Polar Bears On The Rocks and Roads

Temperatures are currently just below freezing in Churchill with snow in the forecast next week. winds from the North have been prevalent these past few days and the white stuff will soon be carried in on the gales soon. Meanwhile business as usual continues around Churchill with a good number of polar bears around in some unusual places. Various birds are still being observed as well…many still finding Churchill a hospitable place for this late in the Fall. Soon ,however, the season will turn Winteresque  and another wave of the winged ones will head South.

Churchill polar bear stretched out on pre-cambrian shield.

Colby Brokvist photo.

Polar bears have frequently been observed  around the rocks out at Bird Cove and Halfway Point. It’s interesting how each year some unique characteristic emerges of the particular season’s bear population around Churchill. Bears on rocks have certainly been this season’s surprise. Many years we don’t see more than a handful of bears around Bird Cove, though this year it has been a hotspot.
Guide Colby Brokvist and his group viewed the bear on the pre-cambrian slab above out at Halfway point in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA). He ascended via rock ledges, but couldn’t figure out how to get down. This image is of him trying to figure out how descend the rock slab.”I see Yosemite black bears cruise this stuff regularly, but this guy couldn’t seem to find his balance.” stated an amused Brokvist.  Finally, he made it down and found a nook in the rocks out of the wind to rest in.
Guide Paul Brown ‘s group has been enjoying the plethora of early-season polar bear encounters on the tundra in the CWMA. They also were very fortunate to see three gyrfalcons while out along the coast. One dark -phase possible juvenile at Halfway point and two white phase, one at Cape Merry and one also at Halfway Point.

White phase gyr falcon.

Paul Brown photo.

Guide Sue Zajac noticed the polar bears she and her group were observing were “more active” than in the previous days. At the tundra lodge, bears were sparring out on the snow-dusted land, preparing for more serious encounters later out on the ice. After spending a good part of the afternoon in that area the rover headed back toward launch and came across a snowy owl near the trail. Earlier they spotted two golden eagles …most likely the pair that had been seen last week also. Mergansers were scuttling around in the last remaining water of the scattered thermakarsts and a glacuous gull patrolled the coastline riding the up drafts.

Churchill polar bears sparring.

Paul Brown photo.

Guide Karen and her Ultimate Churchill group arrived at the airport in Churchill and headed directly to the polar bear holding facility to learn about the capturing process. Culvert bear traps on the grounds are an excellent teaching tool. The group’s trip came  full circle on the last day. A Bear Lift of two siblings from the polar bear compound was an apt send off as the group then went right to the airport for the flight to Winnipeg.  Three other Natural Habitat groups also enjoyed the bear lift. The guests loved the last day.  Prior to the bear lift several guests toured the town complex, and met Boris who has lived in Churchill for 51 years.  His picture is on the wall of the portrait gallery.  He told  a couple of stories of his close encounters with polar bears.  Then, all went dog mushing with Kelly & Ernest, whom the guests enjoyed immensely. A well rounded trip to the far North!

Churchill polar bear lift.

Photo Paul Brown.



Polar Bears Amassing At Cape Churchill

Hudson Bay Helicopters has been running charter tours for travelers in Churchill for many years now. Typically the flights start out along the coast and head due East all the way to an area known as Cape Churchill. The Cape is an early season gathering spot for polar bears awaiting the annual Hudson Bay freeze-up. Usually this time of year polar bears are starting to gather near and around the Cape ….however not to the extent they are now. The numbers are impressive for sure.

On the flights out along the coast, sporadic sightings of bears have been reported roughly aligning with  the numbers sighted in the CWMA and elsewhere on the tundra. Once over Cape Churchill though, groups of between five and nine bears have been seen with even a confirmed sighting of about 14 bears in a line of close proximity. Natural Habitat guide Melissa Scott has been leading polar bear trips for over a decade in Churchill and she has “never seen this many bears  at the cape this early in the season.” Over 30 bears in all have been tallied!

Flights out to an old polar bear denning area on the 22nd of this month had beautiful “sunny morning light” according to Scott as she accompanied her ultimate Churchill group on the flight excursion. Looking down at the patterned ground covered with verdant caribou lichen or “reindeer moss” and the slightly ice encrusted tundra lakes, the guests surely felt the Arctic spirituality from above. After a sighting of a polar bear sow with two cubs of the year (coy’s) the moose numbers were just as impressive as the gaudy numbers of Cape bears. Along the Deer River, moose were spotted in and out of the willows. The return trip revealed a group of roughly 10 moose, including two cows(one with a calf) and eight or nine males all in the same area. Breeding season is still going strong apparently.

Churchill polar bears sparring.

Paul Brown photo.

Meanwhile, back on the tundra,guide Karen Walker and her travelers experienced an amazing day without traveling farther than Bird Cove in their tundra rover. Melissa and group had viewed bears close to the area the day before from helicopters so three groups headed to the spot the following day. At the outset, a pair of polar bears spent about an hour around Melissa’s rover..even standing and leaning against the vehicle, before investigating the others. These two males, around four or five year- old’s, seemed to be good buddies. They sparred and wrestled for over a half hour and then lumbered  away into the willows for a nap. Karen’s rover circled the old loop road and then the driver situated the machine near the rocks. Then to the amazement of the group, the same two bears reappeared from their slumbers and resumed their wrestling bout. After awhile the bears curiously sniffed at the boots of the humans on the rear observation deck through the steel grate. All in all the bears spent almost 45 minutes under and around the rover before heading off into the cover of the undulating, craggy granitoid rocks.

Polar bear on rover in Churchill, MB.

" This is a hold-up...give us all your muk tuk."

On the back toward launch a majestic, thick auburn-furred red fox with fluffy tail seemed to lead the rover back home as it jumped weightlessly in and out of the willows along the trail. Four ptarmigan at about 75 yards added to the Northern palette.

Karen’s group also had some incredible sights from their helicopter journey. Aside from multiple bear and moose sightings, the group aboard the choppers also viewed about 20 seals on the rocks near the weir on the Churchill River. Heading up river toward the mouth, they pulled over to the West bank hovering very low above Sloops Cove. Once there, they were able to read the rock-engraved signatures of Thomas Hearne and others who explored the region hundreds of years ago. Amazing to think what they would think seeing the likes of a helicopter above the cove.


Chillin In Churchill

A cold, snowy and windy start to the week has jump-started the season and eclipsed last year’s slower start. More of an Arctic-like start than last year. The temperature drop has allowed the rain to become snow creating a more northern feel. Polar bear numbers have been slowly rising both in the Churchill Wildlife management area and in Churchill proper.Seems like momentum is building for another unique, exciting month of wildlife encounters.

Natural Habitat guide Elise Lockton and group observed a sow and her cub out at Bird Cove and then made their way over to the tundra lodge on their evening  rover excursion. The usual suspect larger bears lounged around the willows behind the lodge while the group enjoyed some wine and a nice meal on the tundra. The previous day the group was out near Gordon Point where a dead seal went undetected by a polar bear that actually circled the area twice…must have had a cold or something. Numerous Brant Geese  flying as well as multiple common eiders filled out the sub-arctic landscape.

Churchill polar bear near lodge.

Polar bear in the willows. Paul Brown photo.

A “great” day on the tundra ,as guide Colby Brokvist put it, began with polar bears at bird cove, Halfway Point and the spit of land extending bay-ward near the lodge. Though mostly lounging and snoozing along the Hudson Bay coast, the setting itself is simply unforgettable for travelers who have never experienced this landscape. A warm, very sunny and clear day with a cold Northerly wind made roving the tundra even more glorious.  It was also “fantastic” for  bird sightings as the late migration pattern is holding on for a little longer. The group watched eagerly as a pure- white gyrfalcon chased snow buntings around along the coast. Another pair of glaucous gulls, a female black scoter, and a common goldeneye were also present for all to check off their life-lists. Goldeneyes will Winter as far North as open -water permits so they may be around for a good while this Fall. Continuing down the Christmas Lake esker past an old inuit hunting camp out by the coast revealed some additional bird life. Some red breasted mergansers, a couple of  black-bellied plovers, a  white- rumped sandpiper and a large flock of rock ptarmigan kept the binocular -wielding birders busy. Ubiquitous ravens and snow buntings abounded all day. Along the launch road heading in, a sub-adult polar bear emerged from the willows nose in the air. It crossed  the parked shuttle bus on the road and began cleaning its’ coat on the patchy snow just on the other side. Then, black -tipped snout in the air, it began walking towards town….the group followed along the road. Nice escort.

Churchillpolar bears airlifted.

Conservation officers preparing polar bear for airlift. Paul Brown photo.

A bear evacuation coordinated by Department of Natural Resources(DNR) and Hudson Bay Helicopters originally scheduled for 10:30 AM on October 19th turned into a 3 PM lift instead due to DNR being preoccupied with a rogue polar bear in town. Eventually a good sized crowd outside the bear compound near the airport was thrilled to see a sow and cub loaded and transported Northward. I have seen numerous “bear-lifts” in my time in Churchill and they are always an awesome experience. Seems like bear season is in full swing now.

Churchill polar bears airlifted.

Polar bear in net being airlifted north. Paul Brown Photo.

Bears Grit Teeth At Fluoride Free Churchill

The town of Churchill, Manitoba voted yesterday by a margin of 58% -42% to end the process of artificially fluoridating it’s drinking water supply. The three -year campaign by a group called Churchill No -Fluoride culminated with the victory in the town-wide plebiscite. Mark Brackley the founder and driving force behind the grass-roots initiative began this quest three years ago and was ecstatic with the result. In a Facebook posting from Churchill mark expressed his gratitude to all who supported the choice; “I want to personally thank all of you who came out for your health, you are amazing people that have decided to take back your power of choice. I’m proud of you Churchill. You have  made history.”

Churchill polar bear.

Fluoride is bad!!!

With the vote finished, the results will now be in the hands of city council and they will most likely set a date for the official end to the fluoridation process. Go to the Churchill No fluoride page on Facebook for reactions from local Churchillians and further information on the issue. (more…)

Churchill Bear Season Up And Running

Natural Habitat guide Karen Walker didn’t have to wait long for her group of travelers to see what they had come to Churchill for.  On their first tour to the tundra, a night rover excursion, the group spotted a polar bear in the distance. The excitement grew during a  five-minute drive that brought the tundra rover within a couple of hundred yards of the animal. In awe, as they watched for about 20 minutes, many on board could not believe the calmness of the bear. Moving ahead after seeing another bear in the distance, they came upon  a polar bear laying over the top of the caribou carcass, discovered earlier in the week, just about two hundred yards away.  Another 15-20 minute drive farther and they sighted another very large bear.  It stood for the group to get a good look at it then relaxed itself down amongst the willows.  So, within the first two hours out on the tundra, the group had encountered three polar bears!  Not a bad start to the expedition up North. During an impromtu birthday celebration for one guest aboard the rover, the entourage was greeted by some scattering willow ptarmigan on the tundra as well as an Arctic fox nosing around perhaps looking for a slice of cake itself.

Wet Churchill polar bear.

ChurchillPolar bear shaking off the rain. Matt Goddard photo.

The following day as the group headed out to the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA),  they sighted the two bears they had seen the night before.  In the afternoon, while situated in a spot to view the polar bear devouring the caribou they actually viewed the bear ripping flesh off of the caribou. Another occurrence that I cannot remember seeing or hearing about in twelve years of being involved with Churchill polar bears. There’s always something new happening each season.

Later on in the day the group rumbled out toward the coast past first tower and ptarmigan alley near the flats. Karen noted that the colors of the grasses & seaweed were “very, very beautiful.”  Golden yellows, deep rust, red, browns, and black. Tundra colors in the Fall are a landscape artist’s dream. The group saw a few bears out there as well though none of those animals were very accessible for the rover.  However, as this season has been offering, the travelers were fortunate once again to spot some  more ptarmigan, then an  arctic fox chasing snow buntings, and an Arctic hare in its’ white winter coat attempting to hide up against a brown willow bush. Um..not such great camouflage.  The group was also treated to a display of two dark-colored juvenile gyrfalcons chasing after a snow bunting. Swooping  past the rover several times, all the while changing directions attempting  to catch their prey, the aerial dog-fight maneuvers emerged in and out of the patches of fog thrilling all eyes down on the rover.
On the groups final day excursion to the tundra in the CWMA, the first two bears had vanished. With not much but a pile of bones remaining from the caribou carcass, a few ravens were mopping up the last leftovers. Moving North to Halfway Point Karen’s group of traveler’s sighted a nice-looking bear on the beautiful coastal rocks with the Hudson bay stretched out behind.  This large male put on a good show, rolling around with his huge paws flailing up in the air. After napping he teased the group by lifting  his head every once in a while just to keep watch on the suspicious looking machine with giant wheels.

Churchill polar bear on the rocks.

Matt Goddard photo.

After this incredible encounter, the rover headed along the Inland Trail searching for caribou, but had little luck with the elusive ungulates. Soon after a flock of about 100 snow geese were visible on the tundra …a somewhat rare sight the past couple of seasons. Despite their abundance in prior years, hardly any were spotted this past Summer. This flock might have arrived in late Summer and stayed out farther to the East. Karen noted that about two-thirds of the flock were in the blue- color phase. These birds are surely an amazing Arctic sight to take in when amassed in large numbers.

Finally, the highlight of the trip for the guests was out on the coastal lowlands to the East.  An adult male bear walking along the coast spooked a five-year-old female polar bear and she began trotting away from him.  She was splashing through the shallow ponds just a couple hundred yards away from  the rover.  Brendan, the rover driver/guide parked  in a perfect spot, and eventually she walked up toward the vehicle, coming within only 30 feet.  She then walked back and forth a few  times, sniffing at the air and staring right into the astonished eyes of the Arctic travelers.  Everyone was able to get a excellent look at one of the North’s finest creatures.

On the last day, the wind picked up tremendously inciting enormous waves to crash along the shores of Hudson Bay. White sea- foam accumulated along the rocks looking like ice chunks from afar. The mist & rain continued much like almost the entire trip. Just  going outside was quite an adventure and fortunately the temperatures remained bearable. The group took a ride out to the weir along Goose Creek road and spotted a couple of river otters in a tributary along the way. for a few brave souls, climbing to the top of the weir observation tower in the frenetic wind was another highlight of the trip…good old sub-Arctic gales. A fitting finale to a most adventure -packed trip!

Today, October 18th, Churchill is voting to determine whether or not they will continue to add fluoride to their drinking water. Voting is 11-8 today and I’ll give you the results first thing tomorrow as well as another update. Stay tuned…should be an exciting result.

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