The temperatures have fallen below the “Churchill” Maginot line. When the mercury finally dips below the 32F degree mark in October, there’s really no looking back until the ice finally breaks out of the Churchill River in Springtime. In the short term, for the next couple of months at least, the temperature drop usually translates to heightened polar bear activity within the Churchill region.

Churchill polar rover on tundra.

The Churchill Wildlife Management Area is covered with thermokarsts. Colby Brokvist photo.

Thousands of travelers come to view the infamous Churchill polar bears as they have become world renowned. However, we must keep in mind always that these bears descend on Churchill from Northern shoreline points where they abandoned the Springtime melting sea ice. As much as this two month period is prime-time to see polar bears in their natural habitat around Churchill,  grave concern for their habitat in the North still demands our undivided attention. Over the past few decades, scientific evidence has shown decreasing sea ice linked to decreasing polar bear body mass and length. A longer ice free period has left polar bears on land for a longer time between spring and fall freeze-up of the Hudson Bay. With extended time off ice ,where they hunt seals for energy and fat reserves, survival rates of polar bears are decreasing. These basic harbingers point to increased concern overall for numbers of polar bears in the Western Hudson Bay population.  A sample of this research can be found in an interview with polar bear biologist Andrew Derocher of the University of Alberta this past July on Yale’s Environment 360 website. Good reading.

Meanwhile, soon after guides Brent, Scott and Amy arrived in Churchill with excited travelers, the first polar bear “lift” of the season took place. Guides hurried their groups out to the polar bear compound to see a mom and two cubs of the year (coy’s) taken from the compound and readied for evacuation. The mom was placed in a net and the two cubs were seat-belted in the rear seats of the helicopter. The helicopter lifted off and hovered overhead momentarily then headed out.  Kind of ironic for folks to come all this way to see polar bears and here’s Manitoba Conservation taking the bears away up North for release. Even so, all who were lucky enough to view the now-dusted had elated smiles and a unique story to tell.

Out on the snow dusted tundra of the CWMA, more stories were unfolding. Guide Elise had an “epic” day with her folks. In the morning, at Halfway Point, a juvenile male was sleeping in the rocks then rolling around periodically as well as walking along the rocky outcropping. Content with this sighting, the rover moved East along the coast and came upon an amazing sight. A seal carcass on the beach was being devoured by a polar bear. Within a short time, another larger male arrived and then one more came upon the scene. With three polar bears on the seal, stress naturally would arise. Soon two of the larger bears were grappling and sparring on two legs. Not unusual behavior for this time of year but with the bears muzzles and paws dipped in blood, the two bruins were soon splattering each others’ white fur with additional blood. The scene amazed all and some stellar photo’s were captured I’m sure.

Guides Leah and Rinnie at the tundra lodge had their folks viewing a bear rolling around and tumbling at the lodge. Some of the group, on a rover excursion between first tower and Ptarmigan Alley came upon a sow nursing two cubs…..some of the first reported nursing sightings of the season. All kinds of behavior starting to appear now as the season gets into gear.

Churchill arctic hare.

An Arctic hare hides in the rocks along the Hudson Bay shore. Colby Brokvist photo.

While enjoying drinks and dinner on a night-rover excursion, guide Amy and her group kicked off their first night in Churchill with a beautiful evening on the tundra. A magnificent arctic hare was seen doing all sorts of yoga poses and stretching nestled in a rock outcropping on the coastal road. Relaxing night on the land.

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