Churchill has no shortage of polar bears at the moment. In fact, the 2014 season has started with a “bang”…literally. Conservation officers and the Polar Bear Alert squad have been busy patrolling the area. With 10-12 bears currently in the polar bear holding facility, formerly known as the polar bear jail, there’s a clear indication that this could be one of the most frenetic seasons in a long time.
Natural Habitat guide Karen Walker has been leading a group of quilters from the states around the Churchill area and they have had great fortune in sightings so far.
A lone polar bear skirts a pond in Churchill. Eric Rock photo.
“I’ve got a group of quilters on this trip. Luana Rubin is the organizer of the group. She came on Justin’s polar bear trip last year and this year she brought a group of quilters up with her. You can check out Luana’s website at eQuilter.com” reported Karen. The group has been connecting with local quilting groups and enthusiasts in both Winnipeg and Churchill.
After exploring Winnipeg for a day, the travelers enjoyed a mostly clear flight up to Churchill, allowing vivid views of the post-glacial – thermokarst ponds and rivers covering the land along the way. Crossing over Gillam to the south allowed a view of the hydro dam. After lunch at gypsy’s in Churchill the group experienced an orientation of the area through a visit to the Parcs Canada visitor center and a look at a polar bear den exhibit followed by some time at the revered Eskimo museum to take in the rich history of the region.
Polar bear in the willows in Churchill. Eric Rock photo.
Heading out to the tundra of the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, along the Launch Road, travelers spotted their first polar bear. The male bear “was a little ways away, but it was still quite exciting for the group” according to Karen. After a quiet, relaxing evening on the tundra, enhanced by a wine and cheese offering, the group was afforded a nice view of an arctic hare on the drive back to the launch.
A planned trip out east the following day, took a turn a short way down the trail with the appearance of two bears near the Tundra Lodge, so the polar rover meandered over in that direction. A couple of other groups on rovers were in the area so one polar bear seemed a bit skittish with the crowd. As the first two rovers headed to the lodge, Karen’s rover settled in and remained near the pond and observed the adult female. Slowly becoming more comfortable, her curiosity peaked and she approached the rover. Pausing at around 30 feet of the back deck, she watched tentatively for a long while, grooming herself and then napping while the group took in the scene for over an hour. The rover then proceeded over by and just past the lodge and they settled in to watch a couple of “teenage” sub adult bears spar a bit. After exhausting their energy, they settled into the willows for a rest. “We were a little ways from them, but it was still amazing to see” Karen reported.
Two polar bears sparring near the tundra Lodge. Eric Rock photo.
On the other side of the lodge was an adult male that was napping in the open. This bear made stilted moves at rising but only lifted his head and then returned to resting. After a couple of travelers and Karen headed across Christmas Lake Esker and up to Halfway Point. Coveys of ptarmigan along the way, mostly already suited in their winter camouflage white, scurried ahead of the rover winding between willow stands.
“The weather and soft lighting was beautiful today. We had snow showers several times and some sunny breaks, and everything in between. It changed about every twenty minutes or so. Quite the majestic day on the tundra…tomorrow we’re back on the tundra. We’ll try to get out east this time” stated Karen, fulfilled from an amazing day.
Natural Habitat guides arrived in Churchill to furnished staff houses set up for operations thanks to long -time veteran operations manager Darcy Callaghan. Guides hit the ground running in this busiest season and not having to worry about basic needs is always a good thing. Arriving on a Calm Air charter , guides Karen, Justin and Melissa enjoyed comfortable rear seating and looked out into a near cloudless sky down over the fall colors bordering Lake Winnipeg. Further north, the transition into boreal forest soon melded into a landscape of scattered tundra ponds. Sights that will endure forever in one’s mind.
On the ground a light dusting of snow highlights bushy branches sticking through, so the tundra has a greyish beautiful color to it. The three groups landed to a beautiful calm sunny day in Churchill. On the way from the airport, a white-headed bald eagle & an immature eagle were spotted on the bay side by the radar domes. Shortly after, on the other side, near the railroad tracks, a nice large red fox with a white-tipped bushy tail zig -zagged across the tundra.
Back in town, behind the town complex, a relatively calm Hudson Bay moored three cargo ships about five miles out awaiting a call to port. Guide Karen and her group visited the Eskimo Museum then drove the back road stopping at Miss Piggy en rout to the rover launch -site. Once out in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, a clear evening on the tundra gave way to clouds and only a small line of pinkish- orange on the horizon for the sunset. With a few of the shallow ponds just starting to ice over, the light attached itself beautifully. Some light patches of snow on the tundra did the same.
Earlier in the day a polar bear lurking along the coast, spotted by another group, vanished by the time Karen and travelers arrived. A group of seven ptarmigans picking buds off the willow bushes were sporting full white plumage…seemingly somewhat early for them at this time. Another group of about 30 ptarmigan flew quite a ways along the lake while gliding above the willows, then finally settled down in the bushes. “Interesting and beautiful.”; noted Karen..adding she had never seen such a large group nor had she observed such extended flight for birds that tend to prefer the ground this time of year.
Natural Habitat guides Melissa and Justin’s groups spent the evening on the tundra and caught glimpses of a polar bear in and out of the willows. they returned the next morning to see the bear peacefully sleeping by the lodge. More polar bears in the distance out at Gordon Point were seen lumbering along the kelp strewn beach.
The highlight of the day was a bearded seal up on the rocks nearly three hours before low tide, so Karen surmised the seal would be on the rocks for at least another six hours. Parked in a perfect spot for viewing, the group observed from the rover for awhile, hoping for a bear-seal encounter. After about an hour, Val ,the rover driver, spotted a bear walking around the edge of the bay from the east heading toward the group. It was on the move the whole time, but unfortunately, continued on toward the Northern Studies Center to the south-east. Bear bangers were fired into the air to keep the bear moving and he finally hunkered down in the willows & eventually wandered toward Camp Nanook. Then just as the group was about to leave they spotted another bear (at a distance) walking from the south toward the coast. After watching intently for a good amount of time, the polar bear finally lay down in some grass and slept.
Back near the lodge, the bear sleeping by the propane tank got up and moved further away until out of sight. The group drove back across Christmas Lake Esker, finding some more ptarmigan, before heading back to launch.
This early part of the season sometimes has fewer bear encounters though the ones that are discovered can be quite surprising and exciting occurrences.