jeremy and Heather hitched a ride with them. The smiles on their faces and the sigh of relief when they returned to the train is as funny as a memory now as it was at the time it occurred.

So yes, I’m drinking red wine from a bottle on a 15 hour flight from JFK to Johannesburg, sandwiched between a red eye flight from Los Angeles to New York and a flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town. This, in combination with a hefty dose of melatonin, is a concoction worthy of inducing sleep.

Going to Africa has long been a dream of mine. Earlier this year I had a talk with myself. “What are you waiting for??” More time? More money? The “right” person to travel with? Yes, those seem like logical considerations… But upon further analysis, it turns out those are merely perceived obstacles I was allowing to stop me from fulfilling a dream.

If I had more time, it’s possible I’d be working less and not have the money to do a trip like this. If I had more money, I’d probably be working so much, I wouldn’t have time to embark on his journey. Such factors are unknown and can always stop us if we allow them to. I’m alive now – that’s truth. The only way to realize our dreams is to take steps to do so. So, in June, I made a commitment to myself to travel to Africa before year’s end.

A funny thing happens when you commit to something – it begins to come to fruition. The following day one of my close girlfriends called me, “I just filed for divorce, want to go on a big trip?” she asked. Then came an irresistable deal from Lion World Tours, advertised at Travelzoo. Within 48 hours, our trip to Africa was booked.

I don’t know what’s going to happen while we’re there. We have a loose itinerary and amazing things “to do”, but we’re both looking forward to the expanded perspective and unforeseen adventures that ensue.

In other news, this is my first time on South African Airlines and I’m exceptionally impressed. The service in Coach is equivalent to that which I’ve previously experienced in Business Class on other airlines. They should win an award, if they haven’t already.  Thankfully, no wine shortage here. One of the things South Africa is known for is its wine.

Well, the magical cocktail of melatonin, red wine and sleep deprivation is taking effect. Soundtrack: The Alternative Best Of Radiohead.

More soon. Or later.

Who’s Protecting The Polar Bears?

November 11, 2010

Bears and tracks in the snow

We woke up this morning to snow! Considering we’re in the Arctic, that shouldn’t be surprising nor cause for celebration, but the weather has been unseasonably warm for this time of year and that’s not ideal for the bears, so dropping temperatures and snow are a welcome relief.

The longer it takes for the ice to freeze, the longer the bears must wait to get the nourishment they need for the coming year. Earlier today, I was told that a beluga whale washed ashore this summer and that several bears fed off the whale, so they are in better shape than usual for this time of year. That said, others are not faring well.

Cub resting on mom

Depending on the length of time until the ice freezes, some bears won’t survive long enough to go out and hunt once the ice does freeze – the last time these bears ate was sometime early in the summer. This delayed freeze also necessitates that smaller bears, moms and cubs stay a safe distance away from large male bears whom pose a threat of potential cannibalism.

Hiding, trying to stay safe until the ice freezes

I’ve learned a lot during the past 2 days. Some of it fascinating, some of it disturbing, and much of it leaves me feeling conflicted.




Look at this picture (click thumbnail to enlarge):

Polar bears have become the icon for climate change issues and I understand why. If you think they’re “cute” or otherwise spectacular in pictures, that’s nothing compared to how exquisite they are in person.

Playful bears

Polar bears are strong, powerful, playful, tender, clever, and brave. At the same time, polar bears are exceptionally vulnerable. One “bad year” for polar bears can decrease their population significantly. As it stands, the polar bear population is on a steady decline, even during “good years.”  Some biologists estimate that, if things continue the way they’re going, we could have an ice-free Arctic within 40 years. In some Arctic regions, this could occur within the next 20 years.

Some effects of climate change that I’ve witnessed during my 3 visits to Churchill are:
• The ice is freezing later and later each season. This year, it’s already approximately 1 month later than the historical average for the ice to freeze, and it hasn’t frozen yet
• “Warm” temperatures and minimal snow on the ground in early November 2010
• An obvious decline in 2010 population of Arctic Fox due to lack of food source (lemmings) this year. We haven’t seen any Arctic Fox this year. People who have been here all season say they’ve seen very few Arctic Fox.
• Not as many bear sightings as previous years
• Bears with a lesser average weight than normal. Low body weight leads to population decline. i.e. Sows can’t get pregnant if they don’t weigh enough.

Being here in Churchill with the bears leaves me with the nagging question: Now that we’ve used polar bears to get people’s attention, who is protecting the bears?

More playful bears

The gift Churchill provides is that it offers an opportunity for people to witness polar bears in their natural habitat. This is important because when people observe the polar bears of Churchill, they have a tendency to talk about it. The messages and photos that reinforce the iconic use of the polar bear as a mascot for climate change are spread to mass consciousness as more and more people experience Churchill for themselves.

The power of these conversations and the sharing of information and experiences among friends, colleagues, families, and media is undeniable. I began this blog 3 years ago precisely so I could document these experiences and I’ve already been interviewed by journalists and by an author of a forthcoming book about polar bears.

There are also serious downfalls as a result of the success of polar bear tourism in Churchill. The main downfall is the impact the exploitation of this industry is having on the bears. During the course of this week alone I have witnessed:

• Photographers in vehicles chasing bears to various locations to obtain a desired photo. This is highly stressful to the bears and causes them to burn calories they need to be conserving until they can go out on the ice and hunt (photo by: Alan Watson)

• Private tour providers in vehicles physically “bumping” bears with cars

• Bears running toward staff vehicles of specific tour operators, signaling they’ve experienced some form of impact from people in these specific vehicles. They’re running up to the vehicles, not from them, which likely indicates they’ve received some reward (i.e. food) from people in these automobiles

•Photographers getting out of their cars and approaching bears within a few feet to get photos. You may think to yourself, “Well, if that idiot gets killed by a bear, that’s his own fault.” Yes, but if that idiot gets killed by a bear, then the bear also gets killed. So in the end, the bear still loses. (photo by: Alan Watson)

• Bears surrounded by cars, therefore unable to continue on their path (photo by: Alan Watson)

• Tundra buggy tracks leading off course, including one that appeared as if someone had done donuts in a buggy, on the tundra
• Tour operators with open food in close proximity of bears, so that the smell will lure the bears even closer to the vehicle/customers
• Tourists clapping and yelling at bears to “get their attention” or try to get them to come closer. This is happening on guided tours, with guides who should educate rather than tolerate this.
• Human food conditioning of bears (bears learning they can get food from people or as a result of people). i.e. enabling bears to eat “dog food” at a residence that also allows private tours on their property for published fees ranging from $500-$1,000 per person, per day
• Last year, we saw a photographer in a truck chase a bear into the water so that he could capture a picture of the bear swimming

The bear viewing industry in Churchill is having an obvious impact on the bears.

McNeil River Bears

Is it possible for people to be in close proximity of bears, without impact? There are definitely examples, such as the managed wildlife program at McNeil River, where if there is an impact, it’s absolutely imperceptible. I was fortunate enough to win the McNeil lottery this year and was able to visit the park that has the highest concentration of brown bears in the world.

Mom and Cubs at McNeil River

The program at McNeil River is highly managed, educates people thoroughly to ensure the bears do not experience any impact – positive/reward or negative/fear from visitors. You can only get into the program by winning a random lottery. 10 people are allowed into the park at a time, in 4-day sessions. In my opinion, McNeil River is the epitomizing example of peaceful co-existence between different species. I believe the keys to the success of this program are restricted access, education, consistency, and respect. I will write a separate story about McNeil River soon.

Unfortunately, in Churchill, it’s likely too late for a program like the one at McNeil to be effective. Churchill bears are already conditioned to the impact visitors have had on them over time. They associate people with food and fear – reward and punishment. The program at McNeil was established more than 30 years ago and has been in affect since the first day visitors were allowed in the park.

There are several things that should be done on a global level, as well as numerous things that can be done in Churchill to help protect the bears. There is certainly some legislation that could be instituted and enforced on a local level. However, Churchill is a very small town and there are a lot of politics involved within the community that make this a challenge. Tour operations should be better regulated, tour operators better informed. But, again – even the “best” tour groups in Churchill have illustrated some intentional negative impact on the bears. Plus, “polar bear tourism” is one of only 3 primary sources of revenue in the small town. Therefore, implementing anything that is perceived as a threat to the viability of the business, likely won’t pass. As a result, these operations are creating an additional threat to the viability of polar bears.

There are plenty of people focusing on the “problems” and what we “can’t do.” So what can we do?

I do not claim to be an expert on this – these are merely my recommendations based on what I’ve learned and my experiences in Churchill for the past 3 years.

If you have plans to or would like to visit Churchill:

  1. Consider traveling with either The Great Bear Foundation with Chuck Jonkel or Ursus International with Rupert Pilkington. A lot of people come to Churchill on their own and arrange tours within Churchill themselves. From the math I’ve done, there doesn’t seem to be a financial benefit to this. More important, if you travel with one of these 2 organized groups, you are participating in an actual field course that includes education and experiential learning. What does this mean? Well, instead of counting how many bears you saw, you’ll be learning about the behaviors of the bears you’ve witnessed, Arctic ecology, Inuit culture, and what you can do to help preserve Arctic ecology.
  2. Seek out a holistic education about the Arctic including: Arctic ecology, the people and communities, history, the Northwest Passage, sources of income, and of course, polar bears
  3. Integrate the knowledge you’ve acquired through your experiences in Churchill
  4. When in Churchill, support the following businesses:
    1. The Eskimo Museum – a wonderful Inuit museum with great gift shop. The money from sales here goes directly back into the community
    2. The Northern Store – the one and only (grocery/convenience) store in Churchill open year-round. They also provide a lot of jobs for locals
    3. Northern Images – retail arm of Canadian co-ops limited. Revenue from sales here goes back to co-op. Everyone in the community is a member of co-op and they receive their dividends just in time for Christmas
    4. Wapusk – owned by Churchill locals who are in town year-round. They also run a dog sled tour business
  5. Do not feed the bears nor try to lure them over with any kind of food
  6. Do not approach bears
  7. If you see behavior that is harmful to the animals (i.e. baiting bears with food, harassing bears with vehicles, speeding up or taking “short cuts” to see a bear by chasing after it on a tundra buggy, etc) or Arctic ecology (i.e. destroying the tundra by driving tundra buggies off established paths), DOCUMENT IT. Take pictures or video. You should try to report it to local authorities in Churchill, but don’t stop there. Take the story outside of Churchill. Global attention and support will likely be more effective in facilitating a positive change than keeping it local.
  8. Do NOT visit Brian Ladoon’s “sled dog” property
  9. If you do decide to go on a tundra buggy, please request JP as your guide on Frontiers North Tundra Buggy Adventures. I rode with JP 2 years in a row – he stays on the path, he’s a great interpreter (you’ll learn more about the bears), he doesn’t put the buggy in the way of the path a bear is walking, he ensures passengers are respectful and quiet around the bears, he stays away from bears that seem distressed. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for other guides I’ve had. It’s worth waiting for JP’s availability or not going out on a tundra buggy at all

Tour operators want you to have a good time; they want you to see a lot of bears. You will pay a considerable amount of money for this experience and it’s important that it doesn’t happen at the expense of the well-being of polar bears. Come to Churchill to support them, not to participate in their demise.

The amount of negative impact this experience can have on the bears is up to you. If a tour operator is doing any of the following things, it is NOT ok:

  • Baiting bears to a location or vehicle with food or food smells (opening food containers near bears)
  • Allowing passengers to clap at and yell to the bears to try to “get their attention” or get them to come closer
  • Obstructing or intersecting the path/course a polar bear is walking
  • Chasing after polar bears
  • Getting out of the vehicle in close proximity to the bears
  • Tundra buggy drivers driving off the designated course and established paths

Not everyone will be able to see polar bears in Churchill, so here are some things you can do to help, no matter where you live:

  • Here are some simple, easy, things you can do to minimize your carbon footprint from Polar Bears International and Stop Global Warming
  • If you’re looking to support an organization that provides year-round education and implementation of programs that support and protect wildlife, I highly recommend
  • Learn as much as you can about current and pending legislation re: climate change, oil drilling, wildlife protection. Know who your state and local representatives are so you can reach out to them about these issues
  • Help me take this story global — we need international support to protect the bears.  I can be reached at:

These guys are counting on US:

Churchill Day 2: Fox, Polar Bears, Alarm Clocks

November 10, 2010

Polar bear chat

“Was that beeping noise meant to let us know it’s time to get ready?” Mickey, one of my Churchill roommates inquired at 7:08am.

“That beeping noise was my alarm, which means it’s the last possible time we can wake up to get ready,” I responded.

“Oh good. So all I need to focus on right now is getting dressed!” Mickey said, relieved.

Mickey is one of my favorite people on this trip. She’s a kind, funny 77-year old woman, who lives in Montana, loves to go dancing, and plays along with our silly games. She’s known about this trip for a long time and felt this was the year she had to do it, “because I’m not getting any younger and neither is Chuck,” she explained the day we first met.

We got dressed quickly and made our way to the kitchen (kitchen by day; “bar” by night) for breakfast and coffee. There’s a strategy to the morning coffee consumption in Churchill: you want to drink enough coffee to wake you up and keep you going for several hours, but not so much that you need to go to the restroom every 20 minutes after we head out to look for bears. It’s a delicate balance and after 3 years, I still don’t quite have it mastered.

Black phase red fox

Black phase red fox

After ample nourishment and caffeine, we bundled up and headed out for some bear viewing. It was very overcast today, with weather reports threatening rain. “The problem with rain, “Chuck explained, ”is that then it gets cold and the ground could freeze. A layer of ice forms above the ground and foxes and other Arctic animals can’t get to their food source – voles, lemmings, and other little critters.”

Fox sense of humor

Thankfully, we didn’t have rain today and we were lucky enough to see a red fox and a black-phase red fox. Fox are fun to observe because they appear playful, curious, and somewhat mischievous. The black-phase red fox approached us rapidly. Then, he eliminated in front of us, causing everyone to change their coos from “Awww, how cute! He’s coming over to see us!” to “Oh wow – he’s taking a. . .”

Bear on land without snow

Bear on land without snow

We also saw several beautiful bears today. You may have noticed in yesterday’s blog, there were a couple instances when I said I’d “fill you in later.” I’m going to do this again today and here’s why: I’ve been blogging about my adventures in Churchill for 3 years now and it has come to my attention that a hunting blog is republishing information about where the bears are, on what dates, and using these details to inform their polar bear hunting plans. So, I will give you as much information as I can now, without giving away so many details that I somehow help people whose intention is to kill the bears.

Two things I can tell you now:

  • We’re seeing a lot fewer bears than we saw last year and
  • We’re quite late in the season and there’s hardly any snow on the ground.

As we got back on the bus to head “home” for dinner, Mickey pulled me aside. “The people in the back of the bus always seem to be having a lot more fun than the rest of us,” she said. “You guys are always laughing and having a great time.”

I wholeheartedly encouraged Mickey to join us in the back of the bus. “Well, I would love to, but I don’t want to breathe in those fumes and the carbon monoxide.” Yes, it’s true – the bus has its challenges, but as Jeremy likes to say, “I guess it makes it more adventurous having this bus. . . you never know if you’re going to make it.”

“When I go out dancing,” Mickey continued, “there’s always one table of people who are laughing harder and more than most – that’s always my table!”

“I hope I ‘grow up’ like you,” I said. The laughter and adventures should never end.

Here are some pictures I took during our adventures today (click thumbnails for larger pics):

Polar Bear

The first bear I saw today

Walking in the willows along the horizon


Meeting of the minds

Nose to nose

Wanna dance?

Did you step in something?

I'm gonna getcha



Hug It Out

Until tomorrow. . .

Churchill, When Everyone Else Goes To Sleep

November 9, 2010 – November 10, 2010

I have some work to do tonight, but I will never get away with sitting in “the lab.” The late-night kitchen crew – there are a few regulars year to year, along with some newbies – is in the kitchen/dining room, drinking. This helps explain why several people insisted on calling the “Dining Car” on the train, “the Bar.”

The late night kitchen gathering has been an annual tradition since long before I joined this trip. Every night, after the evening lecture, 99% of the group goes to sleep to rest up for the adventures of the next day. The other 1% head into the kitchen to share stories and. . . drink.

I’m not drinking currently, nor was I drinking last year, but this does not excuse my absence from the kitchen pow wows each evening. If I am found anywhere other than the kitchen after 9pm, somebody comes to coerce me to join them. Coercion may be an understatement since compliance is mandatory. One of the reasons I love this tradition is that another biologist, Rupert Pilkington, leads a course here during the same time we’re in town and I always enjoy hearing his perspectives. Rupert works and travels around the world and is an exceptional storyteller. He’ll tell you about walking from the couch to the refrigerator: the story will take 40-minutes, and at least 8 fascinating encounters or experiences will take place between the couch and the refrigerator. You don’t want to miss Rupert’s stories. He’s also very knowledgeable about bears and world issues in general, and has the real-world experience to validate it.

Topics covered so far (it’s just after 1:00am) include:

• The health benefits of Blue M&Ms (this was Beth, not Rupert)
• Variances in the health systems of America, the UK, and Canada
• American politics (this was a very short conversation)
• Testing math skills by calculating how many bottles of wine are remaining among the group after the first night in Churchill
• Stories about traveling around the world
• Exploitation of polar bears
• Spirit Bears (White black bear)
• Sneaking alcohol on the train
• The many ways Rupert Pilkington earned his title as Shannon’s “Second Most-Useless Friend”
• Solutions re: Polar bear hunting

As you can see, everything from the serious to the silly is covered, often in great detail, until people can no longer keep their eyes open. . . or, until it’s time for the next day of polar bear observation to officially begin.

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!

Reuniting With The Polar Bears of Churchill (again)

The first polar bear I saw today

November 8, 2010

I’m sitting on the train to Churchill, heading to see the polar bears once again. This journey technically began at 4am Saturday morning (November 6). That said, the journey always begins before it technically begins.

I started my quest to see polar bears in their natural habitat three years ago and I’ve been going back to Churchill every year since. I almost didn’t go on the trip this year. I had taken time off to go see the grizzly bears at McNeil River in July and wasn’t sure about more time off work.

“Yeah, yeah. . . I know what you’re thinking, but you’re coming on this trip! You promised,” Shannon gently reminded me. Shannon works at The Great Bear Foundation and along with biologist, Chuck Jonkel, brings a small group of people to “the polar bear capitol of the world” every year.

My flight to Winnipeg was scheduled to leave at 6am, which meant heading to the airport at 4am Saturday. I was so proud of myself because, for once, I packed Thursday night, 32-hours before when I’d typically pack for a Saturday morning flight. Thinking I was ahead of the game was a mistake, however. I ended up having so much work to do that I stayed up through the night Friday until it was time to head to the airport Saturday morning.

“This trip is just a series of short naps,” I said to my friend, Heather. This is the first year a friend is coming to Churchill with me. I’ve been talking about it for 3 years and finally, one of my most adventurous friends decided it was time to join me.

We landed in Winnipeg around 2pm Saturday and headed straight to the hotel. After we dropped our gear off, we decided to go for a walk to find a good restaurant where we could have lunch. Now, I don’t want to offend anyone who lives in Winnipeg, but by the time we found a restaurant that looked like it might serve edible food, it was dinnertime.

After an exceptionally spicy Chinese meal at Hu’s on First, we made our way back to the hotel. By this point, we were exhausted, not only from walking around Winnipeg for several hours, but also from the lack of sleep the night before. After spending time in the hot tub and not having the attention span to wait for the Steam to turn on, we decided to make it an early night.  We were also well aware that it might be the last good night’s sleep we’d get for 9 nights.

“I’m setting my phone alarm for 9am,” I said to Heather, aware that this was the latest possible moment we could wake up, in order to be at the train station by 11am (and get breakfast, and get coffee). Alan and Leslie, a wonderful couple I met during my first visit to Churchill suggested we call them around 9am to make plans for breakfast before getting on the train.

I heard the phone ring during what felt like the middle of the night. I chose to ignore it, confident that my phone alarm would go off at the designated time. Heather also seemed to be choosing to ignore the phone, so I went back to sleep. However, underlying my sleep was a little voice, “you should see what time it is. Alan said we’d speak at 9am. Maybe it is 9.” So I looked at the clock.

“Oh no! Heather! Wake up! It’s 9:27!”

“What?! How did that happen??” she asked.

We started plotting how we were going to accomplish everything by 11am. The hotel stops serving breakfast at 10am. We were packed but we hadn’t showered. The nearest Starbucks was a 15-minute walk, the opposite direction of the train station.

“So, I guess we’re not going to shower,” Heather said, eliminating the thing we thought we could most live without, given the options.

Unwilling to accept that it was 9:30, I called down to the front desk. “What time is it?” I asked the receptionist. “It’s 8:32,” she replied.

“Why does the clock in our room say 9:32?” I asked.

“Because it’s daylight savings time. It changed in the middle of the night,” she explained. Note to people who work in the hotel industry: as guests are checking in, remind them of such details as time changes.

We were so relieved we had an extra hour, Heather and I got back into our beds and talked about all the things we had time to do now. “We can walk to Starbucks!” “We can buy water!” “We can shower!” “Breakfast is open for another hour and a half!” By the time we finished discussing all of our options, we only had time for breakfast and a shower.

“Would you like anything from Starbucks?” Alan texted me. This is one of the reasons why Alan and Leslie are among my favorites. Check. One more thing crossed off our list before embarking on a 2-day train ride.

Breakfast, by most people’s standards, was fairly mediocre. But, it was free, and things taste better when you don’t have to pay for them. As we learned to say following our all-day quest for good food in Winnipeg, “it was alright. . . for Winnipeg.” After breakfast, we made our way to the train station and met up with the rest of the group: Sam, Dan and Roxanne, Josette (French, from France, and living in British Columbia), Alan and Leslie of course, and Jeremy (from the UK).

I called Chuck to let him know that the entire group coming from Winnipeg was accounted for and ready to board the train. Chuck was leading the majority of the group, traveling by bus, from Missoula, Montana. It’s definitely worth doing that bus trip once in your life. After you’ve done it once, you can just take the train from Winnipeg. The group on the bus will join you on the train in Le Pas.

“Well, we drove through the night and then we went on an early morning hike,” Chuck said, filling me in on their experience. That’s why you want to do the bus trip one time – the early morning hike might have been nice, but riding on the bus through the night is another story.

We boarded the train in Winnipeg and immediately began playing games with our new friends. Some games were real games, like Scrabble Slam and MadGab. Other games were made up on the spot like, “Guess The Conductor’s Name.” Everybody played along without hesitation, which facilitated all of us bonding instantly.

Oh – another great thing that happened: we were greeted at the train by the same conductor I traveled with last year. I’m not going to tell you his name because if I do, then I can’t tell you all the cool things he did for us – don’t want him to get in trouble.

It’s 10:45am Monday.  We’ve been on the train almost 24 hours now, and many people are already referring to the Dining Car as “The Bar.” The group from Missoula joined us on the train around 3am. I opened my eyes to find Shannon, standing over me, laughing. . . or smiling loudly. Soon I saw Bob , Frank, and finally, Chuck.

You can read about Chuck in my Churchill year-one blog: here. What I find amazing is that, 3 years later, Chuck still has a bunch of new stories and information to share. This morning he told us all about the railroad between Winnipeg and Churchill. He talked about when the track was built, who owns each section, and shared insights about anticipated repairs. What kicked off the conversation, though, is what’s really. . . funny. . . or scary. I choose funny.

“You have a different engine on the train now than when you left Winnipeg,” Chuck said.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Well, because they’ve had some derailments lately and it’s (the route) so far away from any repair services that they want to have the best-working equipment on the train before we head any further North,” he responded, as if this was not cause for concern.

Relieved to learn that our train now had a better chance of completing the trip to Churchill, we headed to the dining car (aka “the bar”) for breakfast. The food on the train is surprisingly good. I ordered the “daily special omelet,” with wheat toast. I couldn’t figure it out – the toast tasted phenomenal. Sure, I added peanut butter and jelly, but this was a level of deliciousness that exceeded PB & J. Finally I had an epiphany, “I know why the toast is so good – BUTTER!” Listen, I know they say butter isn’t good for you, which is why I haven’t tasted it in so long. But butter is really good for toast.

“How often do you use the word ‘oh’?” I just heard a husband ask his wife, referencing her journal entry. They’re part of the Missoula group so I don’t know their names yet. The man has a travel GPS unit that he has suction-cupped to the train window. “He likes to know where he is,” Shannon informed me. I don’t know exactly where we are right now, but here is where we’re headed:



When you’re on a train for 2 days, you have a lot of time to talk.  Eventually, you’ve caught up about all the important stuff and the conversation starts to get a little silly, i.e.:

“The serving size of the Coffee Crisp is way bigger than the serving size of the Milk Dud.” This was actually a fair response to a game we were playing – guessing how each of these candies ranked in terms of various components of their nutritional value: Fat, Calories, Sugar

“Coffee Crisp is most flammable but Milk Duds burn the longest. . .”

“My friend used to live in LA and one day she decided to go to the mountains in the Palisades for a hike, for some peace and quiet.  And then she turned around and saw Nick Nolte, which scared her into moving to Montana.”

Yes, it’s getting late.  And the train has run out of red wine. . .

Doing More For Polar Bears

November 14, 2009
Churchill, Manitoba

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.

Churchill Candlestick Sunset

Churchill Candlestick Sunset

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.

polar bear close up

Polar bear close-up

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.

igloo building

Building an igloo

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 . . .

bear eyes

An important question

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?

Another Magical Day With Polar Bears

November 13, 2009
Churchill, Manitoba

Polar bear cub

Polar bear cub

Last night a polar bear visited us at the Studies Center.  Following dinner and preceding our evening lecture Shannon heard a loud knock at one of the side doors.  The door leads outside from the quiet lounge area and is not used by visitors to the Center.  This entrance is specifically used to load luggage in and out of the building.  A new group of students was expected at the Center last night so when Shannon heard the knock at the door her first assumption was that a representative from the new group was at the door.  Thankfully, before she considered opening the door Shannon thought aloud, “I wonder if there’s a bear out there . . .” Shannon’s statement prompted Jenny, a volunteer at the Great Bear Foundation, to look out the window.  Sure enough, there was a large polar bear, standing upright, banging forcefully on the door.

The bear made its way to a window in the quiet lounge and peered in at the guests who were gathering for an impromptu happy hour glass of wine.  After satisfying its curiosity with that room, the bear walked around the building and pressed its face against the window of one of the dorm rooms.  Our classmates Jeremy, Elissa, Steven, and Christina, were startled by the bear’s big face in their bedroom window.  Within minutes the Studies Center staff scared the bear away by firing flares into the sky.

For me, this close encounter with a polar bear at the Studies Center sparked images of the zoo.  In this case, we humans were in a building, behind windows secured with bars, as polar bears looked in at us with curiosity.   It seemed a fitting display of karma, and while safety is imperative, I was happy that we were all reminded of our place in Churchill.  This is the polar bear’s home, they have the upper-hand here – we are the strange alien creatures in their land.

This morning approximately half our group (myself included) set out on a Tundra Buggy to get a closer look at the bears.  I have mixed feelings about the buggies.  Their impact on the tundra is a hot topic and disputed from both advocates and protesters.  At the same time, the buggies potentially allow us to get closer to the bears and observe more of their natural behavior.  This year we’ve been fortunate to have many close encounters with bears right off the main publicly accessible roads in Churchill. I considered giving up my space on the buggy, but I’m happy I maintained it.

Using a rock as a pillow

Using a rock as a pillow

From the buggy we saw 5 different sets of moms with cubs ranging in age from 10 months to two years old.  The first mom we saw was walking with her male cub that was almost the same size his mom.  Once she assessed the area and felt her cub was safe, the mom found a rock to use as a pillow and rested comfortably.  Meanwhile, the curious young cub made his way up to our buggy.  I had my telephoto lens on, so at a certain point the bear was too close to photograph.  This was actually a blessing – it allowed me to put the camera down and observe the bear through the open window and the back deck.  On several occasions the bear made his way toward me on the buggy and looked at me with curious, sweet eyes.  I feel a deep connection with the bears, an understanding, and an unspoken communication.  Their eyes share a story of vulnerability and playfulness.  In these moments it’s important to remember their sheer strength and power.  One look at a 900-pound bear crossing the ice serves as a quick reminder that any encounter closer than the one we were experiencing could be deadly.  After inspecting the buggy from all angles, the cub made its way back to his mother and rested by her side.

Sparring  polar bears

Polar Bears Sparring

Just as were about to pull away and continue down the path, we saw 2 bears that had previously been resting approach each other.  “It looks like we might see some sparring,” our buggy guide J.P. noted.  He turned the vehicle off and we observed the sparring bears for what seemed to be at least half an hour.  Sparring is a natural play-fighting that allows the bears to practice for the real battles they face during mating season.  Male bears in Churchill outnumber female bears by an estimated ratio of 3 to 1, so often males need to fight for mating rights.  The 2 bears sparred for a while and then a third bear approached.  All 3 bears circled each other, assessing another sparring match.  2 bears – one that fought previously and the new bear – engaged in another round of sparring.  The third bear, tired from the first match, made its way to our vehicle and inspected us curiously.

As the sparring bears concluded their match, a mom, followed closely by her 2 young cubs

mom and cubs

Mom and cubs single file

approached us from the other direction.  The cubs were born in January and walked in a single-file line behind their mother.  A male bear was following them at a distance.  Hungry male bears will attack and eat cubs, so the mom was moving her cubs swiftly to safety.  Once the mom and cubs got a safe distance from the male, she laid back on the ice and we watched as she nursed the young cubs. We counted our blessings again as it’s rare to observe nursing behavior.

All in all we counted close to 40 bear sightings today.  It was extremely special to observe the sparring and nursing behavior and to have the bears approach us so closely.  As we headed back to town toward the end of the tour we came across an older male bear that was quite a character.  He was rolling over, biting his paws, and stretching.  When he noticed us, he lifted his head and looked at us between his legs, then went back to his playful polar bear

Polar bear yoga

Polar bear yoga

yoga.  He was extremely flexible, pulling his back legs over his stomach and up toward his mouth.  He looked at us as if he knew were taking pictures and he was hamming it up for the cameras.  As people cooed about how “cute” the bear was, we were once again reminded of his power.  After another half hour of playful stretching and tumbling, the bear sat up.  When he arose, back to us, we could see the battle scars from fights during the years.  J.P. estimated that the large male was 6 to 7 years old.  It’s almost as if our “cute” bear friend wanted to remind us of his size and power, being sure to sit up before we pulled away.

We saw several bears resting; other younger bears were out testing the ice.  We watched as one bear hopped from one block of ice to another and practiced thumping the ice with its two front paws.  Another mom with two slightly older cubs approached us as we made our way back to town.  Again, the bears were too close to photograph.  I spoke softly to the bears as they approached me on the buggy.  Then I heard J.P., “look at that sunset!”  We turned our attention away from the bears and saw an exquisite sunset.  I’ve seen a lot of beautiful sunsets throughout my travels and at home over the Santa Monica ocean, but this sunset with its beam of light radiating from vertically from the horizon through the sky was the most magnificent sunset I’ve seen.  Later I learned that this type of sunset is often referred to as a candlestick sunset and is quite common in the North.

As with the magical bear, fox, sunset, Arctic hare day that preceded today, tonight’s sunset punctuated another perfect day.

Churchill Sunset

Churchill Sunset 2

Looking Into The Eyes of Polar Bears

November 12, 2009
Churchill, Manitoba

bear gazing at water

Bear gazing at the Bay

Last night, prior to our Northern Lights outing, Chuck taught us about Arctic ecology. We learned about some of the factors contributing to climate change and why the Arctic region is so vulnerable. The opening up of the Northwest Passage and increased offshore drilling put this area at further risk. Chuck encouraged us to learn more about Russia’s direct involvement in this area as well as becoming more informed about Alaska’s offshore drilling and hunting policies. Chuck mentioned that one massive oil spill in the Arctic would be enough to destroy the region. He also stated that if policies remain consistent and without better regulation, the entire population of Polar Bears in Alaska could be extinct within 5 years.

I wanted to get a sense of the number of bears in the Churchill region and to get a better understanding of the threat to the Churchill bear population. Are the Churchill polar bears in as grave danger as those in Alaska? I asked several biologists in Churchill as well as a representative from Polar Bears International about the current population of polar bears in the region. Estimates ranged from 600 to 900 polar bears depending on the source. The Hudson Bay extends further South than other Arctic regions and is also where the ice freezes first, so bears migrate here from both the North and the South to get out on the ice and hunt seals. This migration and the decrease in funded research makes it difficult to know for sure how many bears are “residents” of Churchill versus those passing through to hunt seals when the ice freezes. While it’s difficult to get an exact count of the polar bear population in Churchill, everybody seemed to agree that it’s fewer than 1,000 bears.

Polar bear eyes

Face to face with a polar bear

Having spent the past 2 days (and several days last year) gazing into the eyes of polar bears it saddened me greatly to have an even better understanding of their potential demise. Having an awareness of the climate change issues facing the Arctic region is different from experiencing its impact first-hand. There are things we can do individually to help decrease our contribution to climate change: utilizing high efficiency appliances, light bulbs and low-flow or dual flush toilets; walking or cycling when possible instead of driving; ensuring car tires are properly inflated for maximum fuel efficiency; offsetting our carbon footprint by contributing to clean energy alternatives, etc. Stop Global Warming lists several simple actions we can take as individuals to minimize our personal impact. Climate change is also a global issue – there’s a need for tighter regulations of offshore drilling, it would behoove North America to take a more vested interest in Russia and their perceived “ownership” of Arctic waters. We can pressure our government representatives about these issues, those of us that are eligible can run for political office, we can help educate people about these issues (as Chuck continues to educate those of us in his Arctic Ecology Field Course).

bear with bone

Bear with bone in mouth

With the reminder of threats facing the polar bears and Arctic ecology fresh in mind, we set out for another day of bear watching. We tracked one bear that seemed to be on a mission, with a very clear path. He moved swiftly over the snow and rocks, pausing every few minutes to sniff the air before taking his next step. The sense of smell is a polar bear’s strongest sense – it’s how they locate a suitable food source, typically seals. It’s estimated that polar bears sense of smell can range several miles, including underground and through the thick Arctic ice. The large bear made its way toward another bear that was sleeping at the base of rocky hill. We thought perhaps there could be an interaction between the bears – maybe some sparring. Instead, the bear found a large leg bone of an unidentifiable animal. Based on the length and structure of the leg bone Chuck guessed it could have come from a caribou. The bone was out of place and it’s speculated that it was bait placed by tour operators or photographers to lure the bears closer to areas accessible for public viewing.

One of the most disturbing things I noticed during this trip is the double-message humans are sending to bears. There are various methods of baiting bears that we observed, all of which lead the bears closer to human interaction. Yet when a bear gets “too close” people shoot flares and cracker shots at it. If a bear is considered to be a nuisance, it’s darted and placed in Polar Bear Jail where it sits caged, in a metal and concrete building, until the ice freezes and it can be transported further from town. Sometimes bears are transferred from jail before the ice freezes, but as long as a bear is in jail we’ve removed it from its natural life cycle, rhythm and interactions with other bears.

The alternative to bear jail is likely that the bears would be shot and killed. So while the jail is a more humane and preferred method of limiting unwelcome human-bear interactions, it’s our responsibility as people invading the bear’s habitat to minimize the number of bears that end up in jail each year. The more responsible we are with our human behavior, the less likely polar bears will engage in unwanted bear behavior.

Little bear gets out of the way

Little bear moves away from the larger bear

We watched the two bears, as the larger bear inspected the leg bone, the smaller bear that had been there first slowly walked away. The smaller bear instinctively knew it was no competition for the large bear and that it needed to move out of the way and let the large bear have the bone. As the bigger bear gnawed on the bone, the little bear maintained a substantial distance and stood submissively, head down.

We continued driving the roads of Churchill and observing numerous bears. We saw bears crossing the road to get closer to the shore, conserving energy and resting, testing the strength of the ice and generally preparing for the imminent hunting season. It took longer for the ice to freeze last year so the bears got a late start. Luckily, the ice remained intact later into the Spring than usual, allowing some moms and new cubs additional hunting time upon emerging from their dens toward the end of the season. This additional time to hunt helped further sustain the adult polar bear population as well as that of the young cubs. We’ve seen a few skinny bears during this trip, but all in all, the bears seem to be in better shape and stronger than they were last year at the same time.

We enjoyed a beautiful sunset before returning to the Studies Center for another informative evening lecture followed by the ritual late-night gathering in the kitchen.

Churchill Sunset

Churchill Sunset

A Magical Day With Polar Bears, Foxes, and Northern Lights

November 11, 2009
Churchill, Manitoba

Polar bear stroll

Mid-morning stroll

As with last year, there’s a tribe of people who gather in the kitchen with whiskey and beer after the day’s adventures and classes have concluded.  It’s a convergence of two different groups of students and biologists, sharing bear stories, ghost stories, and exchanging ideas to make positive change.  The late night kitchen gathering is one of my favorite parts of this annual adventure (yes, I will be back every year) and I find it hard to tear myself away during the early morning hours.  It’s even harder to get away when excusing yourself leads to group protests and pleas to stay for “just one more story.”  Eventually, one by one, we make our way to bed between 1:00am and 4:00am and before you know it, the alarm is going off to signal another day of Arctic adventures.

As we were on our way toward the coast to observe polar bears this morning, a bear crossed the road ahead of us.  He took his time, enjoying his walk, as we pulled off to the side of the road to appreciate him.  When he crossed the street, the bear turned and looked at us and then started scratching his neck on a sign.  I crept down the steps leading to the open bus door and took a picture of the bear standing behind the sign.  It wasn’t until we returned to the Studies Center this evening and I transferred my pictures to the computer that I saw what the sign said: “Please Do Not Disturb.”  When thinking about climate change and our impact on Arctic ecology, this picture sends an important message. (More after the picture)

Please Do Not Disturb Polar Bear

Please Do Not Disturb

We continued to make our way to Cape Merry, spotting bears and observing their behavior.  We also noticed that more sea ice had accumulated in the bay overnight.  Chuck told us that with a few more nights below freezing the ice would solidify and the bears would be able to go out and hunt again.  We saw several bears along the coast, looking at the water as if they were willing it to freeze.

Looking for a place to rest

In search of a quiet place

We saw quite a few bears along the way to Cape Merry and it was a beautiful, sunny day.  One bear was sleeping in a patch of willows close to the side of the road.  There were several trucks that pulled over to watch the bear.  Seemingly aware that he was under observation, the bear stood up purposefully, looked at us and crossed the road.  Why did the polar bear cross the street? To get some rest.  Once safely on the other side of the road, the bear traversed down a little hill and laid down, barely within view.  One by one the trucks of onlookers pulled away.

When we arrived at Cape Merry we noticed a lot of fox tracks, but we didn’t see any fox.  It was almost as if the foxes were taunting us with their tracks: “Look over here!” “Oh, now I’m over here,” “You just missed me!”  After spending some time at Cape Merry, looking at the fort and learning about the history of settlement in Churchill, we boarded our bus.  We only saw one Arctic fox last year and it was during a 6:00am bear watch so it was still dark out.  I was really hoping we’d encounter more foxes this year and was encouraged by the number of

Arctic Fox

"I'm up here!"

tracks we saw.  Just as everybody succumbed to the idea that the foxes around Cape Merry were out of view, a little white Arctic fox appeared on the side of a hill.  The fox made its way up the hill as we pulled over once again to watch it.  We all reached for our cameras and got some great pictures of the fox, backlit, on top of the hill.  Arctic foxes always appear joyous, as they seem to bounce around the snow and rocks.  When you actually do see an Arctic fox it’s as if the fox knows you’re taking pictures and it provides picture perfect poses in the best light of day.

We continued making our way out of Cape Merry until somebody spotted another fox coming down a hill.  This time it was a cross fox – a mix between a silver fox and a red fox.  The dark, multi-colored fox was digging and burying its nose in the snow.  Then, the cross fox looked up at us, nose covered in snow, and made its way toward our bus.  The fox observed us curiously before running off alongside the hill again.

Just as we were pulling out of the main road that leads to Cape Merry somebody yelled out

Cross Fox

Cross Fox

“fox!”  Once again, we pulled over to have a look. This time it was a beautiful red fox, curled up asleep on the rocks.  We all expressed our gratitude and feelings of being blessed with several fox sightings.  Not only did we see 3 foxes today, we saw 3 different kinds of foxes.

We made our way back to the Studies Center and felt satisfied, having seen at least 10 polar bears and 3 foxes in one day.  After dinner and our evening lecture, Frank told us that if the Northern Lights were out tonight, he’d take us to see them.  Sure enough, around 11:00pm we got word that the Northern Lights were visible.  Those of us who were awake boarded the bus and drove approximately one mile, away from the light of the Studies Center to see the Lights.  We were awestruck as we watched the Northern Lights display.  The green light morphed and shape-shifted, at times appearing to cover the entire sky, all the way down to the horizon.  In line with our perfect, magical day, we saw 3 shooting stars among the Northern Lights.

As the lights faded and the display subsided, we boarded the bus and made our way back to the Studies Center.  Just prior to pulling into the parking lot, an Arctic hare hopped right across our path – a magic rabbit to bookend a perfect day.

Northern Lights

Northern Lights (photo courtesy of Jeremy Beheler)