This exceptional post my Natural Habitat Adventures guide Brad Josephs is a story of perseverance and making the best of a situation out of one’s control. An experience can take on a life of its own if the effort is put in!
The first amazing experience happened a few hours after our arrival to Churchill. Fellow guide Theresa Whipple spotted a polar bear alert truck towing a trailer with a sedated giant male bear on the back heading east from the polar bear jail. She called me on the radio and we headed out there. Brad Josephs photo.
This last polar bear season proved to be quite challenging after the first week of November due to record-setting early cold weather which caused the sea-ice to form earlier than it has in decades. This was such a different situation from last year when the ice formed unusually late. This, of course, is great news for the polar bears, which need ice as a platform to hunt seals, but when the bears move offshore we cannot find them on our bear viewing trips. I and two other guides were scheduled with the last trips of the season, extending until the 26th of November. These new “family trips” would have been spectacular last year, but this year most of the bears had moved to more than 60 miles offshore, which is too far for us to even find with helicopters! We maintained a positive attitude and tried our best to teach the young kids in our groups as much as possible about Arctic ecology, and have as much fun as possible. Luckily these trips turned out to be fantastic, and we were privy to some outstanding and rarely seen bear action.
Since the early 1980s, the province of Manitoba has employed a force of bear patrol officers who haze polar bears away from town and incarcerate problem bears in the Polar Bear Holding Facility, aka the Polar Bear Jail. When the ice has formed on Hudson Bay, the officers release the bears on the beach outside of town. When the bears see the ice, they lose any interest in prowling around town and head offshore to hunt seals. In my 13 seasons guiding in Churchill, I have never witnessed these releases, though it has always been a dream of mine to see it.
We found several Polar Bear Alert Conservation Officers unloading two huge bears on the beach at the edge of the frozen sea. Brad Josephs photo.
The 1,000+ pound polar bear, immobilized with Telazol, was carefully rolled onto the beach. In 45 minutes he woke up and headed onto the ice. The green dot on his back lasts for around a week and shows anyone from a distance that the bear has recently been released. It also shows possible substance hunters from villages to the north that the bear has toxic drugs in his system from being immobilized, and shouldn’t be consumed. Brad Josephs photo.
The highlight of the entire trip for most of the group happened like magic. One of the officers came to our group in his truck and asked how many little kids we had. He knew with the bears having disappeared from town that we were going to have a rough time meeting the expectations of the kids. I couldn’t believe it when he told us to load the little ones in his truck so he could drive them up to the waking giant bear for a close look! What an amazing experience that these young guys would never forget. Brett, if you are out there, you are a hero in my book forever!
The bear is awake and moving around groggily after 45 minutes. He’s a FREE BEAR and theres ice to hunt on! Brad Josephs photo.
The next morning we all boarded helicopters to hopefully see bears on the ice. Since the ice edge was an estimated 60 miles offshore, we knew that we may not find any, as we cannot travel that far by helicopter. We were so happy to see many bears! To fly over that vast expanse of rugged ice and finally reach the bears who were hunting seals was for me, a lifetime wildlife viewing highlight. We even saw one of the bears that had been released the previous evening, already more than 10 miles offshore! The climax was seeing a bear eating a seal. WOW doesn’t describe it!
The green dot shows us this bear was released the evening before! The next morning we see him waiting next to a patch of open water, watching for seals! Brad Josephs photo.
We found this young bear who had very recently caught a seal from a breathing hole, dragged it to more solid ice, and was happily devouring the blubber. Brad Josephs photo.
I was thrilled to see ravens with the bears. These tough birds, as well as arctic foxes, travel hundreds of miles onto the pack ice to scavenge seal kills. I wonder if the ravens help the bears find breathing holes—I bet they do. Brad Josephs photo.
Mom and cub searching for seals on the ice. Brad Josephs photo.
Mom and two 2-year-old cubs. Brad Josephs photo.
When our helicopter trip was finished the pilot said the conservation officers needed helicopter assistance with a problem bear in town. We loaded the bus and sat at a high point in town and waited for the action, and found it though it was a little too close for comfort, but very exciting for the kids.
Polar bear alert chases a cub out of town. The bear raced down the road towards us. We had to move the bus to get out of the way. Some of my folks said it was like being in the middle of a James Bond movie, as the helicopter hovered over us, and the bear was darted by an officer hanging from an open window. Brad Josephs photo.
Officers immobilized the orphaned 1-year-old cub from the helicopter with a dart. The cub’s chance of survival in the wild is south of zero at that age, so he will be transferred to the polar bear exhibit at the Winnipeg Zoo most likely. Brad Josephs photo.
Jack Batskill is a legendary Polar Bear Alert officer. Through his many years of dealing with polar bears, he is revered as a leading expert in his field, and respected by all in the bear world. Brad Josephs photo.
Dog sledding in the boreal forest. Brad Josephs photo.
I found a snowshoe hare in the boreal forest for the kids to see. Brad Josephs photo.
On the last day we explored the tundra in a Polar Rover. We didn’t see any bears, but after the action of the previous days it was OK. The kids understood, and we had a blast looking for foxes and other wildlife. This is a red fox. Brad Josephs photo.
12-year-old Eleanor Fraser won my “animal spotter award” for seeing this nearly invisible arctic hare in a willow patch. Way to go, Eleanor! Brad Josephs photo.
What an awesome trip! I am so glad it was so thrilling for the kids, as getting the young generation interested in our natural world is the only way to ensure conservation in the future.
Check out Natural Habitat’s new family trips if you want to take your kids on an educational adventure that is parent and kid friendly. Let us plant seeds of appreciation for the natural world in the young ones and encourage a new generation of conservationists!
Keep exploring! Brad
While most if not all voracious polar bears have ventured out to the sea ice for seal hunting season, foxes both Arctic and Red are still scavenging the tundra around communities in the north. This precocious little critter waits at the bus stop unfazed by any sign of human activity. Foxes never stop searching out their next meal during the harsh, cold winter months in the Arctic.
Sea – ice is still in the frigid waters close to Churchill’s coast and these hearty travelers have been exploring via zodiac and Sea North Tours. I always looked forward to the early and exciting Churchill Arctic summer season with ice floes remaining in the Churchill River out into the Hudson Bay. These awesome features provide an extra thrill factor with Arctic terns and various other sea birds perching on the jagged ice chunks atop the floes. Even an occasional seal will nap on the ice surface. The surrealistic mix of sun, sea and ice combines to form a sub – Arctic natural environment at its best!
Beautiful blue pools within a massive ice floe near Churchill. Alex De Vries – Magnifico photo.
Blue azure pool on an ice floe near Churchill. Alex De Vries – Magnifico photo.
Early September, high up on the Arctic’s North Slope, there is a feast truly hard to imagine! Around 80 polar bears gather each year along the rocky, frozen shores of Barter Island, just off the village of Kaktovik, where hunter-harvested bowhead whale remains await the hungry bruins. Since polar bears are generally known as solitary predators, this unique occurrence has peaked the interest of biologists in the north.
A small Inupiat hunting community, Kaktovik seemingly rests on the edge of the world, No roads or train tracks reach this northern outpost and packed sea – ice for nine months of the year isolates the town from most of the world. However, September beckons throngs of scientists and wildlife photographers to the speck of a town to document the incredibly voracious and unusual behavior. With more polar bears turning up year after year, biologists and climate researchers are working to solve the mystery of why this continues to draw a massive congregation of polar bears. Unlocking the clues of this migration is becoming paramount. The South Beaufort Sea polar bear population more and more is choosing to forage on land rather than the traditional sea – ice environment.
Inhabitants of Kaktovik, much like those of Churchill, Manitoba, become intertwined in their lives with the animals once the feast is over. The bears then meander towards town to see what else they can find. Perhaps dessert.
Todd Atwood is the lead polar bear scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey. Through his studies and research in the Arctic, he has estimated that polar bear numbers have declined 40% in the South Beaufort Sea area since 2006. Atwood is on a mission to find out the reason for the drastic decline.
Black bear in Churchill with what’s left of a lesser snow goose in his mouth. Rhonda Reid photo.
This close – up photo of a black bear in Churchill with the wing of a lesser snow goose in his mouth has many people excited to see the rarely seen animal. This bear species does reach into the far north but are not often seen at this close range.
Bears of all varieties are becoming more apt at gathering food in the wild. Voracious polar bears in Churchill have been observed on seal – kills all year round and scavenging eggs and tundra berries. Occasionally a beluga whale carcass will feed a dozen bears for a few days. This recent trend in feeding is quite possibly an adaptive survival technique due to the warming climate and reduced sea ice season. Since polar bears have a shorter time on ice hunting seals they need to find alternative food sources in order to maintain a year – round body healthy body weight.