Well, the changes in the weather in Churchill have truly made polar bear season feel more real…or at least what most people envision when thinking of polar bears and the north. It’s pretty much like clockwork…when Halloween comes, so does the cold and snow. Spending 12 seasons in Churchill gives one a sort of internal feel for the weather and its’ nuances. Most of October is fairly calm with temperatures consistently around freezing and as the month turns anything goes ..and it usually does.
This past week Karen and her Natural Habitat group arrived in Churchill to find beautiful blue sky. It was cold with a calm wind and a light layer of new snow crystals on the ground that shimmered in the sunshine appearing like diamonds across the land.
Before even reaching town excitement flooded the bus with some news from another guide. “We heard about some “pizzas” (code words for polar bears used over radio communication between staff) near Miss Piggy, so we took the Coast Road on our way into town. It turned out to be a sow and her two one and a half year- old cubs laying in the Canadian Shield rocky formation.”, reported Karen. They lifted their heads up and gave glances toward the thrilled travelers.. What start to the trip to the north.
A view across the calm Hudson Bay from the stone inukshuk behind the complex allowed the group to get their bearings before an orientation by Karen on polar bear biology and the Churchill area.
The following day it was off to the Churchill Wildlife Management Area to take in the landscape and hopefully some wildlife activity including some polar bears. Within just fifteen minutes from launch a bear was spotted sleeping near the willows. As the rover moved closer the bear raised its’ nose to sniff the scent several times. Three brilliant white ptarmigan were running along the tundra in the same area and the Arctic was revealing itself to the new guests.
Out at Gordon Point the group was enjoying morning coffee and tea and a rock near the coast turned into a sleeping bear…caffeine will do that every time! Since the edge of the bay is beginning to freeze, bears will rest close to the forming ice almost as if they are willing the water to freeze faster. This particular animal rolled around on the ice and snow seemingly quite content to see at least some progress.
Continuing along the rugged coast with red and gold seaweed strewn between ice covered rocks, a couple of bears were foraging the kelp beds….possibly hoping to find some morsels of some kind washed ashore in last week’s storm. “Their noses were all brown from rummaging in the seaweed. One of them came over to visit us under the back deck.” Travelers took turns having their feet inches from a polar bears nose. Just one of the things to do out on the tundra. After lunch, not far from that location, another bear came over for a visit and also sniffed some boots from under the back observation platform. Some great encounters that will be remembered always.
That night in town the group was treated to a special concert by the Fiddlestix band. A teacher in the school, Joanne Stover, started teaching herself and some kids how to play the fiddle six years ago. They travel to a couple of jamborees throughout the year to learn more about fiddling. The concert was held by the large wooden polar bear slide inside the town complex. Four kids (ages 14-17) performed, along with Joanne, and they were accompanied by a guitar player. “They played fun jigs and reels, so it was entertaining to listen to. It was also great to meet the kids & learn more about the music program in a remote community.” stated Karen. Many of the guests also went down the polar bear slide, then toured the complex to see the hockey rink, swimming pool, playground and library.A nice exposure to the activity center for this remote, frontier town on the Hudson Bay.
Guide Sandra Elvin’s group experienced a fantastic week highlighted by two separate bear lifts. The first involved scrambling on arrival day in Churchill and getting out of the airport just in time to see two bears removed from the compound, netted and evacuated to the North. Exciting start to the Northern experience. Then, on the group’s helicopter and museum-touring day, travelers were fortunate to view a sow and two cubs moved from the compound as well. Two of these in a trip is quite rare.
The group’s polar bear viewing out on the tundra was exciting also. On day one in the CWMA , a polar bear was observed up close while a few others were viewed crossing the landscape slowly at a distance. A few others asleep in the willows rounded out the afternoon. The second day started slowly in the morning though afternoon brought bears around the lodge challenging each other without full-on sparring. A group devoid of avid birders calmly observed a magnificent gyrfalcon soaring the wind currents above. An arctic fox near the rover launch and a red fox at Bird’s Cove filled out a palette of Arctic wildlife.
Helicopter journeys to a former bear denning area were hampered by fog. After the den visit, the group returned back to the base in town and re-booked flight time for the end of the trip. Flying over a controversial “sled-dog” compound East of town raised serious questions regarding the morality and legality of the site. Polar bears intermingle freely with chained dogs there and quite often share food left for the canines. Should wild animals be exposed to this setting? On the later rescheduled flight, the group flew directly to Cape Churchill and returned over the boreal forest. A large number of bears at the cape and scattered moose on the fringes of the forest were awesome sights.
The aurora borealis cooperated with Halloween by unveiling itself for the holiday..Guide Elise’s group as well as some others viewed the Arctic spectacle behind the town complex at the giant stone inukshuk guarding the Hudson Bay. One of “the best displays I’ve ever seen here”, is how Elise characterized the show….dancing, swirling lights of green…pulsing with faint glimpses of red. Maybe a slight tinge of orange in there as well. Happy Halloween to all!
Guide Rinnie reports “resident” bears around the lodge. There are constantly four to five males around ….including a couple of “big guys”. A single female and a mother with a coy visited the area much to the delight of travelers on board. A few “buddy” males sparring frequently very close to the lodge thrill the photographers as well as casual guests. Away from the lodge two adult golden eagles soared pass the rover while out along the coast road. Snowy owls have been seen almost daily as well as Arctic fox. On the last lodge trip, northern lights appeared twice on the darker tundra of the CWMA….an easier place to spot the phenomena for sure. Food being served by gourmet chefs at the lodge is fantastic while the group hopes for colder temperatures to arrive. Hopes for some more mothers with cubs to move in to the area are top of the wish list.
Halloween in Churchill is one of the most unique events in North America. Kids go out en mass, depending on the weather of course, and navigate the streets guarded on either end by locals and fire department volunteers. Pick-up trucks with spotlights attached scour the area to ensure no polar bears appear and steal any of the kid’s candy. Nobody is allowed to dress in ghost white for fear of being mistaken for a polar bear. Although this night was clear, the wind can whip up blowing snow and visibility can get pretty low. No chances need to be taken …..we don’t need any anesthetized five-year-olds. ..although surely parents have considered such an option after mega candy ingestion.
With the previous night’s fog lifting, the day became optimal for taking it all in out on the land. Guide Paul had his group out at the point just Northeast of the tundra lodge where they witnessed excellent sparring. The calm Hudson Bay was the backdrop for the two big males honing their defense skills on the narrow spit of land. After this epic scene, a more subdued male slept for a long time right next to the rover as the group enjoyed a hearty lunch and recounted a couple of amazing days in the CWMA. At times the bear would stretch and display seemingly contrived poses…really hamming it up for the onlookers. Lots of photos were there for the taking. Later toward the end of the day, the group sighted some rock ptarmigan along Christmas Lake esker while checking out the terminal edge of the boreal forest. Two male bears walking within view rounded out a full day of fantastic viewing.
Guide Sue and clan viewed numerous bears with various interactions throughout the day. As the fog cleared out early giving way to an amazing sunrise, a collared sow with two cubs were spotted near some willows out east around the flats. Then a mom with coy nursing from time to time in the same vicinity fascinated travelers for a good part of the morning.
The highlight of the day was yet another seal kill on the edge of the Hudson Bay just at the end of Ptarmigan Alley on the coast road. Several polar bears enjoyed the fresh kill and then awhile after four bears were play-fighting utilizing their rejuvenated energy. With the inordinate number of seal -kill reports this Fall, one might wonder whether polar bears are becoming more adept at hunting seals in the open water. This could be an adaptation and compensation for the shrinking sea ice season…one can only hope. Darwin’s principle at work?
Topping off a fantastic day the group sighted an adult, white and a juvenile, tan glacous gull over the Hudson Bay. This is the largest gull in the world and a great check off the list for avid birders. Some stubborn snow buntings and two semi-palmated plovers, rare for this time of year,rounded out the bird action for the day.
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.