By Lee Foster
The large white mother polar bear carefully brushed herself against a clump of willows to groom her body. Her two cubs did likewise, using the same willows. Then they scampered to catch up with her as she moved slowly across the snowy field.
They followed her through the snow, stepping in her own foot prints. When she looked left, they looked left. When she looked right, they looked right.
Mother raised her nostrils and sniffed the air, as polar bears frequently do. Both cubs then sniffed the air.
Then the big female rolled around in the snow and slid her neck and belly forward in the snow, typical grooming techniques. The cubs repeated her action. Dirty fur is a poor insulator.
When mother got up on her hind legs to look around, so did the cubs.
The polar bear cubs were learning to follow the skilled teachings of a survivor, their mother, as if their lives depended on it, and indeed their lives would depend on it. Soon they would leave land and cross the ice fields of the Hudson Bay, following their mother, searching for seals to eat. If unsuccessful, they would all starve.
For an hour several other observers and I watched the antics of this polar bear family.
I was observing polar bears at the best place on earth to do so, outside Churchill, in northern Manitoba, Canada, at the south edge of Hudson Bay. The area around Churchill has one of the largest populations of polar bears on earth, about 950 bears, especially concentrated in nearby Wapusk National Park of Canada.
For a week in the second half of November I encountered the bears as they migrated from land to the ice floes on the south side of Hudson Bay, where they could successfully hunt for ringed seals, their main food supply. As the ice formed and thickened, the bears congregated, then departed across the ice.
Only when the ice was securely firm would the seals get out of the water and up on the ice, where a lunging bear could rise out of the water, sometimes leaping 5-7 feet, and grasp the seal. Alternatively, where a seal used a hole in the ice as its breathing place, a bear could lie in wait for the opportunity to pounce with fatal results.
Getting to Churchill
Part of the drama of watching polar bears in Churchill is the long process of getting there.
It took me one day to fly to Winnipeg in Manitoba. On the next day I took a prop plane another 650 miles north to Churchill on the southern edge of Hudson Bay. The flight up to Churchill is via prop plane because short, gravel runways in the Arctic require an airplane whose engine will not be damaged by gravel kicked up. There are no roads to Churchill. Only the railroad and the airplane provide access. The third day of the trip was a ride out in a big-tire overland vehicle, called a Tundra Buggy, to get to the bear-viewing sites at Gordon Point or farther to Cape Churchill in Wapusk National Park of Canada.
Though Churchill is extremely remote, it was of interest for the rail line because of its strategic military value and the potential for shipping grain to Europe from the Canadian heartland. Churchill is closer to Europe than any other port in North America. The limitation on grain shipping from here is that the port of Churchill is ice free only from June 15 to late October. The huge grain silos in Churchill can store five million bushels.
One resource in Churchill to experience, before going out on the tundra, is the Eskimo Museum, which gives one an appreciation for the survival skills these native people acquired to flourish in this hostile environment, where caloric warmth and food supply require multiple talents to attain. The museum has many carvings in ivory and stone made by Inuit people. There are intriguing displays, such as an igloo fireplace fueled by animal fat. At the museum a visitor sees a stuffed musk ox, walrus, and polar bear, plus two skin kayaks. The arrow and harpoon techniques used to hunt seals and walruses are well documented.
Polar bear viewing attracts a geographically-diverse crowd. Of the 31 people on my excursion, there were polar bear fans from Canada, USA, Australia, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, and England.
Viewing the Polar Bears
Polar bear viewing occurs in a brief time frame, only in October and November, and often in extreme weather. The tours begin close to Churchill at Gordon Point and move on another 20 miles east to Cape Churchill in Wapusk National Park when the tundra is sufficiently frozen. I happened to be there the day the Tundra Buggy Lodge, my support system for the trip, moved east. The lodge is like a caravan of rail cars on wheels. The caravan movement is an impresssive one-day operation, hooking up the various rail-like cars to Tundra Buggies and heading out across the frozen land.
The time for bear viewing is brief because the bears are only visible during their short migration period, as they leave the roadless wilderness inland and head toward the ice forming on Hudson Bay. The frozen Bay is their favorite milieu because there they can hunt seals easily on the ice. For humans, as the tundra freezes and the ice forms, this is also the only period when the earth is solid enough so that it will not be damaged by the large-wheeled Tundra Buggies, which are the only safe mode of transporation over the frozen land.
The weather in Churchill is extreme in November, something that polar bear watchers should be prepared to accept and for which they should be adequately outfitted. The day I flew into Churchill, the airplane door froze shut, so it took a little while for us to get out of the plane. The plane had been deiced in Winnipeg. For the first two days out on the tundra the weather was relatively temperate, but then a severe blizzard hit and the temperature dropped to minus 35 degrees Farenheit, without considering the wind chill factor from the whipping gusts.
Churchill is a severe weather place because it is so far north. The trees end at Churchill. The stunted specimens of trees that remain, mainly white spruce, black spruce, tamarack, and willow, seldom get more than six feet tall. Trees at Churchill have no branches on their north side, which is exposed at all times to the howling wind. The consistent wind stress either prunes the branches or prevents them from forming by drying out the buds and blasting the buds with flying particles. In Churchill, it is said, “You need two trees to make a Christmas tree.”
Each Tundra Buggy has a propane heater on it, but merely opening up the windows to photograph the bears is a chilly experience. Because polar bears are hungry carnivores, no one is ever permitted to leave the Tundra Buggy and get out on the ground. In the midst of the whiteout blizzard, only the skilled directional knowledge of our driver allowed us to get back to our rolling place of refuge from the elements, the Tundra Buggy Lodge, a kind of long chain of attached mobile railroad sleeping cars with giant oversized rubber tires.
Polar bear country has some magical names, such as Wapusk National Park. The word “wapusk” rhymes with “tusk.” Wapusk is a word that the Cree band of Indians used to signify “white bear.” The Wapusk National Park area has one of the densest clusters of denning polar bears on earth. Wapusk is a remote park, with no roads going to it. Access is only by helicopter, and in November by the Tundra Buggy, and in winter by snowmobile.
The Polar Bear
The object of all this observation is a remarkable creature, the polar bear, of which there are an estimated 27,000 on earth, spread through the polar regions of Canada, Alaska USA, Russia, Norway, and Greenland. About 60 percent of those polar bears are in Canada. The densest cluster of them is around Churchill, as mentioned. There are 12 subgroups of polar bears in Canada. Polar bears are the largest land predator on earth and the largest member of the bear family, surpassing in size even the large brown bears of Kodiak Island in Alaska. It is believed that polar bears evolved from brown bears rather recently, about 200,000 years ago.
The special attributes of polar bears are numerous. They are so efficient in their thermal loss that snow on a polar bear’s fur does not melt. Only the nose, mouth, breath, tiny ears, and footprints in the snow appear on an infrared photo because there is no other heat expression, meaning “heat loss,” to record. In the heavy snowstorm of the blizzard, we saw sleeping bears get up periodically to shake the snow off, partly because an added insulative layer of snow overheats a polar bear. The bears are also immensely curious, especially when reacting to the presence of the Tundra Buggy. Several walked up to the buggy, placing their large paws on the six-foot-high wheels of the machine. Their sense of smell is legendary–they are able to smell a seal up to 20 miles away. Bears are often seen sniffing the wind.
Polar bears have large stomachs, capable of holding 150 pounds of food, usually seal meat. Occasionally the bears can gorge on a whale carcass. In the year of my visit the polar bears of Churchill were in excellent health because the long ice pack of spring allowed for plenty of seal hunting time. One concern about global warming is that if there is less ice, there will be less of an opportunity for polar bears to catch seals, and their numbers would diminish because all life in the harsh subarctic survives marginally on the edge of starvation.
The fur on polar bears is said to be not white. In fact, each hair is hollow and clear, reflecting white light. It is difficult to comprehend this, but the skin of the polar bear is actually black.
Polar bears are great wanderers. It is said they may range over 100,000 square miles in their 15-18 year lifetimes. One polar bear tagged in Prudoe Bay, Alaska, walked and swam 3,000 miles to Greenland.
These bears have a major capacity to swim, paddling along at six miles an hour for long periods of time in open water. Swims of up to 60 miles are routine. The bear’s Latin name reflects this talent in the water, Ursus maritimus, the sea bear.
Polar bears are large animals. On average they are 3-1/2 feet tall and 8-10 feet long. The females range to about 550 pounds, the males to about 1,500 pounds. A 2,200-pound male bear has been recorded. Their wide paws allow them to move across relatively thin ice without breaking through.
I watched bears run quickly for short distances, generally chasing an intruding bear that had not been accepted into the social scene. Over short distances these bears can run 25 miles per hour. However, a running polar bear quickly overheats and must stop.
Observing bear behavior is endlessly fascinating to the fans of polar bears. Most of the polar bear families that I saw consisted of a mother and two cubs. Sometimes two bears would parade together, possibly siblings, but usually the groups were a mother and two cubs. Bears not part of the family were not readily welcome, especially the large, lone males, who sometimes kill and eat bear cubs. Bears seemed wary of other bears. I saw scenes where an intruder bear was pursued by a small family of bears for a long distance. Sometimes two male bears would hang out together, going through mock battles, sparring with each other, cuffing and nipping their opponent in play, as they would later fight in earnest when the females would come into estrus and be ready to mate.
Besides the polar bears, the main wildlife to see are the arctic fox, the arctic hare, and the ptarmigan bird. I saw white arctic foxes, which are the sizes of large housecats, patiently following polar bears, hopeful of any carrion that might be left from polar bear dining. Foxes have been known to follow bears over the ice for hundreds of miles in pursuit of such food. However, the main fox food in this area is a small rodent, the lemming. Arctic hares are so white that they are hardly distinguishable in the snow. It was enjoyable to see a hare patiently nibbling on willow branches. White ptarmigans, similarly, survive in winter with plumage that blends in. I watched a large flock of ptarmigans scurry around in their typical habitat, a willow patch, in Cape Churchill.
Besides animal viewing, the fortunate traveler may see the northern lights, the aurora borealis, on clear nights in the Churchill region. I did see them brightly on one clear night, shimmering green and purple across the northern sky. Churchill is ideally suited for this phenomenon, directly under the aurora oval, the latitude that generates the greatest amount of lights.
Another unusual sight on the tundra is an inukshuk, a purposefully stacked stone sculpture, possibly resembling a man. This was the traditional mark of the Inuits on the landscape. The inukshuk might mean many things. It might mean I am a man, I am here, I am a human force on the landscape, here is where the caribou are headed. In a domain with few landscape marks, an inukshuck is a mark of human presence. Besides one small inukshuk out on the tundra I noticed two large ceremonial inukshuks in Churchill, a fitting symbol for the city. Canada chose the inukshuk as its symbol for the 2010 Olympics in Whistler.
Much of what I learned over a week of polar bear viewing was knowledge passed on by my guide and Tundra Buggy driver, Kevin Burke. Kevin was one of the 650 residents of Churchill. He had observed polar bears for his entire lifetime, which gave him a 20-year adult time span for accumulating practical information on these special bears. From March to October he was a ranger at Wapusk National Park, making week-long trips in to observe the animals and patrol the area. For another portion of the year he participated in the Frontiers North Tundra Buggy operation and other tours. He had vast personal knowledge of the entire Canadian subarctic and arctic, a man who has lived out the experience rather than acquired knowledge at some remote academic scene.
The Tundra Buggy and Tundra Buggy Lodge
Seeing the polar bears is a highly specialized experience in tourism, as one might imagine. One misstep and you could easily freeze to death, so the support system assisting a traveler is not casual. Out of Churchill in November, there are few providers of the service, and I went with Frontiers North, with their trademarked Tundra Buggies and Tundra Buggy Lodge.
The Tundra Buggies, as mentioned, are high-wheeled vehicles capable of traveling over the remote tundra when it is frozen, the only time when this would be appropriate, so that the land does not get ripped up. The Tundra Buggy Lodge is the support base out on the tundra. This entity is quite a phenomenon. Don’t think of stone fireplaces and thick wood beams, forming a lodge. Think instead of a frozen arctic environment, with temperatures down to howling blizzards forty below, where the workable plan is linked railroad-car types of enclosures on wheels. Consider the challenging parameters: how to keep the travel clients warm, fed, and cheerful in this hostile environment. Moreover, the tundra region is considered a pristine environment, especially Wapusk National Park. So all human waste of all kinds must be carted out.
After 20 years of experience the Tundra Buggy Lodge has been refined in special ways. For example, most of the clients who come to Churchill love to photograph the bears. Moreover, most of them photograph digitally. So, each bunk has its own plug-in for recharging batteries and downloading images to computers. Each of the Tundra Buggy Lodge’s two bunkhouses has two toilets and a shower. The toilet is not a flush toilet. One does not flush anything at 35 degrees below zero. Human wastes are collected in trash bags and transported out. The shower works well, but must be used efficiently because the water supply is limited.
Bunkhouse life will appeal to some but not all travelers. This is not a cruise ship. Couples with romantic intent will not find this setting encouraging. Everyone is sleeping in single two-tier bunks with 20 other people, separately discreetly by cloth curtains. Earplugs are supplied to mitigate the reality of snoring. The main truth is that the clientele is self-selecting. The people who come on this trip love nature and the outdoors and are willing to put up with the limitations of the lodge. The accommodations are actually totally luxurious, given the hostile situation of a possible blizzard and 40-below weather on the frozen tundra, some 35 miles from civilization, which is itself a remote village of 650 people accessible only by air and a railroad, 650 miles from a major city, Winnipeg.
As in any intense group travel experience, one must be prepared for the cast of characters who may be present. There will be The Talker, who will never cease. There will also be The Humorist, who will make forced, frequently scatological references, which he or she will find quite amusing, even as the audience begins to consider homicidal possibilities. There is no escape because walking away would mean either freezing to death or being eaten by polar bears, with the only variable being which would occur first. All this is the normal rough-and-tumble of group travel, though the intensity rises when the setting is so severely confined. Since we saw a wonderful number of bears, foxes, and hares in the first two days, before the blizzard hit, the mood of our group was upbeat. But if the blizzard had hit first, the mood might not have been so ebullient.
Beyond the bunkhouse cars, there are two other cars of consequence, the Lounge Car and the Dining Car. The Lounge Car is where wine and hors d’oeuvres of pizza, chicken wings, and cheese and dip are served in the afternoon after the day’s excursion is complete. In the Lounge Car, after dinner, slide shows are given by gifted naturalists, photographers, and staff. On our trip the two lead professional photographers were Robert Taylor, author of several books, such as Edge of the Arctic, and Daniel J. Cox, a National Geographic photographer who has specialized on owls. Staff presentations were also truly impressive, such as one on arctic foxes and another about the lives and habits of polar bears.
The Dining Car is where the culinary magic occurs, even when there are special problems, such as the water pipes freezing up, which does happen. Considering the primitive setting, the food was exceptional. Breakfast at 7 a.m. might be a hearty bacon and French toast, with diced fruit and coffee. Dinner might be a steak, vegetables, and a salad. Lunch out on the Tundra Buggy day tour might be vegetable soup and meat/cheese sandwiches. Prior to the trip, a critical stop occurs in Churchill at the Government-of-Canada liquor store, where informed passengers stock up on warming and robust red wines, especially Merlots and Shirazes. This is not the place or time to emphasize the chilled whites. To encourage conviviality on the daily Tundra Buggy outings, patrons tended to bring a few bottles of red to help fight the whiteout or celebrate the great light and the many bear pictures acquired.
The daily routine at the Tundra Buggy Lodge has an understandable simplicity. Everyone rises about 6:30 a.m. With 20 people in the bunkhouse, the chance of oversleeping is slim to nil. Breakfast occurs at 7 a.m. The Tundra Buggies are loaded at 8 a.m. for a day of exploring. The day lasts as long as the light is up, which is roughly 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. In each day tour Tundra Buggy there are 10 clients, a driver/naturalist/photographer, and sometimes a photo leader. The Tundra Buggy has 10 openable windows on each side, so the client can rush from side to side with a long lens and photograph the bear, artic hare, arctic fox, ptarmigan, or landscape that may appear. There is also an outdoor back deck so that travelers can get out in the open to photograph. Window clip tripods are welcome, but not regular tripods, partly to reduce tensions that tend to follow when someone kicks over a tripod with the multi-thousand dollar lens and camera body of the serious photographer. Clients pay a lot of money to see the polar bears and photograph the polar bears. It is prudent not to get in the way of a dedicated photographer. The Tundra Buggies return by 4 p.m., at which time a convivialty hour ensues, although some people hunker down in their bunks and download their images. The cocktail hour becomes intense by 6 p.m., with a half dozen laptoppers oohing and aahing at their images in the lounge. Dinner is at 6:30 p.m., followed by an enlightening slideshow about natural history or photo skills as the evening proceeds. Everyone is sacked out or else quietly Photoshopping their images in their bunks by 10 p.m.
Behind the passion for viewing the polar bears is both the beauty of the animal and the concern for the bears’ future. Polar bears are classified not as endangered, but as “conservation dependent.” Climate changes, which is diminishing the ice that is essentuial for the bear’s procurement of its food, seal meat, is one issue. Another issue is chemical contamination, which builds up in the bears because they are at the top of the food chain, just as DDT once built up in the peregrine falcon. The entire operation of Frontiers North is closely linked to environmental stewardship, which is one reason why the outfit won the Travel Manitoba Ecotourism Award.
Polar bear viewing ranks as one of the special natural history travel experiences available on earth. If you can withstand the cold temperatures and have a love of nature, it is a travel adventure to consider.
Canada’s Polar Bear Country: If You Go
Manitoba tourism information is at www.travelmanitoba.com.
A polar bear cam at the Tundra Buggy Lodge helps popularize the existence of the bears worldwide through a website. In the relevant October and November days there are daily live shots fed in of polar bear video. On other occasions, past stock video is shown. See www.polarbearcam.com.
Polar Bears International is an organization devoted to the welfare of these special bears. Learn about their efforts at www.polarbearsinternational.org.