Beluga scars are the real thing!

In the Churchill Arctic summer, between two to three thousand beluga whales voyage southward across the vast Hudson Bay from the Hudson Strait which flows into the Atlantic Ocean to summer in the estuaries around Churchill. These whales winter in the straits since water currents provide life -giving polynas-open water areas where whales and other marine life can surface for air intake. During the Spring as they start their trip, ice still somewhat chunks up the Hudson Bay and makes the trip perilous. Polar bears out on ice floes can sometimes gain access to the whales and find a hearty meal. This can also occur in winter when whales get trapped using only a small opening in the ice when accessible leads or smaller polynas have close up.

Why, one may ask, am I talking about beluga whales in the middle of the northern winter? Recently, documentation of beluga whales trapped in ice being eaten by polar bears have brought attention to the fragile lifestyle of these marine animals. While global warming might not be ideal for polar bears, beluga whales would welcome a little more ice free areas in the far north. It’s not uncommon for belugas or other whales to become trapped in vast expanses of floe ice. With few openings to the world above the whales become isolated unable to reach the next blowhole. belugas can stay below the water surface for about 15 minutes at a depth of up to 66 ft. When they cannot find another air source they must remain at the one they have.

While guiding Churchill Summer trips for over 10 years we were able to get very close to these majestic animals. Quite often we see scars or slashes on the backs of their matte white bodies. These scars or markings are used to identify the belugas much like larger whales are identified by their tale fluke markings. Beluga’s tale flukes are small and rarely seen on a consistent basis. I would inform travelers, without exact evidence, that these markings were sometimes from polar bears attempting to kill the whales. This could really only be true when the whales are trapped within the ice as polar bears would have little chance catching up with a whale in the water. As we can see here this has happened just recently before our eyes in the Arctic.

Figure 1. From the Alaska Dispatch story, courtesy Nunatsiaq News. I like these pictures because it really shows how polar bears are able to catch beluga in situations like this: a swipe of the massive paw to hold one in place (see all the claw marks from unsuccessful attempts?), one good bite with those tremendously strong polar bear jaws into the fatty part of the beluga head, then haul it up and out of the water – game over for the young beluga, perfect meal for the polar bear. An adult may be too large for a polar bear to handle this way but a young one? Easy as grizzlies catching salmon

And, as we can imagine when nature provides a disaster for one species, other species benefit from the misfortune. polar bears predate on the whales and humans then predate on both bears and the whales. The circle of life is continuous.

Churchill winter active

Churchill is buzzing these days with all kinds of excitement! Aurora trips are in full swing with this being one of the best years to view the “northern lights” due to incredible solar flaring. Also, Churchill’s annual Aurora festival begins in March and overlaps with the start of the Hudson Bay Quest which begins in Gillam, MB on March 15th and finishes in Churchill this year.  And..oh yeah..polar bears are always in the news with the ongoing debates on how they should be listed on the endangered species list. Lots to think about in the heart of winter up north.

A polar bear watches intently from the willows.

A polar bear keeps a watchful eye from the shelter of willows.

Polar bears were listed as endangered in 2008. in 2010 the United States petitioned the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) to upgrade the listing from appendix II to appendix I..which would prevent any international trade in polar bear parts. That year the motion was declined and now this March 3-14th the USA is once again trying to push the change through. Of course there are many sides to the issue but passage of the motion would surely have ramifications all over the planet. This article goes more deeply into the reasons many different proponents and opponents have interest in the upcoming symposium.

Sled dogs in Churchill,MB

Avid sled dogs in Churchill,MB. Brad Josephs photo.

The Hudson Bay Quest is ramping up to full speed in preparation for the March 15th start date. An amazing field of mushers has already registered. Here’s the updated list below:

1. David Daley, from Churchill, Manitoba
2. Julie Robitaille, from Otter Lake, Quebec
3. Ryan Anderson, from Ray, Minnesota
4. Charlie Lundie, from Churchill, Manitoba
5. Stefan deMarie, from Christopher Lake, Saskatchewan
6. Alvin Hardman, from Ludington, Michigan
7. Dan DiMuzio, from Churchill, Manitoba
8. Jim Oehlschlaeger, from Newberry, Michigan
9. Ed the Sled Obrecht, from Otter Lake, Quebec
10. Blake Freking, from Finland, Minnesota
11. Troy Groeneveld, from Two Harbours, Minnesota
12. Jesse Terry, from Sioux Lookout, Ontario
13. Peter McClelland, Ely, Minnesota
14. Shawn McCarty, Ely, Minnesota
15. Matt Groth, from Two Harbours, Minnesota
16. Laura Daugereau, from Kingston, Washington
17. Hank DeBruin, from Haliburton, Ontario

This is shaping up as the most competitive field to date. Returning 2012 champion Shawn McCarty and 2011 hometown champion Charlie Lundie are both in the field with hopes to win again. Come on up to Churchill for St. Patty’s day and catch the racers as they mush into town on the16th and 17th.

Recently I posted some photo’s of one of Natural Habitat’s aurora groups building an igloo. Take a look at the finished was had by all. What an experience in cold temperatures!


The real thing in the Arctic. Photo Rhonda Reid.

Warm inside…frigid outside. Photo Rhonda Reid.

Igloo building in Churchill

Check out these photo’s from Rhonda Reid during Natural Habitat’s initial Northern Lights group in Churchill. Igloo building is an art that requires patience and practice. Usually the drift areas are excellent for cutting blocks and building the structure. Inside, the temperature can be 15-20 degrees warmer than outside and can be a critical survival strategy in the Arctic.

Guide Melissa sporting the Nanook of the north look. Photo Rhonda Reid.

Hudson Bay Quest in March

The cult-like following Hudson Bay Quest will depart Gillam, Manitoba on March 15th, and terminate in Churchill,MB this year. The two towns in the far north alternate starting positions every other year. Last year 16 mushers from North America contended for the mushing title and Shawn McCarty from Ely, Minnesota won the crown.

This year’s quest currently has 15 teams registered so far for the 220 mile (330 Km) race. 2011 was the first year the race changed courses and instead of braving life – threatening conditions along the ice edge of the Hudson Bay, the Gillam/Churchill route was employed. In that year, Charlie Lundie became the first HBQ winner from the host town of Churchill. He edged out Peter McClelland also from Ely, MN by just two minutes as the two raced toward Lundie’s home crowd filled with many family members of Lundie’s. After the win the crowd lifted Lundie on is sled in jubilation as goes the tradition in dog mushing. McCarty finished third that year and eventually won last year’s crown.


2012 winner Shawn McCarty from Ely, MN

Since the race has shifted more inland on the tundra following along the border of Wapusk National Parc and the Hudson Bay Railroad, a more consistent and recurring line-up of mushers have continued to return each year perpetuating a sort of rivalry between the southern mushers from the northern United States and the Churchill and other Canadian mushers. Any good competition thrives on repeat contestants challenging for the title year after year. The Hudson Bay Quest seems to be gaining that quality now that all the weather and danger issues of the bay are in the past.

Sled dogs in Churchill,MB

Sled dogs yearn for this time of year. Brad Josephs photo.

While there’s still another month and a half before the race, the preparations are going strong. it takes enormous organization and communication to put on an event like this. Dave Daley of Wapusk Adventures in Churchill does the lions share of the work before hand and the Canadian Rangers volunteer their time during the race to insure safety of all the mushers and dogs is the priority. Even though the race is less dangerous these days, a winter storm can still make the trip dangerous…this is the high north after all.

As the race draws nearer I will keep you updated on the list of teams and any other new information regarding this year’s race. It looks to be an exciting time once again in the heart of winter in the sub-Arctic! With this also being the prime season for viewing aurora borealis in the northern sky, frequent updates from Churchill and Natural Habitat Northern lights tours will provide images and reports of activities and the lights.

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