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Polar Bears

>So I went to see the Polar Bears in Churchill, Manitoba but before I even got there interesting things started to happen. The night before we departed I was having dinner with friends in the hotel when I heard an Aussie accent. Being my shy self, I wandered over to have a chat, only to discover that the accent belonged to a couple my parents had known since around the time of my birth. In addition to that, they were on the exact same Polar Bear tour as me. Well, that meant good behaviour for me didn’t it.

The next morning Ruud and I boarded a charter flight from Winnipeg to Churchill and a few hours later we were in Churchill with about six hours to check out the town before heading out to our Tundra Buggy Lodge accommodation. The lodge is kind of like four converted train carriages, nothing five star if that’s what you’re thinking. We all sleep in bunk beds and although there’s a shower, it only drips water and most of us couldn’t be bothered with it. Luckily there’s a great kitchen and all our meals are prepared for us. Anyway, six hours is about five hours too long for checking out Churchill. The highly recommended Eskimo museum took about 10 minutes and everything else took less unless you count the 20 minutes we spent waiting at the post office to see if it would open so we could get a Polar Bear stamp in our passports. I nearly died of smoke inhalation at the local pub so we left there and just sat outside in the freezing cold.

Eventually we boarded a bus for the ride out to the Tundra Buggies which would then take us out to the Tundra Buggy Lodge. Not long into the journey we saw a polar bear perhaps 50 metres away. It was so special to watch that I will admit my eyes watered a little (yes again) and looking around the bus you could see giant smiles on everyone’s faces. The polar bear wasn’t it though, we also saw a snowy owl in flight, low to the ground and quite close, much bigger than any owl I expected to see although honestly I didn’t expect to see any. Soon enough we had even seen several arctic faxes and arctic hares, each of them white and wonderful to look at.

At the Tundra Buggy Lodge, one bear is hanging around. We were told it was young and has probably only recently been abandoned by its mother which usually occurs around two years of age as the mother prepares to have another cub or three over the winter. The chances of this bear surviving are about 50/50. It has no predators and would succumb only to starvation or another bear. This bear has been so interesting to watch. He seems completely docile and I would love to be closer to him but already we are just two metres apart but perfectly safe in our Tundra Buggy Lodge. The benefit of staying here as opposed to staying in town is that the lodge is in the area where the polar bears roam so we can see them all the time.

For two nights we slept at the lodge with at least one bear nearby and during the day we headed out to see more bears. In our general area I think there were only four bears. An explanation for the low number is perhaps that it was early in the season but it was also good to spend time watching each bear’s behaviour more closely. The four bears were a mother and her 10 month old cub, ‘Spot’ the young male and ‘George’ another larger male. These are the names we gave them anyway and it worked well. We could chat to anyone in our group and say that we saw George doing this or Spot doing that.

We spent plenty of time viewing these bears individually and on the second day we were able to observe them all together including the challenges between the two males and a challenge between George and the mother and cub. The mother was very possessive and gave no ground so the male wandered a little way off and established a cautious presence for the remainder of our day.

It was very interesting to watch the bear interacting together but it was also interesting to watch them interacting with us which poses the question just how much we were we impacting on their behaviour? As we were the first group of the season to stay at the lodge, it was interesting that Spot spent those first two nights with us and the mother and cub were also there a fair amount of the time. Then on the last morning, George also turned up. The common theory is that the smells of humans and our cooking has drawn them curiously nearby as they wait for the ice to form on the Hudson Bay and they’re inquisitive and definitely not afraid.

The ‘tour’ we booked was only two nights on the Tundra and then people headed home. Instead of heading straight back to Winnipeg, Ruud and I spent another night in Churchill so we could go out for an extra day with the Polar Bears on a day trip. That night we headed into town for a naturalist talk (there were only three of us there) and just after retuning to our accommodation we heard the town sirens going off. I was happy to be inside as we thought it was a Polar Bear alert. I switched on the local news to see if there was anything about a bear being in town but all I saw was the specials at the diner, bingo night information and the weather 0 degrees.

The following day we discovered that the siren was actually the teenager curfew to ensure they don’t get involved in any mischief or vandalism. Our Tundra Buggy tour was two hours late due to the late arrival of the day trippers on the train (I think the train trip takes at least a day and then they head straight back). We headed directly out to the Tundra Buggy Lodge where our four bears were still hanging out. Along the way one keen eye spotted a Caribou and we watched as it waded/swam through the frigid waters. This was very surprising to me.

Watching the bears on this final day was the same but different as it was snowing, 40km/h winds and perhaps the temperature with the wind chill was -10 degrees Celsius. As the weather was so bad, typical Churchill weather we were told, practically all the people stayed inside the buggies with the windows shut and fogged up while I stayed outside with five layers of clothing watching Polar Bears in the wild for perhaps the last time in my life. It seemed worth a little hardship.

Leaving Churchill was difficult. Of course there was the separation from the bears but I’m talking about the logistics of getting from town to the airport. Getting a taxi to collect us was near impossible as the weather had deteriorated to the point that the car was sliding on the frozen road. Luckily we drove slow enough and arrived safely. It was beyond me how the plane would take off in the conditions so it was no surprise when that was delayed a little as well. As it was, our runway taxi/takeoff was short as we started sliding to our left so the pilot immediately lifted us up an we were away.

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