As a guide for Churchill Wild for many years I have had the pleasure of introducing people to polar bears and the Northern Experience on many occasions. This year was no exception, and it just seems to be getting easier every year.
I land with part of my group at the airport runway on the tundra near Seal River Heritage Lodge. From there it’s a 5-10 minute walk to the lodge with our resident guards, Andy and Terry. But wait, look at that. Two large polar bears wrestling down on the Hudson Bay ice just a stone’s throw away. We stand mesmerized, cameras blazing away in the soft afternoon light while two huge males push, shove and pummel each other to exhaustion. The only sound is the shock of their blows as they make contact, and the sharp exhalations of breath caught in the clear crisp air.
No other animals would fight so intensely or with such power without a lot of anger involved. But these bears seem to be enjoying it as much as we are. Then, just as dramatically, it is over. Thirsty and over-heated from the extreme exertion, they scoop up great mouthfuls of snow before drifting apart and finding their own quiet spot to have a rest and cool off only a short shuffle away.
Just as we attempt to continue the walk to the lodge, a sik-sik, or arctic ground squirrel, comes bouncing our way. Stopping at only 2 meters, he rears up and gives us all a thorough military inspection! Satisfied that the intimidating group before him is not a real threat, he spins away, spurts around us, and finds his favourite burrow. For me he is a big surprise because, apparently, he doesn’t know that he should have been in bed for the winter by early September at the latest, and it is now well past mid-October.
Soup is waiting, so we hurry a little more now as we start to feel some hunger pangs. But still another bear is blocking the path to the gate as we approach. Walking up as close as we dare, he finally yields the right of way reluctantly.
You would think all that excitement would be a good enough start for a four day experience at Seal River Heritage Lodge, but Mother Nature isn’t done yet. That evening, just as we are about to begin dinner at 7:00 PM, Terry announces that the Northern Lights have begun to appear in an ever-clearing sky. Dinner will have to wait, much to the chagrin of our hard-working and dedicated kitchen staff.
The Aurora display is breath-taking. Wave after wave waltzes across the sky’s dome in great undulating curtains of green, tinged with red. What a show! Finally, we have to go for dinner, but the aurora continues to dance well into the night.
The next morning a perfect sunrise over the steadily freezing bay, dotted with boulders of lunar style and proportions, is a special omen that the best is yet to come. Are those two bears outside the window really going to start another shoving match? Yes, they are! Without regard to the faces pressed against glass at less than 4 meters away, the titans of the tundra tear up the turf once again.
Nobody on a wildlife trip deserves so much good fortune, but we’ll take it, thank you very much.
Life often deals winning and losing hands at the same time – and it all depends who gets the Aces. This year, it’s the polar bears of the Eastern Arctic and Western Hudson Bay who are winning, with the longest, coldest spring in decades. This follows last year’s “normal” spring, with ice persisting on Hudson Bay until mid- August.
Over the past 40 years, scientific knowledge of the ecology of western Hudson Bay has expanded at a tremendous rate. The famous white bears of Churchill were familiar to anyone who lived in the area for as long as anyone’s notes or memory extends. In fact, due to the exceptional interests of several of the traders working for the Hudson Bay Company, Churchill is credited with having the oldest and most accurate birding records of any location in the world! Weather and climate data, and observations of many other natural features were also accurately recorded for almost 400 years. Largely missing from this body of data were scientifically verified details about the intimate lives of the bears and birds – how and when they reproduced, how many offspring they had, growth rates, physiological details etc. That type of knowledge began to rapidly accumulate in the 1960s and ‘70s, with the change in Churchill’s economic focus from trading, shipping and military towards research and ecotourism.
In a nutshell, key points from what was learned about the birds and the bears included the fact that the birds arrive in a rush in the spring (that’s late April and May, not July!). They arrive carrying fat stores and developing eggs in their bodies – essential because the weather does not usually allow them to put on weight when they arrive – everything is still emerging from the grip of winter. Some of the birds nest near Churchill, but the majority will only pass through – heading for the food-rich predator-limited conditions offered by the burst of life in the Arctic summer.
For the polar bears, spring is also a critical time of year. Unlike the other bears most of us are familiar with, which pack on weight in late summer and autumn before their winter’s sleep, the polar bears’ boom time is spring – from April to July – when the young seals are born. These young seals grow at tremendous rates (their bodies may be 50% fat) and are very available to the bears because of their inexperience. The bears slowly lose weight throughout the remainder of the year, so the right conditions in springtime are essential.
Keeping the key points above in mind, it’s easy to understand why 2009 has winners and losers. The birds are trapped by the weather, food is limited and they use up their fat stores. They absorb their growing eggs or lay their eggs only to have them freeze. And finally they head south again without nesting.
On the other hand, the polar bears bask in the cool spring conditions, feeding on seals for a month or more – longer than average. The end result is large numbers of fat and healthy polar bears, with numerous healthy cubs – and great bear watching seasons in 2009 and 2010!