An otherwise calm, uneventful weather day turned by afternoon and kicked up high North winds in gusts up to 85kph. The winds turned moderate temperatures into frigid ones and foreshadowed another possible storm on the way.

Polar bears out on the land prepared for the windy onslaught by hunkering down in willows and using drifts and snowbanks as protection. It’s not the cold that bothers them….as they are, er..in fact polar bears..it’s the wind kicking up dust, ice crystals and just confusing their intense, high powered olfactory senses. Polar bears rely so much on their sense of smell that when the wind gusts so furiously it can be likened to beings, such as humans, who rely on sight so intently; walking around in complete darkness not really knowing what’s around the next corner. For polar bears the next corner is on or in the tundra, rocks or forest. Polar bears, like many wild animals get a little weary when uncertainty comes into play.

Guide Brent experienced a wide array of this tentative but interesting behavior on a day excursion with his group out in the CWMA (Churchill Wildlife Management Area). Starting the day out near the tundra lodge, the group witnessed various young, very clean,  bears moving in and out of the area. Many of these bears were so young they had no evident scars yet from active sparring thus enhancing their pristine beauty. Off in the distance a few big males were going at it with some short sparring spats but not as prolonged as previous days.

Churchill polar bear.

Photo: Claudia Isabey

As the morning waned, more bears were spotted moving, though not engaging other bears or rovers as much as other days. Winds were just starting to escalate and the animals were seemingly searching out the prime sheltered locales. Before they reached their spots and before the winds really tipped the scales, the group was enthralled with vistas of bears crossing glass-like frozen thermakarsts (shallow ponds across the tundra). Since temperatures had warmed somewhat in the past two days, the surfaces melted slightly and now had iced up again like a hockey rink. Bears were sliding and slipping a little as they crossed the surfaces. Some bruins were even testing parts of the ice with thumping actions …possibly practicing for later on when the Hudson Bay starts freezing. Observing these bears crossing the ice clearly isolates the pigeon -towed front-leg movements as well as some tentative sprawl-crawl steps taken on seemingly weaker ice. Photographs of all these actions as well as the ones capturing the bear’s reflections on the ice will all be lifelong time capsules of this wild frontier.

Churchill polar bear sow with cub.

Photo: Claudia Isabey

When the wind finally started to peak, most of the bears hit the willows. Brent noticed that many however were not in their oft -sighted early season sleepy poses. Numerous animals were backed in against the willows and another good number were sometimes standing amongst the willows while engaging in some pawing or light boxing. More sporadic in these interactions, the bears were definitely exhibiting another unique, unusual behavior influenced by the ever changing weather of the North.  Red-tinged willows also made for dramatic contrast against the striking white fur they surrounded.

As dusk closed in on the afternoon, wind gusts were rocking the rover and shearing off the tops of the whitecaps in the bay. Earlier, Brent thought he even noticed breakers rolling across his traveler’s soup bowls as the wind pressed hard from the North. The rocky beaches were getting hammered with kelp and foam and even though venturing onto the rear observation deck was a challenge, it was worth the try to experience the arctic gaels.

Finally the rover set a course back toward launch as the group looked back over the wide open menagerie of icy ponds and glossy, lichen- speckled rocks peeking through snow -patched ground cover. The sunset was just taking shape and back in town all would get a good look as it sunk into Button Bay, like a glowing anchor splashing up beautifully fragmented diffused colors into the arctic sky.

Sunset in Churchill.

Photo: Peter Herbert

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