Tag Archives: Arctic

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 Greatbear.org.
  • 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: colette@mytraveltales.com

These guys are counting on US:

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

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)

Reuniting with Polar Bears

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

Polar Bear

One of the polar bears I met in 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

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

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

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

To be continued. . .

Taking Action for Polar Bears

My Arctic Adventures Blog featured on MySpace

My Arctic Adventures Blog featured on MySpace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Curious Bear

Curious Bear

Learning About Polar Bears With Ian Stirling

Mid-way through our stay in Churchill we discovered that Ian Stirling was coming to town and would be giving a lecture on polar bears and climate change the night we were scheduled to return home.  This was one of those moments you’re thrilled that your train is 7 hours delayed! Ian Stirling is a renowned scientist who has been studying polar bears and Arctic ecology for more than 30 years.  Thanks to train delays, we were able to attend Ian’s lecture.  When Ian saw Chuck in the audience he told a story about how Chuck once led him into a bear den… while the bear was still in the den.

Here are some video clips (2 parts) of the lecture.  These are some general facts about polar bears, their reproductive cycles, and their place in the food chain.  

Ian Stirling Lecture Part 1


Ian Stirling Lecture Part 2

Videos: Hanging Out With Polar Bears

These videos were taken during our second to last polar bear outing.  Prior to this day, it was 20-30 degrees Fahrenheit which was too warm for the ice to form and move to the shore of The Hudson Bay. Polar bears rely on this ice so they can go out and hunt. Thankfully, as we were leaving Churchill a cold storm moved in.  Locals were enthusiastic and hopeful that this storm would finally bring the ice to shore so the bears could eat. The bear’s hunting season is getting shorter each year – the ice shelf forming later and breaking up an average of 2-3 weeks earlier than it used to. 

The first video shows a polar bear seemingly walking with a destination in mind, but he stops for a playful time out before continuing on his way.  

The next video shows a bear shielding himself during a windstorm and 19 degrees below temperatures!

We only saw one mother bear with a cub during our trip.  And days when we saw 8 bears, we should have seen 20-30 bears according to Dr. Jonkel (“Chuck”) who has been leading this trip for 25 years. Chuck made sure we understood this is not a good sign.  It’s not only further evidence that the polar bear population is decreasing, but indicates that reproduction is decreasing as well. 

So, what can we do? That’s coming next!

Filling In The Blanks – More Arctic Adventures


November 16, 2008

We’ve just begun the long journey home.  We’re currently on hour 8 of our 29-hour train ride.  There are so many details and stories that didn’t get covered in the previous blog entries. 

Dr. Charles Jonkel and Me, Missoula Montana Nov 18

Dr. Charles Jonkel and Me, Missoula Montana Nov 18


One thing that’s clear is that we’ve all become family. It was evident when we joined another group of individual travelers on a tour the other day. Our group entered and immediately the woman from Polar Bears International said, “you guys have really been traveling together. You’re yelling at each other (in a fun way), teasing, laughing, and so comfortable together.” And when we boarded the train late last night I looked around at the few of us who have become a micro-family and said, “we’re gonna miss each other. “ Brandon replied, “Yeah, I didn’t think it would be possible.” And everybody laughed. He went on to explain that when he met everyone initially he thought, “ok, cool. They’re all right.”  But as we spent the week together, in crazy travel circumstances, and experiencing the world of polar bears, we truly became family.  That, of course, includes the whacky aunt and occasional person yu wish hadn’t married into the family. But everybody’s unique personality is what made the group dynamic work. 

The other thing that’s unique about this trip and supports that “family” dynamic is that we ate every meal together. I’m not sure how many families do that anymore, but it’s a powerful reminder of how important that time is.  We ate in a dining room, no TVs, no computers, no cell phones (they wouldn’t have worked anyway) – just people sharing their experiences, making each other laugh, and racing each other to the best desserts. 

Looking for tundra berries in the snow

Looking for tundra berries in the snow


Anyway, more about our adventures in Churchill: There was one day when the weather wasn’t conducive to seeing polar bears.  It was snowing, with 30 mph winds and near white out conditions.  When the weather gets like this, the bears hunker down and sleep, conserving energy and hoping that the cold front is enough to bring on the sea ice. Now, if the polar bears think it’s a good idea to curl up and sleep all day, you’d think the people may follow their cue.  But no, we’re a little bit nuts and Chuck took us out for a walk in the forest.  We dug down through about 2 feet of snow to find tundra berries and other vegetation.  It was 9 degrees below zero and pretty damn cold.  But Chuck wanted us to learn about the vegetation, what the Arctic critters eat and how they gather their food through the snow. This past year saw a plentiful production of berries and a lot of snow.  So, instead of being buried under the permafrost, where the animals couldn’t reach them, there are plenty of berries accessible this season. That’s good news for the terrestrial animals of the Arctic.

Kelly playing in the snow

Kelly playing in the snow


It seemed like we were the only people crazy enough to be outside in this weather. The roads were empty. There was a moment when I’m sure everybody was re-considering why we were outside instead of sipping hot chocolate back at the research center.  But before you can even verbalize that thought, you remember that you traveled to the Arctic – you didn’t come here for hot chocolate and warm weather. And at that moment, everybody started falling backwards into the snow.  It’s an amazing feeling to know you can fall safely backwards and not get hurt. In fact, you didn’t even feel the impact of the fall.  It was just poof and then outbursts of giggling all around. 


More to come soon, including: Ian Stirling lecture, video of a polar bear at play, and some simple things we can all do to help the polar bears.  In the meantime, here are a couple more pictures


Roads were empty except for our crazy group

Roads were empty except for our crazy group











Arctic puppies play with snow balls!

Arctic puppies play with snow balls!




Packed up for the return home

Packed up for the return home


Bears, Bears, Bears!!

(note: you can see full-size images, by clicking the thumbnails below)

Once again, the best stuff seems to happen when most people have gone to sleep.  Last night a group of us gathered in the dining room for some late-night story telling and creative inspiration (aka whisky).  We sat with Rupert Pilkington, another bear researcher at the Center, and he told us some bear stories and personal adventures.  

After 4 hours sleep, we woke up at 5:30 this morning to go on an early morning bear watch with Chuck.  We were looking for polar bear tracks so which would help determine our afternoon bear-watching route with the larger group (only 8 of us went out this morning).  We did see some tracks, but they were quickly buried by the falling snow.  Chuck speculated that we may not see many bears today, with the possibility of a white out.  Before we headed back to the Center for breakfast we saw 2 Arctic foxes (cute white fox that always look happy) running across the snow.

Polar bears crossing the Tundra, on their way to play with sled dogs

Polar bears crossing the Tundra

Thankfully, the weather cleared up and we saw bears today.  This was our first “official” bear outing and it was amazing. As long as I’ve dreamed of this trip (literally) I never could have imagined the feeling that overcame me when I saw the first bears.  They are absolutely phenomenal.  They’re playful, smart, curious, and strong.  It’s still hard to believe we shared the ice with them today.  We watched a mom and cub traverse across the tundra for a while and then jumped back in our bus and headed in the direction they were heading.  



Polar bear looking at right at me

Polar bear looking at right at me

When we arrived at our second stop, we immediately saw 2 bears resting under trees.  One of them looked at right at me.  Another got up, checked us out, turned around, and went back to his nap.  Then, at a distance, we saw the original 2 bears heading our way.  We now had our eyes on 4 bears – 2 napping and 2 moving swiftly in our direction. 

The other thing I should mention is that there are a bunch of sled dogs tied up in the area. I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen the photo of the polar bear playing with a dog that circulated a while back, but I witnessed it today! Initially the dogs howled when they saw the bears.  The larger bear (Chuck thinks it was the mom) literally pounced on and pinned one of the dogs to the ground.  And then, she let him up – unharmed. They chased each other in circles, stood side-by-side, and played for about 10 minutes.  If they wanted to, the bears could have easily killed the dogs.  But after they were finished playing, the bears continued on their way.  

More tomorrow… there are some people waiting for me in the dining hall 😉 

Resting Bear

Resting Bear









Polar bears playing with dogs

Polar bears with dogs









Good friends. Polar bears and dog at play

Polar bears and dog









MORE PICTURES POSTED HERE: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=44024&l=f9ece&id=508093336

Lesson 1: Getting There

When you’re going on a big trip:

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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