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.
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 willows..no 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.