Live from Churchill: Nov 17, 2009

polar bearPolar bear alert helicopter in Churchill

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.

As snow continues falling intermittently, and temperatures dropping into the teens, helicopter traffic has increased considerably out and back across the Churchill River. And, in the true Churchill way, rumors are also flying across the town. Many of the flights are mistaken for Polar Bear lifts as nets dangle below the machines. However, the nets contain equipment for workers stationed across the river close to Seahorse Gully. Another rumor heard in the restaurants is that the infamous White Whale Lodge is being rebuilt by Dwight Allen, owner of the Polar Inn. Not this year. In actuality, the steel river channel markers are being replaced on the west side of the river. These markers, appearing like lost suburban power-line stanchions, are used by ship captains to align their vessels with the deeper channel cut out of the seabed in the river in order to safely dock alongside the grain port dock. Although the 2009 shipping season is over, work in the north is done when the weather allows. With winter still unable to retain its grip on Churchill work goes on.

Guide Leah and her travelers had another banner day out in the CWMA, spotting eight sets of sows with cubs. More of the same behavior with a plethora of activity all over the land. A juvenile Gyrfalcon – white with black speckled blotches – was seen careening through the updrafts along the coastal road between Gordon point and TB lodge. Very few people have the opportunity for an up-close look at a Gyr and these travelers were thrilled when the animal soared within a hundred feet of the rover. Later, near a lonely inukshuk perched on a rocky Esker out close to the vast tidal flats, a Snowy owl watched as the group approached. Increased building coastal ice was the backdrop as the north winds whipped the snow through the willows and atop the tundra and temperatures fell. Later, back in the vicinity of the Tundra Lodge, sparring was heating up again. One big male with a twisted, scarred nose was grappling with another bear with blood splotches on his back and muzzle. Leah surmised most of the blood, especially on the face, was from a recent seal kill and not inflicted by his opponent in the scrap.

Guides Colby and Bonnie were out at the Tundra Lodge with ample action. Bonnie counted 23 bears all around the lodge from one side to the other. Sparring bears were pounding each other with massive limbs pressing back and forth and occasionally gnawing on a neck or two. Later as the group headed out toward Gordon Point, mothers and cubs anxiously await the Hudson Bay freeze. Meanwhile, the on-land bear population continues to grow and flourish.

Guide Sue and her folks capped off a wildly successful trip by spotting a Marten on the outskirts of Churchill near our dogsled camp. The dark brown animal with tan cheeks and a peach patch on the upper chest skirted the main road and vanished under the old deserted “Navy base” building. This beautiful creature has been seen throughout the season by various groups and added an additional thrill to an already phenomenal wildlife viewing year. Then with seemingly nothing left to top that thrill, the group came upon a mother with two cubs out along Goose Creek Road near the Manitoba Hydro station. Bear patrol was soon on the scene….the beat goes on!

Live from Churchill: Nov 16, 2009

Hudson bay waves in Churchill

The Hudson Bay all stirred up in Churchill. Alex De Vries – Magnifico photo.

Waves continue to roll up onto the icy Precambrian shield that forms Churchill’s coast while temperatures have fallen slightly (20F) and intermittent snow seems to be a daily occurrence. When the conditions permit, Polar Bears fly through the sky at a frenzied pace…in nets of course….under helicopters heading North, inland somewhat, to release the “problem” animals away from Churchillians and their seasonal visitors from around the world.

Our dogsled trips outside of Churchill proper, led by mushers Kelly and Robert, looping through the old Dene village, have become picturesque as the rime ice has blanketed spruce and tamarack trees with frosty veils. The dogs are so well conditioned now that their sprints over trails barely produce prolonged pants from their ever eager mouths. Occasionally a Polar Bear cruises into the vicinity only to add to the surreal setting. Not completely sure whether or not you would prefer the bear flushed from the willows and chased away by bear monitors — it would surely be a once in a lifetime experience, but not necessarily a positive one. This type of experience can only be truly appreciated once one is back home on the couch relaxing after a grueling though somewhat mundane day at the office. These dogs were born to run and your “boss” should know that!

On the tundra in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, the sun rose above the horizon at 8:09 am and slowly began to warm the land and air. Hoar frost enhanced the light as all came alive in its wake. The Tundra Lodge travelers and guides awoke to the aroma of berry pancakes, sizzling bacon and freshly brewed coffee…and bears everywhere as is customary this season. Mothers with COYs (cubs of the year) seemed cautiously amused by the incessant sparring taking place all around them. Guide Bonnie reported five bears under the kitchen huffing and growling so loud that the whole enclosure reverberated like a harmonica. While the group sat down for breakfast, a flock of roughly 85 red polls, both Hoary and common, fluttered in and about the willows near the lodge. A nice touch of color to the tundra. Of course the biggest news from the lodge was that Rocky, the bruiser bear is now gone, perhaps signaling a not so distant end to this epic season. We all have high hopes that there will be as many sequels to this Polar Bear season as there was to the movie bearing our lovable bear’s moniker.

Guide Paul with his group was out at Bird Cove admiring the “best” Arctic fox of the season as well as a bevy of rock ptarmigan in…yup…the shelter of the rocks. This Arctic ecology really isn’t that complicated, folks. Later as their rover brought them in close proximity to the lodge out on the spit bay-side of the structure, “a parade of bears” was the best quote describing the scene. Mothers and cubs out on the land-fast ice. Big males sauntering around throwing uneasy gazes at each other and sparring when a gaze was met with an even more uneasy gaze ruled the day. A mother with a coy, a 900lb male with an ear partially removed, and about 10 bears under or just around the lodge made for additional glorious bear viewing. Bears galore.

Guide Sue and her crew of travelers had a special guest, Darcy Callaghan, on their rover for the day. Darcy from the Churchill operations office was out for a day of respite from a long thrilling season. Darcy works tirelessly (he wears shoes) helping to keep the well oiled logistics machine in Churchill going on a daily basis. He’s a longtime Nat Hab employee as well as a pioneer in the noble cause against the Harp Seal hunt in Eastern Canada. His affiliation with and dedication to International Fund for Animal Welfare is ongoing to this day even as the spotlight has shifted to other areas and causes. A unique visionary from Prince Edward Island.

While out near Gordon Point, Sue and her group spotted three bears coming back toward the land from the spit jutting out into the Hudson Bay. The group spent an hour or more as the bears came closer to the rover and continued across the tundra. Still not enough ice to keep them interested or occupied. Some mothers and cubs were seen a short time later along the coast road and then an elegant Cross fox near the back of the rover. A bear sleeping in the kelp bed nearby lunged up and ambled after the fox for a change of pace. An unsuccessful attempt brought him back to his kelp and dreams of another chase….this time of a tasty seal on ice.

Travelers in Guide Karen’s care saw a stark white Arctic fox on the coast road just past Gordon Point. Some sparring in that area by a couple of big brawny males also made for a good wildlife viewing morning. An unusual sight came just after lunch when the group watched as a bear was able to get its paws up on the railing of a rover chartered by Churchill Nature Tours and its guide Steve, a longtime fixture to the bear season in Churchill. Luckily nobody was taken by surprise and the bear moved away as the driver revved the engine lurching forward. All in all the memories of the day were highlighted by the soft sunlight on the Hudson Bay flowing in and fusing with the ice along the shore. More and more bears were noticed lying in wait out on this ice anxiously awaiting the onset of “their own” seal-hunting season.

Live from Churchill: Nov 15, 2009

polar bear in Churchill

The polar bear stretch is widely viewed in the great north country! Dennis Minty photo.

Still no deep chill up here in Churchill. Temperatures ranged in the mid 20’s F and the clouds continued to cover like a warm blanket over the region. The incredible consistency of mildly cool weather has surely contributed to the prolific omnipresence of Polar Bears. Old Inuit saying: Little ice, many bears. No season in recent memory, mine and according to all the locals I speak with, compares to this one. Foxes of all sorts constantly appear in every direction one turns, both night and day. I even saw one in Gypsy’s having an espresso….the quite rare blond morph. Ahhh…life in Churchill.

Out on the land, guide Paul and travelers observed multiple sparring interactions on the coast road. Continuing out East the group caught up with three sets of moms with cubs off Halfway Point on the ice. Then, as their rover patrolled the coast road, another four moms with COY’s (cubs of the year) were wandering and occasionally settling in the kelp beds for some rest and nursing. While guides are normally saturated with bear and tundra experience by this time of the season, this season keeps exposing both guides and travelers to incredible new happenings. The latest for Paul’s entourage was a white-morph Gyrfalcon soaring high above the rocky coast at Gordon Point. Well received by the group, this largest of all the true falcons–roughly two-feet long with a four-foot wingspan–can live up to 20 years in the harsh Arctic wild….an amazing challenge for any creature.

Meanwhile Guide Karen and her folks spent the morning out near the Tundra Lodge where good numbers of bears were having a pretty calm time of it with not too much interaction going on. Soon a curious sub-adult headed towards their rover and stood up on the rear of the vehicle taking a closer look inside. After sniffing boots from underneath the back deck grate, he gave way to a mom with two coys walking right up to the rover as well. With these two animals in the foreground and another mom with two cubs at a distance directly behind them in the snow drifts, photographers were able to capture a full frame of bears indeed. Later in the afternoon, near the coast, the group witnessed a mom and her two year-old on the ice just barely forming along the shore. Mom was leading her cub by sort of surfing her body along the surface with her leg crashing through every few steps. With just enough ice to keep them atop the water, cub followed intently behind, learning precious skills all the while. The day came to a dramatic finish on the tundra when out at Halfway Point a mom with another set of two-year olds seemingly posed on the rocks for all aboard the rover. The majestic scene was soon interrupted however by a very large male approaching while huffing at the cubs. Mom quickly ushered them on their way and out of danger up the rocks then back inland through some willows. Not a bad “bring your cubs to the tundra day” for this fortunate Nat Hab group of Karen’s.

Guide Scott characterized the bear viewing as “madness on the tundra” reiterating the fact that this has been the most amazing season in his guiding tenure. It was obvious his uncharted enthusiasm was absorbed by his group as I ran into them before dinner…lots of smiles. Aside from the numerous mom and cub(s) sightings out around Gordon Point for his travelers, the highlight was a big male running “full tilt” for almost thirty yards. This surely is a rare sight at this time of the year as Polar Bears are nearly exhausted of energy by now. Another sign that this season’s bears are in good shape due to an extended seal hunting season on the Hudson Bay ice last year. Another great day in Churchill!

Live from Churchill: Nov 14, 2009

Polar bears will need to find alternate food sources in order to survive. Andrew Derocher photo.

Local Mike Macri was down at the “flats” just outside town on the Churchill River working on his bungalow; “Hacienda”,as he fondly refers to it; when he glanced toward the water and saw a Polar Bear floating in the water on thin grease ice. The bear was heading North toward the bay trying to remain on the surface of the precarious platform. Honestly, I couldn’t make this stuff up. The flats of Churchill houses an eclectic collection of cottages steeped in history. And, with the array of these tiny ‘cottages’ (seeing is believing) comes an even more eclectic collection of Churchillian characters. I surely couldn’t make them up. Mike has been trying to move things around on his property before the rumored official sub-division process takes place. Currently, anyone who has a building down there is technically “squatting” on the land. When the division process goes through, the lots will be offered for sale first to current tenants and then to the general public. Waterfront property on the Churchill River sounds good to me…ahhh Beluga’s and birds in the Summer; Polar Bears and Arctic Foxes in the Winter…wait, can you say Thomas Hearne? Yeah…um…scratch that idea!

Guide Melissa reports a “schwak” of bears with incredible numbers of mothers and cubs in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Her group is astounded by the activity and numbers. Two consecutive years of late spring ice break-up has apparently allowed for such proliferation of bear population in the Churchill area this season. An Arctic fox out by the coast was a welcome surprise as well as a flock or two of Willow Ptarmigan weaving in and out of, that’s right, willows along the way. The magical moment, albeit fleeting, came at the very outset of the day when the group glimpsed a Black wolf by the “highway” near the propane tanks by the airport. This elusive creature has been spotted once by myself when I was guiding a Summer group – he was loping over the road just before the weir. Majestic like the anti-ghost.

Travelers in Guide Brad’s group were witness today to unending sparring around the Tundra Lodge as big males grew increasingly impatient. Faint blood stains are noticed on their yellowish fur these days as the mock fighting intensifies. Rarely do bears maim each other during this seasonal ritual but this year we have certainly seen more bloodshed and crooked, scarred noses than past seasons. Lack of ice has the Polar Bears anxious and somewhat more ill- tempered. The group also enjoyed the pleasure of an Arctic fox joining them for a good 20 minutes while camped at Bird Cove. Later on, these folks also spent a good amount of time at the “nursery” in the Gordon Point vicinity where a plethora of mothers with cubs congregate these days. With the onset of a true Northern winter imminent, the tundra, bathed in a reddish glow over combined with snow’s bright white seemed to accept its fate once again as another spectacular day of wildlife viewing came to a close.

Live From Churchill: Nov 13, 2009

The Hudson Bay remains calm with scattered ice chunks floating towards shore aided by light North winds. Temperatures hovered around 25F, just low enough to allow bears to continue moving all across the tundra and in and around town. The sound of cracker shells, so common now they almost go unnoticed, reverberates through town day and night. The bear holding compound is still at the capacity of 26 and bear lifts are imminent.

Guide Melissa reported “bears everywhere” in the CWMA surrounded by perfect, soft lighting. All types of behavior; sparring males, sleeping bears in the willows and kelp beds and curious bears around the rover all made for another good morning. Between the lodge and Gordon Point, the group witnessed bears trying to get out farther on the ice. Mom was ahead testing the tenuous surface while cubs trailed energetically behind. Once at Gordon Point a sow was nursing her cub amongst the kelp while our travelers watched calmly. Later, just as the groups were returning to launch, an Arctic Fox came running by the rovers giving travelers a nice tundra send – off. On the way into town Melissa’s group caught glimpse of a Red fox on the outskirts trying to find a lemming before sundown.

Polar bears Churchill, MB

Polar bears in Churchill. Melissa Scott Photo.

Guide Sue and her loyal folks were on their town and area excursion when an Arctic hare paused just near the bus then zig-zagged through the snow, across the rocks away from view. Shortly after the group was by the Inukshuk behind the complex just as a bear came running frantically along the beach heading into the rocks towards Cape Merry. The animal must have found a safe spot to bed down for the time being as Natural Resource officers were at a loss as to where he was. Later as the group headed out on their night rover trip, two Red fox bid them good-bye from the Polar Inn. Not long after they departed launch in the rover, many bears appeared over the tundra. An Arctic fox ran by as a large sub-adult seemingly led the rover along the trail toward the Tundra Lodge. He guided them slowly then veered off and out across a frozen pond. A sure highlight once at the lodge was long-time resident “Rocky” growling at two other big bears in the territory. All three bruins were nose to nose before the two others moved away deferring to the champ. Yo Adrian! Adrian! These two may have joined in some sparring bouts later on as well. Middleweight class.

Guide Sandra’s troupe was quite enjoying the night rover experience as well… laughing and joking incessantly…mostly directed in Sandra’s direction albeit in adoring fashion while the sparring was happening in the vicinity of the lodge. Bears everywhere. On the way in from a fun night, the group saw an Arctic hare scampering along in the dusky light. Good night.

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