Some inquisitive Churchill polar bears become frequent flyers on Hudson Bay Helicopters. There’s only one flight route, about 40 kilometers northwest, and chances are the bear will not remember a thing once they come back to consciousness on the tundra.
When bears show a pattern for testing the Churchill town limits and are recurring offenders, they are first incarcerated in the Polar Bear Compound just adjacent to the airport. Subsequent captures either by culvert trap or darting land them there again and they then are flown up along the northwestern coast and released. The hope is they will not return to Churchill during the season though some do. Most times they will be flown out again depending on the capacity of the “jail”, at the time.
This relatively new strategy of dealing with “problem” bears by Manitoba Conservation reflects the importance of eco-tourism in the region. In the old days polar bears would be put down if they were frequent visitors within town limits. These days extreme leniency is given unless the bears pose a critical threat to residents.
These photos show some of the process of airlifting polar bears from Churchill up north.
Conservation officers prepare for a bear lift. Brad Josephs photo.
Hudson Bay helicopter lifting off with a cargo of polar bears. Photo courtesy Natural Habitat Adventures.
A polar bear is airlifted up north from Churchill, Manitoba. Photo courtesy Natural Habitat Adventures.
Polar bear sow and cubs being transported north for relocation. Brad Josephs photo.
A polar bear trap being removed with cargo from Churchill. Photo courtesy Natural Habitat Adventures.
A polar bear is wheeled out from Polar Bear Compound and prepared for flight up north. Photo courtesy Natural Habitat Adventures.
Polar bear ready for lift – off in Churchill. Photo courtesy Natural Habitat Adventures.
Natural Habitat outdoor Adventure guide Colby Brokvist calls NatHab’s Town and Tundra Adventure tour the “Ultimate Trip”! Encompassing both ends of the region’s diverse spectrum, travelers to Churchill see it all. Wildlife and culture…sometimes the two even blend together in the frontier town on the Hudson Bay.
Polar bear resting on a rock in Churchill. Colby Brokvist photo.
“We had a great time being immersed in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, which is the best part of the lodge trips. And, we had plenty of time in town to learn about the area’s culture and history” states Colby. Out at the Tundra Lodge the late day action was heated. “This week, the best sparring took place in the evenings once the town groups had gone in, a real treat for us.” reported Colby. The group finally had to sit for a late dinner after watching the bears for about 45 minutes. The polar bears continued to put on a tremendous show while the group took it all in through the windows while enjoying a gourmet meal and a glass of wine.
Two polar bears sparring near the tundra Lodge. Eric Rock photo.
The group also had some stellar bird sightings including four Snowy Owls and two Gyrfalcons- one of each color phase. “The white-phase Gyrfalcon did a close fly-by of our rover deck and it was easy to see why this is North America’s largest true falcon!”, wrote colby. Several sightings of arctic hare filled out the Arctic wildlife checklist.
Red fox in Churchill. Brad Josephs photo.
In town, their luck continued with Arctic foxes out at Cape Merry, along with another Arctic hare and red fox. “One of my favorite parts of the early-season trips is getting on the ground out at the cape and exploring. Devoid of the snow and ice of late-season trips, we were able to find and sample dry-ground cranberries and crowberries”, stated Colby. The group learned about the importance of the colorful moss and lichen micro-communities and picked the cotton-like seeds from shrub willows, used by local Inuit as oil lamp wicks.
Lichen on a rock lying in the tundra. Brad Josephs photo.
Another highlight was finding a recently killed Canada Goose, perhaps a red fox kill. Among the remains was a leg-band that indicated this bird was part of a research study. The group turned in the band to Parks Canada so that they could add the find into the research database. “We’re hoping to hear more from them about the life and times of that goose”, reported Colby.
Topping off the trip was a visit to the Polar Bear Compound, where 10 polar bears are currently incarcerated, to view a bear lift of a small adolescent bear. Another lift just yesterday transported a sow and two cubs about 40 kilometers north. Check out this video of yesterday’s airlift!
Shipping news: At the port, the 14th ship of the season left a few days ago and two more are expected before the pack ice begins to clog up the routes in the Hudson Bay for the winter.
Natural Habitat guide Elise’s group headed to the tundra on a morning that was a bit breezy but slowly calmed throughout the day..”As the tundra turns the bears actually shook off their hypnotic-like state and started dancing.” Elise stated.
The majority of the day was time out around the lodge. Two polar bears slumbered in the willows near the bay while two other bears cautiously investigated the underside of the lodge once the water delivery vehicle departed for the day. “The stars aligned and two bears started sparring on the other side of the lodge”. reported Elise. Three large polar bears then staked out an area by the south end of the lodge and gave quite a show for onlooking travelers in both Elise’s and fellow Natural Habitat guide Paul Brown’s Rover. Another bear dozed, seemingly unaware beneath the lodge’s propane tanks the entire time..probably the older bear who’s been idle and present for the majority of the last two weeks..
Out around Christmas Lake Esker, the group observed numerous trails of fox and ptarmigan area…followed by a flock of “cryptic ptarmigan” concealed in the willows by fresh snow.
Guide Karen Walker’s group had some tough luck with the wind kicking up to nearly 70 knots. Helicopter journey’s were cancelled and a bear lift out at the compound was also nixed. The group listenedto some northern stories from their driver and then toured the town complex….Churchill’s self contained recreation center and library, school and many other forms of activity all in one building. Watching the waves crash down on the bay from the panoramic windows was soothing and relaxing. Then it was off to the Anglican Church to see the lady Franklin stained glass window aside the altar. The travelers then braved the windy, snowy conditions and ventured down to the Inukshuk below the complex and out to the polar bear compound by the airport in whiteout weather.
Tundra around Churchill. Megan Koelemay Photo.
Later in the day Karen and group enjoyed dog sledding with Kelly at Churchill River Mushing and heard the details of the polar bear break in at his tent compound the previous week. The rides were chilly though the wind had subsided some and the shelter from the boreal forest Luckily both places were vacant at the time. This weeks incident in town didn’t have as fortunate of an outcome. The bears are restless and moving with the cold.
Dogsledding in Churchill with Kelly Turcotte. John and Becky McKay photo.
The following day out in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area Karen and travelers were greeted by a large male bear walking right by their rover as they headed out east. Several polar bear sightings later they were at the coast and two adolescent males were sleeping along the kelp beds. One awoke, picked a fight with the other, and the two bears sparred for a good time just 50 feet from the rover. They then returned to their slumber and sparred again later just inside the willow stands a bit farther out. At lunch another male joined the trio and spareed intermittently just off the back observation deck. A “three bear lunch”, as described by karen. The “best and closest sparring I have ever seen”, added Karen.
Two separate excellent viewings of ptarmigan along the trail as well as a lone snow bunting in the willows rounded out the excursion. A fantastic tundra experience in the CWMA!