Guide Sue Zajac reported “awesome sightings” from beginning to end in the Churchill wildlife Management Area (CWMA) this past week with over 70 polar bear sightings. One major highlight of the incredible day was a mother and cub on the coastal trail between First Tower and the point. This was the first such sighting for Sue and her travelers and they were awestruck watching the interactions in the willows close to the trail. Guide Brent and group actually saw a period of nursing behavior just prior to Sue’s group arrival. Both groups had lunch aboard their rovers as they enjoyed the serene setting and lone family unit. Up to just recently, very few sows with cubs had been seen in the CWMA. Now, more and more are wandering in each day.
After lunch, Sue’s travelers spotted four sub-adults sleeping in kelp beds as they wound along the coast and headed down Ptarmigan alley. Other bears were soon spotted out on the open tundra and a good number seemed to be young , fairly skiddish sub-adults. The animals would approach the rover but would be scared away with the slightest movement or sound on the rover. Odd bear behavior uncharacteristic of the CWMA.
As the rover continued along and came to the junction of Christmas Lake esker and the inland road from Gordon Point, the group came upon another smaller young polar bear..quite possibly the abandoned animal a few other groups have seen recently, running and moving at a rapid pace for about 10 minutes. A sow with a coy were also very close to the rover and the lone cub ‘s frantic movement reinforced the theory that the cub might just be abandoned. Abandoned cubs will often try to group up with a sow and another young cub or coy for safety and sustenance….this mom was having none of that. Although instinctively a sow may want to take in a cub, the severity of an Arctic Winter on the ice usually makes her decide otherwise.
By far the highlight of a great day on the tundra for Sue and travelers was a sighting of the smallest animal around. On the way to Gordon Point, passing by the tundra lodge,a lemming scurried across the trail and landed on a rock jutting up from the ice in the middle of a icy covered pond. After resting there under cover from any nearby raptors, it made its’ way to an a crack of open water and took a swim. Guests watched as if they were watching a majestic polar bear not the main diet for gyrfalcons and snowy owls. As he emerged from the water he then seemingly blew across the ice with aid from a little gust. Once on land the lemming ran right in front of the rover and bedded down by a five-inch orange-lichen colored rock protruding from the snow cover. Occasionally digging down under the snow, while all in the group were watching, he eventually uncovered what appeared to be a tunnel opening. Under the snow and out of sight he went. Captivating.
Back in Churchill there has been a constant array of cracker shell action in and around town with bears being snuffed out of the rocky coast and even a few in town itself. It’s a feeling one cannot describe adequately though elicits ideas in the mind of what a war zone might be like. In some ways Churchill at night can be as scary as that when one is walking around in the wrong places. Even daytime can lead to one’s demise by wandering away from a door to duck into. Just last week a photographer was seen a good ways out of town outside his vehicle trying to photograph a bear bedded down in the willows across a frozen lake. He was observed being so intent on his camera equipment that he was not checking his surroundings. Another visitor was observed up at Bird Cove a couple of hundred feet from his rented car wandering toward the rocks on the rise. Dangerous endeavors and surely only a matter of time before an attack. Bearmeat!
Longtime Natural Habitat naturalist guide Mike Bruscia returned to Churchill after being away a couple of seasons to guide a group around the tundra and this coastal sub -Arctic village. Mike currently is executive director of an kids environmental camp in Charlottesville, VA called the Green Adventure Project. Aside from incredible polar bear sightings, out in the CWMA, the thrill of the day was out at First Tower where a polar bear tried to pick a gyrfalcon off one of the cable supports half way up the structure. Up on his hind legs…the huge torso stretched skyward as Mike’s travelers gasped at the sight. A sow with two coys (cubs of the year) nursing, nine hundred- pound males sparring at the lodge and an Arctic fox finally revealing itself to the group completed an amazing tundra experience. Trifecta!
Exploring around Churchill, Mike and his group went over to the Cape Merry area and spotted a bear in the rocks. The ice is starting to clog the outflow of the Churchill river around the mouth and getting pretty thick up -river near the weir. The group also spotted a red fox and plenty of fresh hare tracks at Cape Merry but no hare. With one last look on their final day the hare was spotted just North of the train tracks. Mikes skill for finding elusive animals is legendary. Bears, hares, foxes and birds..all in a day’s work in the Arctic.
The group had some amazing meals in Churchill topped off with a run on carrot cake for almost every dessert. Amazing how in a place where you couldn’t grow a carrot to save your life…damn that permafrost…the guests referred to the Churchill as the carrot cake capital of the world!