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)

The Pictures Say It All: Polar Bears, Foxes and The Arctic

November 11, 2009

The pictures say it all. Another amazing day in Churchill.

Speed Limit

Do Not Disturb


Polar Bear

Bear Sticking Tongue Out


Arctic Fox

Arctic Fox Lookout

Cross Fox - Silver Fox + Red Fox

Snowy Face Cross Fox

Snowy Face Cross Fox

Cross Fox Yawn

Northern Lights

All photos taken by Colette Weintraub, except Northern Lights by Jeremy Beheler