As November comes toward the end, the last couple of Natural Habitat groups headed back to Winnipeg after their adventures in Churchill. With this years mid-November scare of an early Hudson Bay freeze-up, the challenge of finding polar bears in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area became quite formidable. Luckily, a prevailing South wind pushed the existing ice pack out and polar bears came on land. That occurrence coupled with a second wave of bears extended the season right to the end.
Guide Colby Brokvist and travelers were treated to incredible aurora on their first evening in Churchill. Photographing behind the town complex with awesome shots of the huge stone inukshuk in the foreground proved to be a great way to start the trip.
A photo tour poses for a group picture. Colby Brokvist photo.
The following day on the tundra turned out to be, “one of the best days of the season”, according to Colby. An old, snaggle-toothed male polar bear at Gordon Point approached the rover…coming close enough for some great shots by the avid photographers. This was the first polar bear for the group so the excitement was palpable for sure.
A snaggle-toothed polar bear up close and personal. Colby Brokvist photo.
After having another bear in close to the rover, Colby spotted a sow with two coy (cubs of the year) at a fairly far distance. Chancing a trip out to them paid off as they came to a relaxed disposition. Mom began to nurse her young and the shutters began to fly. once the snow began to fly and a wind whipped it around it was time to move on. An incredible opportunity at this point of the season was followed by another bear near the tundra lodge that also took a liking to the rover and meandered quite close. What a day on the land with hardly anyone else around.
Coys nursing in the CWMA. Eric Rock photo.
The next day was somewhat slower though what lacked in wildlife opportunities was compensated for with incredible light on the Arctic landscape and marvelous sun dogs in the sky…lasting all morning until about two in the afternoon. A curious polar bear at the tundra lodge made for some great photos for the time he obliged. “Still, the light was amazing and we took many opportunities to photograph trees, rocks, ponds and blowing snow. “, reported Colby. A howling wind the entire day piled drifts up to four-feet tall. Rovers struggled to make way on the trails…however all found a way to make it through and back to launch.
A sundog appears in the sky in the CWMA.Colby Brokvist photo.
The final day on the tundra proved to be slow with regards to wildlife and specifically polar bear activity. The end of the season was about to be a reality. A lone bear near the ice edge reminded all of the true reason for the bears congregating in Churchill..to wait for the ice to form on Hudson Bay.
While eating lunch, the group was thrilled by what Colby termed a “fly-by” from a sow and coy. The pair trotted by the rover and were gone from sight in moments. Still, a fantastic day on northern tundra.
Highlights of the last couple of days in Churchill including trying out the infamous sport of curling at the curling rink in the town complex…enjoyed by all. The final day of the trip was a spectacle that most people on the planet do not have the chance to witness. Manitoba Conservation officers made the decision to release the remaining 15 polar bears from “jail” or the holding facility as the politically correct call it. The bears are released from culvert traps and all you see is their “south” end heading onto the ice…a fitting way to signal the end of bear season …and the beginning of seal season for the bears.
Aurora borealis in the sky near Churchill,MB. Eric Rock photo.
Erick Rock and his photo tour had some decent bear action in their time on the tundra lodge though the northern lights provided amazing thrills as well as photo opportunities. They also witnessed bears heading ice-ward.released from containment and saying goodbye to bear season 2012
The last days of polar bear season are going out on a high note and a cold note as well. Temperatures are in the mid -negative teens and blowing snow is sweeping across the tundra and through the town of Churchill. It’s so cold even the polar bears are heading out of town. ..well actually the cold suits them just fine. Cold means food to the bears…as in seals….ringed seals by and large. The larger the better!
Natural Habitat guide Lynnette and her group were out on the tundra and had some amazing late-season experiences. Out east, in the heart of the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA), a dozen bears showed themselves to the intrepid travelers… according to Lynnette the experience was “awesome considering we weren’t sure if there would be any bears at all due to the early build-up of ice…which does stretch out into the bay as far as one can see.”
Pack ice forms on the Hudson Bay. Karen Walker photo.
The first three or four bears were spotted a couple of hundred meters out on the Hudson Bay ice …not far from the trail. This is something only a few select groups visiting the area in the late-season will experience. To sense that vital connection between bear and ice adds an extra dimension to the trip. One polar bear appeared to be hunting..sitting still looking down on the ice placidly. Another bear seemed to be patiently stalking something under or within the snow-covered ice…frozen in a half -step for over five minutes…like a cat preying on a bird or unsuspecting mouse. Meanwhile, a female bear ambled along the shore in the foreground and then bedded down in some willows..seemingly indifferent to the presence of the rover. Just watching a sleeping bear amid the Arctic landscape can be soothing to the soul.
Traveling further east, the rover came to rest on the solid, icy surface of a frozen thermokarst with sheets of blowing snow wafting across the surface. Quite quickly a very thin bear approached the machine. Appearing older and less healthy than most of the other bears in the CWMA, upon closer scrutiny a scarred face and broken and missing upper canines as well as a quite sunken mouth confirmed the initial observation. As he approached cautiously, another polar bear came sauntering across the ice causing the thin bear to hightail it away to safety. This new bear appeared extremely fit and evoked an air of aggression the older bear wanted no part of. “This bear had a large scar over his right eye…’scarface’ was what the group aptly coined him.” reported Lynnette. ‘Scarface” spent a long time with the group..constantly jumping upon the side of the machine…then moving to the rear of the vehicle and under the back, grated deck to sniff thrilled guests boots. His attempt to remove the taillight was thwarted by rover driver Ward. More than a half hour of aggression waned finally and the bear moved off away from the rover. An amazing day was capped off with a red fox heading off into the red-hued sunset …seemingly melding with the ball of fire glowing over the grey and white arctic landscape.
A polar bear and red fox forage the tundra. Brad Josephs photo.
The following day was a bit slower though it began with gorgeous sunrise appearing as the group headed out of town toward launch. Out at Gordon Point a sleepy bear occasionally walked about and also stretched and buried his head in the snow while raising his hind quarters in the air. Maybe this was the same bear guide Sandra and her group spotted a week ago out in the CWMA.
A polar bear ambles through the snow and ice. Brad Josephs photo.
Heading further east the group came upon a male lounging and attempting seemingly painful yoga positions prior to a female approaching from the ice edge. The female approached the bear though decided against coming too close. As she moved away, she gave a wide berth to the large male but he decided to follow. He stalked her step for step and then lost interest as she neared the pair of rovers in the area. A beautiful female of four or five years, she moved to the rear of Lynnett’s rover and sniffed at excited guests feet for 15 minutes before heading off.
“What a special way to end our trip and a special way to end my season with these majestic animals.” reflected Lynnette.
Just a few days ago the ice packed in along Cape Churchill and many bears moved north onto the surface to get a jump on the seal hunting season…good news for the bear population. However, with a week and a half left in the season for travelers to view the majestic king of the north, panic was setting in for the fear that no bears would be in sight. On the contrary, bears have come in what seems to be “a second wave’ of late season congregations. Just when you think you’ve seen all the possibilities the sub-arctic has to offer in terms of surprises a new one comes along. it is a strange, amazing place.
Over a dozen bears, far and near were being reported out in the Churchill Wildlife management Area (CWMA). The above video is of sparring bears in the CWMA out at Gordon point. The sparring this season has been phenomenal …definitely the highlight of the action out on the tundra.
With some doubt in the air as far as numbers of bears still on land, Natural Habitat polar bear guide Sandra Elvin and travelers had a fairly slow first afternoon out on the tundra. A few bears roaming the ice were the highlights of that initial venture to the CWMA …hopes for a better following day prevailed however.
Polar bears in the distance. Karen Walker photo.
The second day was a blessing. On their way out to Gordon Point, the rover came upon a beautiful sow doing “bear yoga” who then wandered off towards the direction of the lodge. The group continued on to Gordon Point where after sitting stationary for awhile, had lunch, and was then was startled by a large,male bear walking along near the ice edge. After watching for some time, another attempt to serve lunch was interrupted by very small cub all alone, seemingly too young to be on his own. Even so, he was a bold. He visited all three rovers that were in the area at Gordon Point, barely rising above the top of the rover tires when he stood up. He was a “cutie”, but one has to wonder if he will make it through the harsh Arctic winter. As the group left Gordon Point and headed down the coastal flats, they saw many bears far out on the horizon.
An incredibly beautiful helicopter ride the following day brought the travelers across the river, to the south of the Cape, across the Cape, across Button Bay to Diamond Lake, and then back home. Down the river, about 7 moose were seen, many of them calves, and only a couple of bulls. South of the cape and across the cape, there were several bears with two sets of sows with a single cub ..one of them a coy! Near Diamond Lake, two bull moose, as well as two females with calves revealed themselves in and around the willows. “On our way back home, we saw one lonely bear on his own private little ice island that was raised up above all the ice around him with no open water. He seemed to be in deep thought about where to go next and was wondering what the heck we were! “, reported Sandra.
A couple of sled dogs await their next trip. Sandra Elvin photo.
After lunch, another awesome dog sledding adventure with Kelly and Churchill River Mushing left all with an iconic, lasting memory from the north.
The past week in Churchill saw colder temperatures and snow sweeping across the tundra. It seems as if the ice in the Hudson Bay will continue to build and provide the bears with an ample seal -hunting season this year. North winds have prevailed and ice that has formed is now socked in against Cape Churchill.
Chillin in the snow. Colby Brokvist photo.
Natural Habitat guide Karen walker and her group headed right onto the tundra following a flight from Winnipeg and caught sight of a bear out on the fringe ice on the beach across from the old dump site. After a slight delay with a mechanical issue on the rover, the group headed out and immediately spotted a red fox moving quickly trying to find a scent of a buried lemming under the snow. Coming up to the tundra lodge, a pair of polar bears lounged sleepily near the far edge of the facility. Lifting their heads and periodically and standing on all fours to check the perimeter gave the travelers quite the beginning introduction to the north. Curling back up with covered eyes under paws, the bears seemed content with their restful peace. After an enjoyable day the group was back in town for dinner and then an Inuit cultural presentation by Peter and Mary..always a touching interaction.
Peter demonstrates drumming for guests. Colby Brokvist photo.
While enjoying morning tea in the CWMA the following day, the group watched near Gordon point as a polar bear walked along the point and tested the ice along the shore. Four other bears were also sensing the impending freeze as they roamed along impatiently..wanting to get out further. Waves crashed along the ice edge as a few other bears were spotted out along the horizon. Heading through ptarmigan Alley and back near the lodge revealed some of the resting bears from the day before. The wind & white out of the morning cleared in the afternoon & opened up a break low on the horizon, so we had a beautiful sunset.
“Evening clear skies opened up just after dark and the aurora could be seen right from town!”,reported Karen. Strong solar winds from a coronal hole produced the amazing greenish lights. We took a quick look at the lights behind the complex then went to our evening programs. After dinner and a cultural presentation, the group rushed out to the aurora domes for a spectacular night of aurora viewing – “one of the best displays that I’ve seen”. , emphasized Karen. Green -tinted lights covered at least half of the sky the entire night..well at least while the group was viewing them. “They were in beautiful arcs and swirls and were dancing like crazy at times. We even got to see the corona effect of the lights right over our heads. We also got to see a lot of pink on the bottom fringe of the lights – from the particles hitting the excited nitrogen molecules at a lower altitude. It was quite a display!!!”, reported Karen.
The aurora shines brightly over the domes. Jeremy Pearson photo.
The following morning was a beautiful morning,… mostly clear, very cold, with little wind. Heading out for an extended helicopter journey, the travelers quickly spotted some moose up-river from the weir. Quite the sighting! Some guests also saw a red fox and a wolverine along the frozen river. ” We circled the wolverine and watched it run along the river. It was quite large and we could see the lighter colored rim along its lower fur.”, said Karen. This was a second wolverine sighting in two weeks! And the first wolverine sighting for D’Arcy who works tirelessly in the Churchill operations office. “We actually got D’Arcy to take a break from work and join us on the flight.” exclaimed Karen.
Upon arrival at the unoccupied polar bear den sight, the group walked around while seeing some Labrador tea and lichen encrusted rocks on the ground. A caribou antler and polar bear skull were examined by all before crawling inside the mossy den. Then, in the air flying over Wapusk National Park, a vast landscape of frozen ponds and tundra polygons went on forever underneath.” We traveled north along the coast while spotting numerous bears- 20-30 of them- with maybe three to four sets of mothers with cubs”, reported Karen. Some bears were on the shore while some were hunkered down in the snow in day beds and some were just out testing the ice. Another landing at Knight’s Hill where a patchwork of lichen crusted rocks revealed their beauty and a spectacular view across the tundra from the highest esker in the region.
Three polar bears explore the coastline. Karen Walker photo.
After a quick lunch at the Churchill Motel, the group dashed off to the jail to watch a polar bear relocation lift sponsored by a film crew. A large adult male was transported north…there are still 14 bears in the holding facility. Actually a pretty low number for this time of year.A tour of the new LED Churchill Northern Studies Center and an interpretive talk by one of the visiting scientists rounded out a full day.
Natural Habitat guide Colby and his photography group were at the tundra lodge on their first day and had some sleeping polar bears and another more active bear roaming the area. Some nice shots were taken before moving out to Gordon point where some more bears were hunkered down due to the wind. Overall a nice start to an Arctic adventure. The night turned even better with phenomenal northern lights…”epic”, according to Colby. Incredible photo’s were taken behind the town complex by the stone inukshuk…braving the -27 C temperature for over an hour of incredible shooting. The entire sky seemed engulfed with aurora!
The next day began with incredible photo ops of a sow with two coy just as the sun came up…a soft flowing light over the tundra. Three other polar bears out on the ice edge along the coast gave a wider landscape opportunity to show the vastness of the land and sea merging together as one. Ridges piling up in the ice provided depth and texture to the scenes.
Ice accumulating on the Hudson Bay. Karen Walker photo.
Near white – out conditions gave the travelers a true sense of the Arctic the following day out in the CWMA…The winds have shifted back now from the North. As the skies cleared a little, some amazing photos of soft orange skies with blowing snow over stunted spruce trees and frozen ponds were taken. A ruddy turnstone..the bird that is…was spotted out a Gordon Point..since he won’t be reading this I must say he’s in a world of shite. He may end up in the Eskimo Museum...exhibit R. A polar bear on land in willows out east provided some excellent, low-angle sub-arctic lit shots. the bear walked right by the rover and guests took some of the best shots of the trip.
With the snow and ice filling the landscape and the amazing aurora filling the sky over Churchill, it’s time for some photo’s from the past week or so to recap all that’s been going on in the north recently. Incredible northern lights the past few nights have had even the local posting photo’s on the internet. Churchillians see these pretty regularly so you know they were exceptional when a local buzz occurs. This year we have seen incredible and more regular displays of sparring. Some of my favorite shots come from these mock fights. Keep watching for more as the next couple of weeks culminate with intense polar bear action on the tundra. To see northern lights in the heart of winter, check out these aurora adventures.
A polar bear rolls around on the snow. Rick Pepin photo.
A polar bear buries his head in the snow…six more months of winter. Sandra Elvin photo.
Two large polar bears waltz across the tundra in a sparring session. Eric Rock photo.
Polar bears move majestically across the tundra. Brad Josephs photo.
Local Churchillian Katie DeMeulles with aurora in the distance.
“One more photo and I will rip the heating unit off your rover..am I clear?” Brad Josephs photo.