Boxing polar bears!
Take a look at the above link to see some amazing footage from Natural Habitat guide Melissa Scott out on the tundra. With the fresh snow and temperatures in the mid 20’s F, wildlife up north is energized.
Guide Karen Walker’s group of MIT alumni began their Churchill trip with a walk out unusually far on Cape Merry, reaching the old battery via the cannons that utilized to protect Fort Prince of Wales across the Churchill River. A few artifacts rest on the rocky battery for visitors to see. Later on at a Parcs Canada presentation in the visitor Center a ranger brought out some newly excavated artifacts..a nice link to the past.
Battery at Cape Merry. Karen Walker photo.
The following day a quiet drive into the lodge for Karen and group all the way to Gordon Point eased everyone into the feel for the tundra. After a nice coffee break, a drive along the Coast Road, provided an arctic fox sighting…a first for the group. One traveler actually saw the fox catch a lemming. Quite an amazing sight.
Arctic fox inquisitive of travelers. Colby Brokvist photo.
Ptarmigan on the tundra. Karen Walker photo,
A sleeping male polar bear was then spotted about a 100 feet away, posed perfectly, looking right at the group aboard their rover The sun cast beautiful light on the very clean, white bear, highlighting his coarse hair with a warm glow. Eating lunch while all the while observing a bear in the Arctic is a rare opportunity for sure. After lunch it decided to roll over on its back and roll around playfully to the groups delight of the group. A nap followed to conserve energy.
Precambrian sheild of Cape Merry. Karen Walker photo.
Traveling a little further on the coast road revealed another bear walking along a pond slightly ahead of the rover. It continued walking toward the rover while another bear did the same further off in the distance. The first bear came within 10 feet of the vehicle and the bear that was more distant followed along the path of the first bear and also came close to the back observation deck before heading off. They were both healthy adult bears.
Later on, heading back to launch, the group came upon the two bears along the trail. One provided a road block of sorts slowly ambling along in front of the rover. Eventually, all three bears were at a distance in a row. Another bear was spotted, so four bears were in range in the area. Quite an enjoyable day in the CWMA.The day’s changeable weather provided an exciting backdrop for the action. From overcast to sideway blowing snow, to sunshine, to overcast, back to sun. A little wind as well provided even more color to the day.
The greatest memories of adventure tours seem to be the ones that aren’t predictable or pre -determined by set activity schedules. They happen unexpectedly and usually involve some trepidation. With the Churchill Arctic Summer season approaching I’m reminiscing about a memorable day on the Hudson Bay coast.
Curious polar bear checking out travelers..
I had a feeling of angst that August morning years ago as we boarded the polar rover docked at the platform just outside the Great White Bear shop 20 kilometers outside Churchill, MB. After an extraordinary 38 hour train journey from Winnipeg to Churchill with a group of a dozen avid Arctic explorers, we were all anxious to get out, “on the land” as they say in the north. The rover journey to Halfway Point was one I had taken nearly a hundred times before..but this day something felt strange. The air was cool and misty fog floated from the bogs up and over the tundra toward the coast. My mind kept wandering.
Halfway Point..a view down to the beach and location of the beluga skeleton in the grass.
Our drive through the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA) was soothing as the rocking movement of the rover blended with the slight hint of salt air wafting up from the Hudson Bay to lull everyone into a calm state of mind. Although the group had spent minimal time on land the past couple of days, everyone seemed content to know that soon we would be on foot trudging over the precambrian shield rocks and incredible wildflowers and berries of various northern plants. A barbecue overlooking the Hudson Bay with a cool Summer breeze off the water to dissuade mosquitoes….life doesn’t get any better up north…unless a polar bear happens to walk by.
On board my co-guide and Ornithology expert Bonnie Chartier spotted various birds in the willows and across the landscape. Birders in the group enjoyed witnessing rare species interacting in the northern web of life. With the fog sometimes making identification difficult, the enjoyment came from just observing. The excitement was infectious to all.
We crept closer to the point overlooking the turbulent Hudson Bay. I explained that we would be hiking down through a rocky outcropping which opened onto a beach strewn with kelp. There was a skeleton from a beluga whale carcass at the far end of the beach nestled up in the sea grass. Another Natural Habitat group led by myself and long -time colleague Mike Bruscia had been lucky enough to discover it nearly a year before while exploring the beach. Now the hope was to find it again…though we would never make it that far.
Our rover driver, John Sinclair, who this story really is about, was a quiet unassuming local who did whatever he needed to provide for his family. A great guy and a friend of mine. As John maneuvered the machine into a spot up on the rise above the bay, everyone was anxious to disembark and feel the tundra under their feet. I still had a sense of hesitation but couldn’t pin point why….just a feeling.
John lowered the heavy aluminum-grated stairway and the group gathered around the rover’s enormous rear wheel for some safety rules. We headed down the gravelly road toward the beach. Usually the rover driver would stay behind on the hike to get the barbecue going for the guests return and I alone, wielding a 12 gauge shotgun filled with cracker shells and a couple of slugs would escort the group along the beach. But as I quickly realized, John was walking quietly and..well..unassuming next to me.
The mist was now a ground – fog as the group moved tentatively along and we were soon about a hundred yards from the rover. John told me, “he was going back to the rover”…well at least that’s what I thought he said. What he actually said in a tone somewhere between a whisper and a mumble was, ” I think we all should go back to the rover”. At the time I was talking with a traveler so the moment didn’t sink in as it did later. I remember looking up at John and seeing the calm in his eyes…though later on I realized it was a heightened calm that only someone who lives year – round amongst the polar bears has…someone who knows to never let his guard down when in the bear’s territory. A breeze separated the curtain of fog just enough for us to see a massive male bear about another hundred yards from us..slowly walking, as calm as John, right toward us all. We quickly signaled the rest of the group that was somewhat spread out and we all as one unit retreated intently though slowly back toward the machine waiting silently to rescue us. This was really the only time in the 12 years of guiding Summer trips I thought I might actually have to shoot a polar bear. If it wasn’t for John Sinclair’s innate sense of the land and bears I surely would have….hopefully with success.
Years later John Sinclair died in a snow mobile accident on the outskirts of Churchill in late winter. I will always remember him for his cool and relaxed personality as well as the day he possibly saved many lives. Whenever I think of him I first remember that afternoon at Halfway Point.
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.
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.
The polar bear season has transitioned from Fall to Winter in a little less than a week and now the snow keeps coming. Today, sideways blowing snow and a harsh north wind has put the routine mid – season scare of an early Hudson Bay freeze -up into everyone’s head. This really does happen every year when the first sign of grease ice – slowly undulating surface ice that flows around like grease or oil on top of the water- appears along the coast. Yes it’s around -30 with the wind-chill factor and no relief predicted in the near future …but, all it takes is a good south wind and that ice will be pushed out and gobbled up by the bay. The Churchill River has already developed some pans a little south of the “flats’ area…mostly because of the higher percentage of fresh water flowing out. The upside to freezing of course is the increase in polar bear numbers as well as activity along the coast.
This report by a Natural Habitat guide gives an indication as to how the wildlife activity has escalated rather quickly and dramatically:
“Woke to a blustery, snowy morning just had that feeling that it was going to be a GREAT day! Headed east to Gordon Point and initially saw bear lurking in the willows after first tower. We could see two bears along the coast skating on freshly frozen ponds and investing ice forming along the shores of the bay.. Sooner than later we had two males sparring in front of us, slipping as they played on a frozen pond. We stayed there for quite a while. For lunch we decided to explore the coast road between Gordon Point and out east….creeping along the coast we found a bear right off the road digging in the seaweed. We decided to stay put, shut down and have lunch… That bear got curious…and totally gave us the show we all dream of…investigating under the back deck -grate, standing and leaning up against the vehicle, etc… All told we saw 13 bears!Total blizzard conditions in town tonight. Let’s hope the wind dies down…for another epic day…”
Polar bear track in the fresh snow. Brad Josephs photo.
Natural Habitat guide Karen Walker had her group out at Cape Merry bustling with action and cold in the biting wind. Driver/guide Koral told some stories of the Hudson Bay Co. and the Jens Munk expedition. After getting up enough nerve to trek up to the Cape Merry battery, the group headed out into the biting wind. What an exhilarating rush to stand up on the cape Merry bluff in the frigid cold and gaze out over the Hudson Bay and see Fort Prince of Wales across the Churchill River. On the winding road back a stop off at the Anglican Church at the edge of town for some history on the Franklin Expedition and a chance to see some amazing stained glass windows in the church itself and the most famous of them all,,the Lady Franklin Window. The soft light of daytime is a perfect time to view them.
Close – up of the Lady Franklin stained glass window Photo Karen Walker
That night, in a storm on an evening rover trip, night rover, everyone’s expectations for polar bear sightings were low. However, luckily a bear at the end of the lodge.The driver was able to able to pull right up next to him. His head was resting on his front paw and his short legs extended out back behind him, laying on his belly.Later he came right up to the vehicle for a visit. Quite a solitary experience.
The next day,the travelers headed out toward Gordon Point and happened upon a couple of young adult males sparring.They put on quite a show for several rovers in the area. Amazing how they can just ignore these massive vehicles and go about their business.Later, traveling down Ptarmigan Alley, the group spotted a few other polar bears walking across the frozen ponds or thermakarsts. Bears can move freely now across the tundra with no open water in their way to divert them. Photographing them moving across these surfaces is optimal.
One of the highlights of the trip came the following day, departure day, exploring along Goose Creek Road. “As we crossed Goose Creek, a guest saw something dark below the bridge,running up the frozen creek. It turned out to be a wolverine! (This was my first wolverine sighting ever!!!).” stated Karen. Further upstream, some other animals were moving around.They turned out to be a cross fox and three river otters! “It was interesting watching all three species of critters encountering each other, but no attack occurred.” she added. ” While this was happening on our left, a beautiful red fox appeared downstream on our right.This fox was much closer, so the guests’ attention was drawn to him. He later made an appearance for us while we were at the marina observation tower.” reported Karen The partially frozen creek with the frost on the trees & the new snow made it into a winter wonderland out there. Wow, what a morning!!!
A red fox gazes curiously at some guests. Brad Josephs photo.
Four guests also went flightseeing on a helicopter and saw a moose as well as some bears along the coast. Some other travelers went dog sledding with Kelly and Churchill River Mushing and had an amazing time. Back in the warming tent hot cocoa and trail stories warmed the blood. What a trip!
This dramatic weather change proved timely for Natural Habitat photo group and their guide Colby Brokvist. upon arrival the group took some dramatic pics of the stone inukshuk by the Hudson Bay. In addition to the fantastic red light reflecting off the cloud filled sky, the group set up some spotlights for a dramatic affect.
The following day on the tundra, a playful young female polar bear greeted the rover right off. later near Gordon Point revealed some bears up-close and some light sparring activity. The rocky frozen coastline with chunks of tidal ice combined with amazing sunlight made for varied, interesting shots. On the way back to launch,a sow with two cubs set against a background of soft glowing sun and silhouetted stunted spruce trees made for epic photos.
Action packed sparring near the lodge. Colby Brokvist photo.
The final two days on the land were highlighted by sparring bears at the tundra lodge and close looks at a snowy owl just near a little esker. Then a bear on the rocks just past the airport. Back out at the lodge three sets of sparring bears kept shutters clicking incessantly . One set, later morning, was only 20 yards off the rover’s side and close in action shots were captured. The ride back provided more chances for snowy owl shots.
In other news, for the second consecutive year, conservation officers and RCMP raided Brian Ladoon’s dog compound at mile 5 and removed six bears lurking around for “dog” rations. His mafiaesque photo nad tour business seems to be doomed at this point.
“Cracker shots throughout town the last two nights. Things are ramping up here!”, reports Colby.