Report from Churchill: October 30,2010

Churchill polar bears.

Mother polar bear and cub resting peacefully near willows in Churchill. NHA photo.

The skies cleared to reveal the sun and illuminate the pristine snow cover that now blankets the region. Enhancing the natural beauty of the land as well as making it feel more arctic-like always is the silver lining when a major storm hits. When the snow settles, everyone shifts gears and digs in for the long Winter. Most people that live in Churchill thoroughly enjoy it and wouldn’t want it any other way…well maybe one more month of Summer.

The tundra in the CWMA provided ample polar bear viewing and the varied behavior of the animals is certainly more apparent. Guide Steve and travelers were lucky to spot and observe three sets of sows with cubs. Guides are noticing that they seem a little more skittish these days as many lone male bears are on the move and asserting territorial pressure on each other. These actions are agitating to the bears and in turn, some are slightly more aggressive towards mom with there cubs. After the family viewing, Steve’s group then made their way to the area near the tundra lodge where they observed male polar bears sparring for the second day in a row. They had viewed some sparring earlier in the day though it was a shorter bout.  The interaction at the lodge was more prolonged with more rest breaks due to the slightly higher air temperature.

Churchil polar bears.

Polar bear taking a winter nap in Churchill. NHA photo.

The group under Guide Paul’s leadership had a really good day searching for wildlife. Most of their day was spent near the tundra lodge where they also took in some sparring and other random, mostly young male bears stirring about. An arctic fox looked for some attention as well as she playfully rolled around in the fresh snow. Near the gateway trail to the lodge, a sow and two larger yearling cubs were bedded down near a spruce stand of trees.  Pretty relaxing just to watch bears relax I think.

Topping off the afternoon, birders in the group were excited to catch a quick view of a gyrfalcon soar right over their rover and tundra lodge. At Halfway Point the group also saw a black guillemot in the distance. The highlight of the day was seeing a female bear off by the edge of the bay feeding on a seal kill. This has been observed before but this one had a little more excitement to it. A big male appeared and was investigating under the rover when he finally caught the scent and sight of the female on the seal. He proceeded to chase her off the meat and she fled into the water …swimming about a quarter mile out, waiting and watching the male eat his newfound lunch.

Guide Sue and folks had a great day as well. Gordon Point area provided them with a sow and coy nursing on the edge of the willows up against a snowbank. Three newly arrived rock ptarmigan were sighted there as well as a long-tailed duck and an eider duck. The arrival of these birds usually marks the arrival of the snowy owls …though no sightings yet. Numerous other meandering bears were seen over the course of the day..many near halfway point. Another two sets of sows with cubs also occupied the group’s attention while the skies cleared completely and soft light near the end of the day was prime for photography.

Report from Churchill: October 29, 2010

Churchill polar bears..sow and cubs.

Polar bear family resting on the bluff. NHA photo.

Heavy snow continued into the new day, finally dissipating later in the day. Familiar snow drifts were formed around each corner and in town and across the tundra where willows, spruce stands and land formations allowed. Vehicles in Churchill struggled to free themselves from the grip of these drifts; spinning wheels all over the place. More headaches for drivers; though more arctic beauty for everyone else.

While town folk were hustling and bustling in the blizzard conditions, viewing out on the tundra in the CWMA was fairly docile while wildlife settled in early on and became more active in the afternoon. Guide Elise and group motored through the blizzard in their heated rover and came upon some sleeping bears early in the day. A sow with her two cubs finally stirred and mom began rolling around seemingly quite content with all the snow on the land and in the air falling. She was posing in every possible way in what Elise called “polar bear yoga”. The cubs weren’t sure what to make of mom’s stretching and stayed close by.

Churchill polar bear.

Polar bears are the king of the Arctic. Paul Brown photo.

Soon another bear came by checking out the two unusually large cubs..keeping his distance and moving off into the snow that was blurring the land and sky together. Once he was out of the area, one cub became curious of the rover and walked over and stood up on the side of the vehicle…coming face to face with excited guests. He then moved to the rear and spent a good amount of time under the back grated deck inches from people above.

Guide Sandra took her group along the back road behind the coast road and encountered a male polar bear sleeping in the willows…after awhile rising and running off toward the coast. Another two bears in willows hunkered down content to ride out the storm under shelter. Continuing on to Gordon Point, the group viewed some bears in the distance looking ghostlike in the blowing snow. just past the next turnoff back toward the tundra lodge, a lone, smaller cub was seen all alone in the storm ….no mom in sight. Soon she scurried into the willows. If mom lost track of her cub in the weather, she would surely pick up her scent and reunite soon once the wind subsided.

Three more bears were discovered as the rover made way to the tundra lodge up on a ridge between the bay and lodge. they all ended up at the lodge and the rest of the afternoon was spent watching mostly males right around the vicinity of the lodge. Great day in the elements of the sub-arctic.

On night rover excursions, three groups led by Brad, Elise and Paul all settled in around the tundra lodge area. The highlights of the evening were a sow and twocub beddedd down by some spruce trees to the South of the lodge. Also, three slumbering sub-adults rising to wrestle for about 45 minutes and provide thrills for all as they sipped on hot drinks. The wrestling and sparring accented by snow blowing off their backs and heads provided surreal sights on a cool night in the CWMA. This was “classic sparring” according to bear expert and guide Brad Josephs. The night was capped off with great looks of two arctic foxes sniffing and scavenging around the back side of the lodge.Churchill polar bears

The political scene in Churchill remained status quo as incumbent Mayor Mike Spence retained his post under weather hampered voting results. Precinct one…um..the only precinct also voted in City Councilors Verna Flett, Gerald Azure, Jennifer Massan and Heather Bothelo. Congrats to all!

Report from Churchill: October 28, 2010

Winter officially, finally arrived in the North. Churchill continues to be blanketed by the first blizzard-like snowfall of the season. The storm showed signs of developing last night when the wind whipped up to 40mph and brought the cold air necessary for the freezing rain to make the transition to the good stuff. With the familiar dusting on the ground around noon, the hammer began to fall in the early afternoon as the snow-filled wind hit with a vengeance. The old Northern Nights hotel used to have the slogan “Bears, Beluga’s and Beers”…and though he Beluga’s have made their safe passage back North to the Hudson Straits, the Bears are surely elated with the fresh powder and almost everyone involved with wildlife viewing, namely polar bear watching, in Churchill is more than likely having a couple of the others to celebrate as well. Slainte!

Churchill Inukshuk.

Snow covered inukshuk in Churchill. NHA photo.

One of those bears was spotted by conservation down behind the town complex by the snow-covered inukshuk. As they gave chase, the firs cracker shells in a long time were heard ringing out over the Hudson Bay. The little young sub-adult disappeared over and down into the rocks heading East toward the Churchill River.

Guide Melissa noted that early in the day, despite the rising wind and surging front, bear activity in the CWMA was “great”. the highlight surely was two big males wrestling and sparring… breaking, then at it again. Then near and around the tundra lodge, there were roughly 15 bruins all active and involved in a subtle game of “polar bear risk”; pushing each other from place to place with very little physical contact. All in the group were enthralled with the various aspects revealing themselves like a contrived psychological experiment…this is the real thing for sure.

Slightly after what seemed like a calm was coming over the bears, the sow and cub that had been resting South of the lodge in a little spruce oasis moved in to hang with the big boys and show her independence. After a while of passive resistance, the mom finally felt the pressure and was forced back to her safe haven with cub defiantly in tow.

Churchill polar bear.

Polar bear resting and being a bit shy. NHA photo.

Guide Elise had her rover moving toward the tundra lodge when they passed closely by a sleeping bear. The male stood up near willows, moved around a little then returned to his spot for stretching and rolling maneuvers…great photo’s with snow-dusted fur and a good clump on the nose and paws raised to the sky. Snow on these guys is like powdered sugar on a big bear brownie….uh..sort of.

After more bears, starting to hunker down now at the lodge, the rover headed back on the quickly vanishing trail following an arctic hare part of the way. They had some excitement on the shuttle driving back to town as the driver’s windshield wiper blade froze up. Slow and steady.

Guide Scott and group started their day slowly with a couple of sleeping bears around 10:30 in the morning out East near first tower. One remained past out near a thermokarst while the other ventured over and walked right out into the rover trail.  With another hour of relatively minor activity, the group rumbled toward Ptarmigan Alley and arrived just in time for some epic sparring activity. Two young adult males- just around 300lbs. each- were going at it pretty hard about a quarter mile East of Gordon Point. the drama unfolded over an hour and a half period with 10-minute breaks in between the rough-housing.  This definitely overshadowed the flock of 16 pure white Ptarmigan the group saw early that morning by a little bit. As the snow continued to dump heavily this sparring seemed to be the “perfect scenario to accompany the first storm of the season”. as Scott saw it. Stay tuned for more to come.

Report from Churchill: October 27,2010

Despite the increasing wind and scattered freezing rain throughout the course of the day, the wildlife activity in the Churchill region was definitely up the proverbial “notch”. The wind began to turn from East to North later on and the forecast for snow raised the spirits of all tundra explorers in town. Both from the air on helicopter denning excursions and from the sheltered, heated tundra polar rovers, a plethora of wildlife, namely polar bear, activity was enjoyed by travelers visiting from all over the world.

Churchill polar bear.

A polar bear tries its best to get some fresh meat. Steve Selden photo.

Following a cultural presentation by Caroline Bjorklund on Dene culture in the North with fresh baked bannock for sampling, a break in the weather in the later morning allowed guide Sandra’s and Melissa’s groups to take off in Hudson Bay Helicopters well-oiled machines. Travelers headed out on a winding excursion over the tundra culminating with a southeast landing to explore an abandoned polar bear den. As fascinating as that adventure was, the journey there was even more so. The flight featured views of four sets of sows and cubs, one of those with coys. After traveling quite a long distance South, a small herd of about six caribous was spotted feeding on moss on the tundra. Shortly after, as the choppers followed the Deer River which runs just about parallel to the Churchill River in the South, two beautiful bull moose was seen on a small willow filled island in the river. As the group neared Cape Churchill, polar bears were “everywhere” in this popular resting area for the animals. Melissa’s folks also spotted an arctic fox meandering along the tundra sniffing out lemming scents all the way. Some unconfirmed reports of wolves seen in Wapusk National Park stirred everyone’s imagination.

Guide Karen and group were on the land in the CWMA out by the Flats area with a polar bear about 15 feet away stretching and posing for photos. Others were in the distance but this one seemed oblivious to the groups’ presence. A little farther East, the rover pulled up on two at about 50 feet. A perfect viewing spot for the action to follow. The two males rose up and started sparring in 10-15 minute rounds. They would go at it pretty hard then take a break and start up again. After about an hour, the two walked coast-ward across a thermokarst that wasn’t completely frozen enough to hold their weight. Breaking through the ice up to his knees seemed to be exactly what one of them wanted as he looked to be cooling off after the heavyweight title fight.

Off in another direction, not far from the bears was a good, large flock of ptarmigan…once again exposed to the tundra…with their pure white feathers. This was “one of the best encounters of the season” according to Karen as the flock even obliged the group more by flying off about a hundred yards and landing close to some sheltering willows. Ptarmigan Flight is not a behavior often seen out on the tundra.

Guide Brent’s group also had an active viewing day in the CWMA. Just at the outset of the day, the group saw a number of bears moving back from the coast toward the tundra lodge. The contingent was made up mostly of young males moving in a zigzagging funnel shape over the tundra. They were involved in a complex game of mutual avoidance while occasionally surprising each other from behind a stand of willows. Some would take part in play fighting in the full on sparring but still some grappling and muzzling going on. One of the males seemed overly paranoid as he slashed around in the willows then walked backward at times when heading for an encounter with another bear. All in all, Brent characterized the scene as bears “acting like youngsters” in a clearly changing behavior scheme out on the land.

As the wind increased with the waning day, the surf in the Hudson Bay was kicking up some gnarly whitecaps that pounded the shield of the shore. Eiders held fast in their rock sheltered shallows counting the minutes for the tide to ebb. Ptarmigan, “sticking out like sore thumbs”; aptly put by Brent, scurried for willow cover as the wind whipped horizontally across the region. The thin, cold rain illuminated the tundra with a lacquer coating that enhanced colors of lichen while exposing deep blues and steel grays of glacial rock rising out of the spongy ground. Northern exposure!

Later, near the tundra lodge,  Brent positioned his group’s rover so one of the “biggest” bears he had ever encountered could climb alongside, curious of the payload. The massive bruin, 800-900lbs,  peered in the windows not even completely stretched out. When he first leaned against the machine, he rocked the cabin with a thump. He moved down the side as Brent adjusted a window and again rocked the rover with all his weight. The huge scarred nose fogging the outside of the glass felt like a Halloween slasher flick in real time. Trick or meat anyone?

Guide Scot’s travelers were positioned in the lodge area most of the day. Ironically he, not Brent, characterized the day as “rocking out there”. No monster bears pushing his vehicle around I guess.  The day began with great looks at a sow with two cubs just East of the tundra lodge in a little spruce cropping. Seemingly all at once, a big male came around from behind them just as five other males moved out of the willows and around the same area. Mom retreated with cubs to a safe distance. Two of the bears were roughly two and a half years -old just released by mom last Spring. Their exuberance caused some tenseness within the congregation as guttural roaring was heard from underneath and behind the lodge as the group interacted while moving about. Then, while Scott and group enjoyed lunch and hot drinks, another big 700lb male came upon the scene and pushed all the smaller, younger bears away. he then moved back behind the lodge and settled somewhere in the high willows. A little bit later two smaller bears returned. One was a mud-splotched female who seemed angry with the world.

As the group just started to head off back toward launch, Guide Leah from the lodge signaled Scott to stop his rover. Out from behind the East facing side of the lodge appeared what at first looked like the 700lb bruiser bear though everyone soon realized this guy had another150lbs bulked under his bristly yellowish, white fur.  His giant head stared at the rover as they finally bid goodbye to the fantastic day.

Report from Churchill: October 26, 2010

A windy pre-election day in Churchill and the surrounding region. With the prevailing East wind came the wide range of weather over the last two days. Sleet and rain battled back and forth throughout the day finally trailing off to windy conditions. The forecast is for scattered freezing rain changing to snow at the end of the week. All this changing weather may be the weather gods signaling a change in the office of mayor ….Brian LaDoon..mayor of Churchill? Find out tomorrow.

Out at the tundra lodge, far away from bustling downtown Churchill, the folks lead by Guides Rinnie and Leah were enjoying a rare scene. Four or five bears that have been occupying the area around the lodge migrated about a quarter mile down to the edge of the Hudson Bay and were feeding on a seal -kill. The bears fed on the high-fat content meat throughout a good part of the day providing all on the lodge and a few rovers in the area with incredible looks and photographs. Although the seal ignited some tension over the feeding process, no sparring occurred. A couple of bears rose up on hind legs and feinted at sparring though the fresh meat on the beach changed their minds. The red blood smeared over their faces and paws made for interesting photos and lasting images in everyone’s minds.

Some of the lodge group ventured out East on the rover and came across a sow with two yearlings lounging near some willows. Then, a little later, a sow and two coy’s (cubs of the year) were discovered wandering and then resting just west of Ptarmigan Alley in the flats area. Great sightings for a gray weather day on the land in the CWMA. Back to the warm, comfortable lodge for a gourmet dinner. While at their base for the week,  the early evening brought out the four arctic foxes that have taken up residence under and around the lodge. Some snow buntings and a flock of healthy, energetic willow ptarmigan in full white plumage filled out the landscape as the arctic light slowly melted away.

Churchill polar bears

Polar bears sniffing the wind along the trails of the CWMA. Chuck Schoffner photo.

Guide Amy and travelers continued to discover great experiences out on the land. They came up to the aforementioned seal kill on the the beach with a huddle of bears surrounding it. Bloody faces peered up from time to time as a smaller male looked on from a distance. There seemed to be a pecking order of sorts playing out within the population on the scene. Later in the day as the group passed by on the way in, the little guy and a few ravens were finishing off the scraps left over. Flipper licking good!

As the gray clouds melded together and wind velocity increased, the rover headed out to Christmas Lake Esker. A nice look at the edge of the boreal forest and some fresh caribou tracks on the land next to the rover painted a vivid picture of life in  this sub-arctic landscape.

The wind increased even more as the group arrived at Gordon point and within sight of a sow and a two- year old cub. Shortly after arriving they witnessed a large male heading methodically in the pair’s direction. Once mom caught scent off the crisp wind, mom stood up. surveyed the threat, then started loping off hurriedly with her cub stopping every few moments keeping a nervous eye on the male. The two moved just past the rover never even noticing the machine…more mindful of the intruder instead. The feel of being present in nature while these interactions unfold is priceless.

Churchill polar bear.

A polar bear near the willows in Churchill. Chuck Schoffner photo.

In town, many groups had the thrill of a 700lb male being air-lifted via helicopter up the coast to be released. This bear was the first bear to be incarcerated for the season and finally made bail for freedom. Rumor has it that a certain mayoral candidate posted bail in order to gain support from nature enthusiasts and animal rights activists. Film at eleven.

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