Polar Bear

In the Kingdom of the Ice Bear

“Don’t worry, these things can’t get stuck,” I said to a group of increasingly concerned guests aboard a machine that is best described as the illegitimate offspring of a coach bus and a monster truck. The polar rover has six wheels, each nearly six feet tall. It can run in six-wheel drive. It can drive straight through lakes and ice jams, and is maybe the only thing within twenty miles that is truly polar bear proof. The ill-fated Franklin Expedition would not have failed if they had one of these. The previous vehicle to traverse this arctic trail network was a tank (ok this link is from Russia, but the same thing happened here too). Perhaps more impressive than all that, it actually has a flushing toilet.

So I was a little surprised that we were high-centered in a ten-foot tall powdery snowdrift, all six wheels spinning. Aside from being the first six-wheeled rover in history to get stuck (I think our driver was also curious to know its limits), our first two polar bears of the week –which we were hot on the trail of – were now heading out of view.
“Rover to shop.”
“Go ahead”
“I’m stuck in a snowdrift”
“(sigh)…why didn’t you go around?”

This was all a couple days after Halloween. Without getting into the tedious details (Actually, I will because it makes a good story), I was extremely tired this particular morning, so I wasn’t terribly excited about getting stuck out in the tundra. A couple days before Halloween, we had an excruciating flight delay due to Calm Air’s inability to fly a mechanically-sound plane to and from Churchill. Their claim that it was weather-related fell on suspicious ears, as we had all taken off and landed smoothly in 50 mph blizzard conditions on multiple occasions. Anywho, a flight scheduled to take off at 2 PM didn’t fly until some aggressive choice words were directed at the pilots and their airline at about 3:30 AM. We arrived back at the Winnipeg hotel with hours of work still ahead of us at 7 AM. We were clambering for sleep for the next week.

Halloween rolls around, and it is per-usual the biggest party in Churchill of the whole year. It’s the only celebratory holiday that overlaps with the influx of people working bear season. It’s also the last holiday before the bone-shattering cold and apocalyptic north winds descend on Churchill for the next six months (at least the bears are happy about this). Considering the scarce resources and time available for costume design, the outfits at this party are impressive. The goal is to leave people wondering “Where did she find LED sequins and rooster feathers in the middle of the arctic tundra?”

As the party wraps up, and already dreading the prospects of getting up in five hours to begin the next day, the NatHab team heads outside and gazes up at the first clear sky of the season. Even in the bright sodium streetlights, we see the aurora borealis glowing vividly over the bay. With the booming bass music and cacophonic yelling on the other side of the door, we all huddle together in the sub-freezing midnight air to figure out the northern lights game plan.

As beautiful as it is, the aurora is one of the most stressful components of bear season. It is unpredictable, it invariably turns on in the middle of the most sleep-deprived stretch of a guide’s week, and always after everyone is asleep. There are seventy NatHab guests in six groups at three hotels. Some of them want to be woken no matter what. Some will grow fangs and attack if you dare wake them. Some only want to be woken on certain conditions, such as “decent” before 11 PM, “pretty good” between 11 and 1, or “really good” between 1 and 3. Some guests only want to glimpse the aurora from the porch. Most want to suit up and head to the dark edge of town (a common migratory corridor for big white bears) for a real light show. On top of this, we only have access to two ten-passenger vans at this hour…if we can start them!

There were six of us guides. Half of us had just been begrudgingly removed from the first hour of the first decent sleep since the aforementioned flight delay calamity. The other half had just polished off the third or fourth shot of Halloween Jägermeister. Either way, not ideal. While two guides searched for the vans a few blocks down the road, the rest of us went knocking on hotel room doors. Some lucky guests found themselves woken by guides still costumed as a Mexican wrestler or Métis Voyageur.

The light show was spectacular, no polar bears made a surprise visit, and a photograph was taken, for the first time in history, of a Mexican wrestler standing proudly on a fifteen-foot-tall Inuit statue beneath the northern lights. As this wasn’t taken on my camera, I’ll have to leave this photo to your imagination. We eventually rolled into bed and started everything all over again a couple hours later.

Rested, or at least freshly-caffeinated, we found a completely different sort of adventure the very next afternoon.

On the way home, one of the veteran guides, Brad, came across a wounded dog on the side of the road just outside of town. There was a gaping gash in its throat an inch deep, two inches wide, and spanned a third of the circumference of his neck. Polar bear? No way. The gash was made by the dog’s own collar, which was partially melted and charred. Dragged down the road by a truck. The wound looked even more grotesque against her cream colored fur. Brad wrapped her in a coat and brought her back to Churchill, wondering what the heck to do with an injured husky 900 miles from the nearest vet.

Brad flagged down the mayor –in a town of this size, everyone you need is generally in shouting-distance of one another— who mobilized a whirlwind of people into action. In minutes, the local dog mushers arrived to identify her (unsuccessfully). A clean table at Public Works was sterilized and lit for a makeshift surgery. Rubber gloves, sutures, scalpels, and ointments were ferried over from the medical center. One of Brad’s travelers, a trauma surgeon, threw on a Black Diamond headlamp and went to work. Although she was stitching up a dying dog with no anesthetic (or veterinary training, technically), the dog knew she was safe, and licked Brad’s hands and face between stitching sessions. Meanwhile, the community found a spare kennel. They pooled dog food. They argued with the charter airline to arrange an extra canine passenger on the next Winnipeg flight. A veterinarian and pet shelter in Winnipeg anticipated her arrival.

An episode that began as an animal abuse tragedy became the story of an entire community working together to rescue a doomed sled dog. Ursula-Gypsy (long story behind that name) is now happily wagging her tail in Boulder, Colorado, under the adoptive care of a NatHab teammate who was involved in this whole saga. You can read more about that here.

This is not Ursula-Gypsy. But it is a nice photo of a similar-looking sled dog ;-)

So anyway, that is what preceded us getting the rover stuck in a snowdrift.

Eventually, a monster-truck-meets-front-end-loader arrived to yank us out with a huge rope. The two polar bears that had vanished over the ridge circled back to check out the operation, apparently amused by this strange situation. One bear circled over to the right side of the rover, posing perfectly on a frozen pond lit with an icy reflection of the sunrise. The other circled to the left, walking through a beautiful stand of stunted, wind-shattered spruce trees among the willow thickets. The guests all aimed their implements of photography to the right while the other bear approached from the left unnoticed by our travelers.

Karlie was with us that day. She is one of our stellar chefs that works from sundown until sunup every night of the season, preparing wonderful soups, sandwiches, and pastries to rival the best I’ve had back in civilization. She is one of the tireless, seldom-seen cogs that keeps the entire clockwork of polar bear season spinning smoothly. These folks are the unsung heroes of the season. Guides have it easy. Sure, we have to manage the sometimes outrageous expectations of the occasional cranky traveler, but Karlie and the rest of the team work longer hours than the guides do, never get a day off, and rarely get to see a polar bear, being cooped up in town all season.

I told Karlie to slip out the back door of the rover onto the deck while everyone else's attention was fixed elsewhere. The polar bear stood up with its paws against the deck siding and stared straight at her. Still unsatisfied, he came underneath the deck and stood up to shove his nose right in the tight steel grate floor. By this point all the travelers had noticed the bear and assembled out on the deck. The bear paid them no notice, however, and continued to sniff the underside of Karlie’s boots through the grating. We were all transfixed, but none more so than Karlie, who really earned such an experience after four weeks of tireless work facilitating everyone else’s bear viewing. Now she has polar bear snot on her boots.

The very last trip of the season was perhaps the most unique and challenging of the year. For a little background, the ice patterns on the Hudson Bay are changing quickly and dramatically. The disproportionate effects of climate change in arctic latitudes now causes the bay to melt out three weeks earlier than 30 years ago, and to freeze more suddenly in late-November. Ice forming in more northern reaches of the bay is pushed south by the wind and jams up against the Churchill coast. Eventually, a critical mass of ice is reached, and the bears leave land in a mass exodus onto the sea ice. As weather extremes become more amplified over the years, a couple intense storms followed by powerful, cold, north winds are enough to slam miles of ice against the coast in the span of a couple days. Which is what happened last week.

My final trip entailed three full days exploring the coast in the rovers to see and photograph polar bears.

Day 1: About a quarter-mile of ice offshore. Enough to pique the bears’ curiosity. We watched several investigating the new ice, testing its strength, but ultimately coming back ashore to wrestle, dig in the inter-tidal zone, investigate the soup smells wafting from our rover, or just sleep. From our single vantage point along the coast, we could see at least twelve bears roaming around.
Day 2: We encountered a full day of subzero temperatures brought in by a fierce north wind blowing at a sustained 30-40 miles per hour. The bears were tucked into the willows all day, curled up to escape the uncomfortable conditions. Visibility was zero, and our driver’s ability to find our way back to the rover launch at the end of the day was all but supernatural.
Day 3: The weather cleared. We arrived to the same vantage point as day one. The ice stretched out to the horizon and beyond. The helicopter pilots flying above the coast couldn’t see the ice edge from their vantage point either. There was one lonely bear sleeping in the willows. Even searching with a spotting scope, there was not another bear for miles around. After hours of waiting, we watched our lonesome bear wake up, shake off, glance over at us, and walk directly across the frozen bay to the horizon, disappearing into the icy distance.

Increasing carbon dioxide traps sun energy in our atmosphere. That increase in energy translates into warmer average temperatures in most places, which is why we used to call the phenomenon “global warming.” But over the last decade, we have come to understand another significant result of increasing energy in our atmosphere: more extreme weather patterns. Storms carry more rain, more snow, more wind, etc. In other words, weather patterns are more energetic. This highly variable weather certainly defined this season. One day we were discussing ice charts on the Hudson Bay, commenting that the ice accumulation up north was a week behind schedule. Three days and one northerly storm later, Churchill was socked in with sea ice as far as you could see.

Last year I discussed the fate of the Western Hudson Bay polar bear population. Not to belabor the point, but in 1987 and 1995, the population of bears was estimated at about 1200. In 2004, that number was reduced to 935. While old-timey skeptics in the last year argued about whether or not polar bears are indeed threatened by sea ice loss, a study was released showing a 40% decline in polar bears of northern Alaska in the last ten years. Meanwhile, the Western Hudson Bay population was re-assessed a couple months ago at 806.

This year was a season full of exciting and active bears. We saw some skinny ones, but we also saw a fair share of fat ones too. Guides that have been doing this a lot longer than myself agreed it was the best bear season in years! But the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.” Bear numbers in the Western Hudson Bay are dropping. The mechanism behind their decline is all too obvious. Ignoring the effects of sea ice loss on Churchill’s polar bears is like denying that it is raining because you are under an umbrella. I know the chapter on the Ice Bear in Churchill’s history may be coming to a close, and I don’t take the opportunity for granted. With the privilege of seeing a polar bear comes the responsibility to protect its home, at least in some small way. This is my way of doing so.

For those of you that were up in Churchill this year, thanks for continuing to represent the Arctic and its King! It was a wonderful season. Also a big thank you to Natural Habitat Adventures and the World Wildlife Fund for the opportunity to be a part of all this!

Week Two in PolarBearLand

Great week out on the tundra! Bears are accumulating along the coast, and other wildlife has been abundant! We had an excellent adventure complete with a helicopter excursion to a polar bear den and a visit to the local sled dogs! I don't get much of a chance to really edit and curate photos, so I'll just be doing a photo drop each week while I'm here. Enjoy!


To Churchill

It is that time of the year when polar bears congregate along the shores of the Hudson Bay, waiting patiently for the ice to freeze and the seal hunting season to begin. It is also the time of the year when bear enthusiasts migrate north to witness this spectacle. Check out my story about last year's adventures.

 I'm on my way to Churchill, Manitoba as we speak, and I can't wait to get out to the tundra and see more of this:

Polar Bear Wonderland

My friends and I were watching “Shaun of the Dead,” a parody on the zombie apocalypse, and began asking ourselves where we would go if we actually had to escape zombies. It occurred to us that Churchill, Manitoba may be one of the best strongholds around. Why? Because the whole town is defended against polar bears. What’s a zombie or two compared to a few hundred of the largest terrestrial carnivores on earth?

Some of my video footage of bears beating the stuffing out of each other.

Churchill sits at a point geographically where the sea ice freezes first on the Hudson Bay. If a polar bear knows one thing, it’s where to find sea ice, because sea ice means seal hunting. So bears are drawn to Cape Churchill by the hundreds in advance of the freeze up, sitting with their heads on their paws staring longingly at the cold but open water beyond the shore. On the air of a swift northwest wind wafts the mysterious scents of a nearby civilization.  Bacon at the Seaport Hotel, transmission fluid leaking in the shop, fresh laundry tumbling around the dryers in the residential district, donuts frying at Gypsy’s bakery. With nothing better to do, the bears get up and follow their noses.

Napping patiently on a partially frozen pond

Two cowboy conservation officers with the Polar Bear Alert Program see an inbound bear. They extinguish their cigarettes, hop into a big pickup with a winch rig and a spotlight on top and fishtail out of the turnout towards the bear with a shotgun loaded and pointing out the open window. Cracks and Pops explode over the bear’s head with clouds of sulfury smoke, and the bear gallops for cover. The bear recognizes the truck and the firecracker shells that are booming over him. He dodges into a spruce thicket and hunkers down. The cowboys circle him on the side roads, but can’t see him anymore. Every few minutes the bear dashes to the next ridge or the next willow thicket, trying to escape his pursuers, who have loaded their rifles with tranquilizers. The bear leaps out from a copse of rocks and is shot with a shoulder full of Telazol. Dazed and disoriented, the bear collapses onto the snowy road, and the cowboys winch him into the truck bed. They flip him onto a flatbed trailer and back him into D-20, an old military hangar known as “Polar Bear Jail.” Here he stays in his concrete reinforced cell until the sea ice freezes and the officers airlift him to the bay in a cargo net.

polar bear airlift out of the jail. There is a "small" 400 lb bear wrapped in the cargo net

Polar Bear Alert has saved the lives of countless bears and people since they began in the 80s, but once in a while a bear makes it past their defensive line. Generally once a week my guests come to breakfast complaining about the locals shooting fireworks at all hours of  the night, when in fact it is the cowboy officers chasing polar bears down main street past the hotels. Unfortunately bears do slip through the cracks. A couple weeks ago we returned to a very different town than the one I had just left. Right from the tarmac, Churchill was very quiet and nobody would explain why. Just a few hours before we landed a bear had sent two locals on a life-flight to the Winnipeg hospital. It took shovels, guns, and a truck to get a bear to let go of a poor girl’s head.
Later that week I was sitting in the Seaport Lounge during Open-mic night. The singer, Eli, silenced everyone in the bar and asked for a moment of attention. He opened up his iPad to reveal one of the bear attack victims, head wrapped in bandages, on the other end of a Skype video call. The entire bar began singing “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” over Eli’s guitar, and the iPad passed from person to person to wave hello and wish a speedy recovery. The girl is in good shape now and is back in Churchill.

Curious, clever, and an incredibly acute sense of smell. There is a pot of soup inside that last window.

Churchill is a big community that is fully intact for only 6 weeks each year. Lisa, one of my favorite rover drivers, spends the rest of her year on movie sets in Winnipeg. No surprise she is drawn to this town. Like a film set, Churchill is a place where hundreds of people gather to work on a common project for a short amount of time. Favors are granted, and reciprocity is not expected but it is always given. The hotel staff gives Karen a set of batteries for a dead flashlight in a pinch. She brings up a few copies of the Sunday paper from Winnipeg. Ramón puts his Parks Canada work on hold to come translate for our French guests all evening. We invite Brittany out on our rovers after her 6 weeks of nonstop catering to our travelers at the Churchill Hotel. Many street-facing doors are left unlocked in case a bear is sharing your sidewalk.
When the ice freezes, the bears disappear and this strange community evaporates until the next year. Some hardy souls stay in Churchill all year round, providing next year’s stories. “Did you hear, a polar bear stole Bill’s moose? Yeah, ripped the shed door right off the hinges and dragged away a hindquarter!”

That bus has no idea there is a polar bear laying in the willows 20 ft away.

On my final flight out of Churchill, another guide and I realized that we may be among the last of the polar bear guides. Our guests may be some of the last people to see polar bears in the wild. There are no roads into Churchill, and the train into town derails all the time, yet Churchill is still the most accessible place in the world to see these bears. Populations at the fringe of their species range are often the most vulnerable because they endure more hardship to survive. The Western Hudson Bay polar bears are no exception. Bears need sea ice to hunt seals. They cannot survive on anything but seals. They hunt in the winter and spring when the bay is frozen, and they fast in the summer and fall when it is not. In the last 3 decades, the window that the bay is frozen for shrank by 3 weeks, and this trend will continue.

Bruiser bear. The scars indicate he's an older bear that's fought for his place in the breeding pool. The ear tags indicate he's probably paid a visit to the Polar Bear Jail.

Something strange happened this season with my travelers. Nobody questioned me on climate change. Nobody tried to change the subject. Nobody was playing devil’s advocate. Wheat farmers to Shell Oil employees to vegetarian teachers to journalists. People in their eighties or thirties. From Ontario, Iowa, Montana, Texas, California, Atlanta, North Carolina, or Kansas. Already polar bear mothers are not producing as many cubs as they once did. The adult population is already down and declining. By 2050 there won’t be enough ice to make a living on, and the bears will be gone. Soon there won’t be enough bears to support this community and the travel companies that come here. Anyone who comes to Churchill leaves humbled by this reality. Seeing a polar bear in the wild is now equally euphoric and melancholic. My travelers leave carrying the responsibility to explain what is happening in the Hudson Bay to those who ignorantly dismiss climate projections and CO2 graphs in their own insulated worlds. And while we watched polar bears, the largest typhoon in recorded history was whirling across the planet.

Polar Bear mothers used to have 3 cubs. Now they can only support 1 or 2.

Someone asked me what a polar bear is worth. An Inuit community can sell one of their harvest tags to a sport hunter for around $40,000. But what is a Churchill polar bear worth alive? Considering the 4,000 or so travelers arriving each year, the exorbitant prices they pay, and figuring that about 300 bears wander through Cape Churchill each year, my rough estimate is that each bear generates about $46,000 per year. Considering that a bear can easily live to 20 years old, that’s around $1 million that each bear is worth over the course of its life. Food for thought.

Whether you are interested in seeing polar bears or scouting locations to survive the zombie apocalypse, I hope you all one day find your way up to this offbeat and peculiar town. For me, some rest and recovery in Vermont, then back to Jackson for the long Yellowstone winter.

photographing the northern lights at the edge of town