Report from Churchill: November 17, 2010

The predicted blizzard never really materialized though some light snow fell during the day. Frigid temperatures crept in to the region as the mercury dropped to -15 to -20c  with the wind chill at -34c. With this trend predicted to continue it should allay some of the panic of those speculating that the polar bears are in grave danger do to late freeze up of the Hudson Bay. True story according to the Canadian Ice Service, a division of Environment Canada. Ice formation in the Hudson Bay is about three to four weeks behind schedule due to higher temperatures.  This year is the lowest ice level since 1971 although over the last five to six years the level is “not significantly different” according to Canadian Ice Service forecaster Luc Desjardins. The difference this season has been the higher temperatures. In Nunavut’s Foxe Basin to the North the air temperature is 14 degrees above normal and overall the temperature in the Bay itself is 4 degrees above normal. Funny how those darn air temperatures affect ice formation….genius.

Don’t despair just yet. Do know that the average freeze -up in the Hudson Bay comes on November 25. That being the water from Seal River along the coast to York Factory  being 50% ice-covered as viewed via satellite. And yes, this year being good deal behind that schedule, ice can form quite quickly with prolonged intense cold. Of the 12 plus years I have been working in Churchill, the fear at this time of year has been ,by and large, of an early freeze-up before all scheduled travelers were able to see the polar bears before the bears journeyed to the ice in search of seals. Each year can be different and we will surely keep an eye on the ice formation in the next few weeks and keep you informed. For now the good news is that a recent survey of 333 bears along the Western Hudson Bay has them in relatively good condition…let’s hope they stay that way until the ice forms.Churchill polar bears.

Due to the frigid cold, wildlife sightings dropped off on the land. In the CWMA, guide Melissa and group struggled to find much animal action from their heated rover. Polar bears hunkered down in the willows seeking shelter from the frosty, biting wind. Even a few ptarmigan were seen burying themselves in snowdrifts to keep warm and away from stinging ice crystals blowing across the tundra. A lone bear was spotted crossing an icy thermakarst ..then lying down and rolling a bit before continuing on toward shelter. Still..the arctic feel is quite an experience to behold.

Guide Scott and group had a similar day as they perused the tundra. The weather itself can be quite scintillating if looked at the right way. Scott summed up the polar bear mentality quite nicely by stating; “If I was a polar bear I’d be sitting in the willows as well”. Well said.

Guide Brent, with his photo group, found the weather to be an opportunity for some rather unique images. Photographers do have the unique ability to see beauty in just about any kind of environmental conditions.  Moving away from launch in the CWMA, the group did sight a couple of ghost-like bears moving in the distance. As they neared the bay, the predominant feature presenting itself was  the ice forming almost before their eyes over a short period of time. One could actually notice the grease ice thickening and the slush ice coagulating throughout the day. This black ice phenomenon happens at a rapid pace and if the temperatures remain this low, sheet ice will follow.

The excitement of the day for the group came when they witnessed a sow with a three -year old cub charge a young male out on some pond ice…chasing him off at least four times. The male looked to be near the same age and Brent and his rover driver Rick were thinking that he could possibly be her other cub that she was attempting to wean in order to care more efficiently for the other one. Pretty interesting behavior not seen very often.

Passing by the tundra lodge on the way to Christmas Lake esker, two bears were camped out in a snowdrift. When the rover rumbled up close, the two rose, shook the snow from their heavy fur and moved around a bit..then back to cover out of the wind. Out along the rise of the esker, the photographers clicked away at the snow -blasted spruce forest as the unique patterns of the drifting snow were endless. A raven solemnly watched from the shelter of a thick spruce as the rover passed by. Forever more.

Low visibility from blowing snow crystals eliminated any sense of horizon and the scale of  ghost rovers appearing  out of the haze threw off one’s perspective. Sometimes they appeared as huge machines and other times quite small…a moon-like scene.

As the group made the trip back to launch, a beautiful sunset filtered through the blowing curtain of snow and ice crystals. The concentric rings of what looked like a giant orange jaw breaker gave the snow a  blue tinge and highlighted the flag-like spruce trees. A warm glow in the frigid twilight of the North.

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