by Churchill Wild Guide Terry Elliot
Vulpes Lagopus has cyclical population numbers. More prey equals more foxes, and we were seeing lots of lemmings all summer so this was obviously good for the kits (baby foxes). We counted as many as 14 at one time this year, probably a family group with lots of infighting for position in the pecking order.
The arctic foxes have always been bold and inquisitive creatures, but especially so in this photo. Typically they will follow a polar bear out on to the ice and scavenge for the winter. During the summer their coat turns brown, they breed and eat lemmings, eggs, birds, hares, even insects and frogs.
In a prosperous year the females can have as many as 16 kits. Their dense fur enables them to withstand extreme cold temperatures and leave their red-haired cousins behind at the tree line. When sleeping, they will curl into a tight ball with their bushy tail over their nose.
My wife calls this picture “Taming the Hunter”. Unfortunately the photo I was taking here did not turn out as well as the photo of me taking it. It’s a terrible thing when the wildlife is so close to your camera that you can’t get focused. But you have to take the wonderful with the almost-wonderful.
And I did get a decent shot of his ear
I had a couple of guests, Julie and Jeff, looking to add something extra to their trip, and they had decided to charter a helicopter to the Lodge. When they found out I would be joining them on their departure, they very generously offered me the extra seat they had on their helicopter flight.
I have to admit, I’m a nervous flier, so I wasn’t sure what to say at first, but I didn’t know when an opportunity like this would come again. I accepted their offer with butterflies in my stomach and off I went!
November had come and gone quickly and before I knew it I was done organizing our winter season. My dinner presentations were complete and our final guests were on their way to the Lodge, so I headed up to Churchill for my “partial” holiday. When you’re part of the family, your work is never done.
I met up with Julie and Jeff in Churchill and we headed out to collect their winter gear before making our way to Hudson Bay Helicopters. I was feeling pretty good – a little nervous maybe – but totally excited! I didn’t want anyone to know how I was really feeling. Our pilot took our bags and gave us a rundown on the safety guidelines for the chopper, we buckled in, put on our headsets, and it was time to take flight!
The take off was surprisingly smooth. The winds were calm that day so we were in for a good 30-minute ride. We flew over the town of Churchill and headed up the coastline of Hudson Bay. It was amazing to see the sprawling tundra with a fresh coat of snow. I had forgotten how flat the land is up there.
Half way through the trip we flew over our Dymond Lake Lodge and noticed that some of the staff had ventured outside to wave to us. How nice! A short time later our pilot came on the headset and asked me where we should land at the polar bear lodge.
I wasn’t sure, so I told him to pick the best place he could find. He thought that would be right outside the front door of the Lodge! Needless to say, the staff didn’t have to bring out the luggage buggy to meet us. And the polar bears kept their distance!
A few months have gone by now and I’ve had time to think about that wonderful trip and the emotions I experienced while flying in a helicopter for the first time. I have to say it was an amazing experience and I would love to do it again.
Thanks again to my friends Julie and Jeff, for helping me check another item off my life’s to do list!
by Ian Thorleifson
Caribou antlers are spectacular to look at, but the strategies behind their growth and importance to an individual caribou are even more amazing. Everyone knows that males like to show off for females – that goes without saying. Caribou bulls are no different than males from other species, and the females do respond appropriately, but the showing off and responding is much more complex than just a look.
A caribou bull weighs about 325 pounds or 160 kg. They start with a bare forehead every spring, and in less than 120 days they grow a complete set of antlers that may weigh as much as 35 pounds – 10 percent of their body weight! That kind of growth is almost magical – in fact, no other living tissue grows that quickly except mushrooms!
While the antlers are growing, they are soft, covered with skin and hair and made up of spongy cartilage. They feel like your nose and similarly also have a bone at the base. Unlike your nose however, in the last month of antler growth the cartilage calcifies and becomes hard bone.
To keep the antlers tough and resilient enough to withstand the incredible pressures of battling with other bulls, the blood flow in the antlers – super quick and of large volume while the antlers are growing – slows to just the bare minimum. This prevents the bone from becoming too hard, as to be brittle and easy to break.
Growing new appendages that weigh 10 percent of body weight in such a short period of time takes more energy and nutrients than a bull caribou can generate by eating, so he robs his own skeleton for building materials like calcium and phosphorus, to the point where his ribs would break easily if they were struck in the summer. This is why the bulls complete their antler growth at least a month before the rut. They need to gobble as much nutrition as possible to replace those borrowed building materials and get strong and fat before the rut.
Antlers are expensive, but they add up to a graphic demonstration of the bull’s health, ability to mobilize nutrients and avoid predation – a measure of his vibrancy and value as a sire of many caribou calves.
Caribou cows grow antlers as well, but their strategies are quite different. Their antlers are much smaller than the ones the bulls grow, and they don’t need them to “show off” with – they need them to fight with at feeding sites and to fend off predators.
Bulls grow their antlers earlier in the year, use them in the rut, and drop them as soon as the rut is over. Cows grow their antlers later, and carry them all winter. Amazingly, cows that are not pregnant going into the winter drop their antlers earlier as well, so by late spring and calving time, all the antler advantage in competition for nutrients or fighting wolves goes to the pregnant cows. Shortly after the calves are born in early June, newly growing plants offer a flood of nutrients. The cows drop their remaining antlers and…
nature’s elegant cycle begins anew.
by Doreen Booth
It was an early start on my first day of the tour and I would come to learn that there were many more sunrise beginnings during my northern adventure! As I am new to the company (not new to the family) I was going to the lodge to see what we are all about. No matter how many stories I heard, nothing prepared me for the experience I was going to have!
The day of my departure to the lodge was extremely windy, and not that I like to admit this, but I am not the best “flier”. Our friendly pilot, Nelson, knows this all too well and let me have the co-pilot’s seat on the way out to the lodge. When we landed, the departing guests advised us to watch out for the bear on the trail. WOW, our first bear already? We were able to snap a few photos of him napping on the trail before he awoke to his audience and went to look for a private room.
After a delicious lunch and our visitor’s briefing, we headed out on our fist hike braving those still strong winds and walking at a slight angle in order to stay standing up! We saw four more bears and hadn’t even gone very far. We made sure to get back to the lodge in time for appetizers and drinks. What a great way to wind down in the lounge with a fire going in the woodstove, large picture windows facing the bay, and a glass of wine! I like it here already.
The following days were a blur! We were up at 7 a.m. for coffee and enjoyed the view out the large lounge windows. All you saw was water, rocks and oh yes POLAR BEARS! There was a spotting scope for everyone to use and we were always on the lookout. We could see the bears coming from miles away and it was truly amazing to watch them swim to shore as they can move extremely quickly through the water.
After breakfast we would get ready for our first hike of the day! There were some (me for example) that didn’t go out for a hike and would stay at the lodge to enjoy some peace and quiet. Little did we know that there wouldn’t be much peace. There were bears sauntering around the lodge, sik-siks (ground squirrels) posing for you, bears galore to watch and we even got to go Cloudberry picking! Jeanne had an itch to make fresh cloudberry jam so off we went to pick.
The bears sure had us busy at the lodge during our stay. We had a bear playing with Mike’s boat in the middle of the night (we heard the bear bangers go off), we even had a bear peaking through someone’s window and I am not sure who was more scared the bear or Ida! A few of us were whale watching. We all made our way down to the boats and we were all very excited in anticipation of the Belugas we were going to see.
It was a quick trip to the river and once we arrived you could see these magnificent whales swimming all around. They very quickly came up to the boat to see what we were all about. They would turn over onto their backs and look up at you through the water. It was just amazing!! The next step was to get our first “swimmer” into the water.
Robert was in a dry suit with a snorkel and mask. He was so ecstatic that I think he would have just jumped straight in to see the whales. He was given directions to put his feet into the loop and we would start up the boat. The rest of us were amazed that he was willing to get into the water with these large animals. Turns out I am a big chicken – I just couldn’t get in. We started the boat and started to pull Robert behind us slowly. Our guide Andy told us to just watch – well wouldn’t you know it but whales were coming from all over to check out Robert in the water. They were only a few feet in front, beside and under him!
It is difficult to express what an amazing experience we had. I can give you as much information as you need prior to coming to the lodge but nothing really prepares you for what you are about to experience and enjoy!
What can we say but -WOW!! What an amazing season we had in 2008 thanks to all you wonderful people who made the effort to travel to our little Arctic paradise to take part in one of our polar bear wilderness adventures.
We might have to turn down the “volume” a bit as the sheer numbers of incredible “gigabyting” bear and whale sightings got to be a little overwhelming at times! (Websters: gigabyting: the sound made by multiple high speed shutter exposures blending together, usually involving six or more digital cameras. Occasionally applies to singular user if finger has become fixed in full auto mode due to visual over-stimulation.)
There is always a lot of work behind the scenes that goes on prior to the delivery of any great wildlife experience and this past year was no exception. We hope you enjoyed the new bedrooms with en suites as it took more than just a little effort to complete that renovation in time for the opening date in July. The project actually began taking shape with much planning, measuring and sketching going on in July of ‘07 while we were running that year’s Birds, Bears & Belugas program. This was followed by ordering and purchasing materials in fall of 07, shipping them to Churchill via train in January of this year, and finally hauling the 80,000 lbs of building materials to the lodges.
The hauling from Churchill to the lodge took place in April over the sea ice using a D6 Caterpillar and large sleigh which is quite an adventure in itself and soon to be a photo feature on our new web site. We then returned on June 15th with a construction crew of 6 very able bodied men and women who “slaved” many long exhausting hours to be ready for opening day. Stuart put the last coat of paint on at 4 a.m. six hours before the first guests arrived. Kudos to Len, Real,Yvan, Stuart,Andy,Terry, Riley, Karli and of course the “human forklift” – Barney!
The new rooms still need a few finishing touches and Jeanne has her sites set on a new kitchen and dining room which means we’re starting the whole building project planning over again for 2010!
Spring hauling was a great success, a lot was accomplished, no one got hurt or lost in a “whiteout” (blizzard) and best of all no equipment failures! Four of our Inuit friends from north of the border brought their trusty Bombardiers down from Arvait on the sea ice and managed to haul in 20,000 lbs. in one trip. Talk about a traveling road show, what a riot that was, though Dave and I had a little trouble with the raw beluga, walrus, and caribou offered for lunch and were grateful for the moose meatloaf Dave had packed for us.
Our Fire & Ice adventure in April, though a bit on the short side, was a huge success.All guests raved about Dave’s awesome cookery, the dogsledding, snowshoeing to the sea ice, northern lights, snowmobiling, and of course the finishing blizzard on the way back to Churchill wasa hit as well!