Canada’s Hudson Bay freezes in late November. Before then, polar bears gather near sub-Arctic Churchill, Manitoba—population 800. Carolyn and I flew there last week to hunt polar bears with binoculars and our iPhones. Wow!
Polar bears don’t hibernate during winter. Over four months they stuff themselves on seals, consuming most of their annual calories. On the ice, polar bears exhibit incredible patience. A bear may wait motionless for two days at a seal’s air hole. Rippling water or a seal’s scent alerts even a sleeping bear. Sharp claws reach down. Powerful shoulders yank the seal out of the ice.
In spring, the ice breaks up. Currents circle floes east and south. Bears swim to shore and embark on an extended land journey back to Churchill. In October and November, bear watchers like us also descend on the town. Literally. There are daily flights and an occasional train but no road in.
Our expedition took us onto the tundra—flat and rocky, a few low ridges, lichen and other minimal vegetation, sparse small trees, lakes and ponds, a dusting of fresh snow. Our guide drove an arctic crawler the size of a large motor home with huge tires featuring gigantic treads. (Carolyn got a brief turn.) The crawler offered a heating stove, bathroom, school bus-type seats and large windows.
Sunday morning we parked near the edge of the bay. Whitecaps flashed in the sun. We saw a Red Fox. It proved a good sign. Moments later, we spotted a bear half-a-mile away. (If a rock moves, it’s a bear.) It approached over an icy inlet and stopped within 50 feet of us. Two more—probably siblings—came by. The first bear scampered off. The siblings came up to our crawler and checked us out. Later, a fourth bear approached within several hundred yards but shambled on towards town.
On Monday we parked on the other side of the inlet. We waited quite a while until a bear appeared. It kept its distance. After lunch we spotted another pair of siblings. We drove around the inlet and found them. They settled down 50 yards off and napped, one sprawled on the other. It was twenty degrees. A stiff wind blew their coarse white fur. No one left the crawler. It wasn’t just the cold. Polar bears are predators.
Bears often come into town. Federal rangers armed with rifles and “bear bangers”—loud blanks—plus lethal rounds protect Churchill until 10 pm. Guests out and about after that are advised to take a taxi. Container traps baited with seal also wait. A trespassing bear triggers the closing of a door. Rangers tranquilize the bear, weigh and tag it. Then they put the bear into “jail”—a building with two-dozen “cells.” Bears get only water and ice. Human contact is withheld. A month later, a helicopter releases them 50 miles away. About 20,000 polar bears have passed through the jail since the 1980s.
It was a gift to see these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat. Will future generations enjoy that experience? Global warming is decreasing the area and duration of the ice. If we exhibit patience and skip a few short-term pleasures to invest in a healthier planet, the answer might be yes.
The blog will take off on November 6 and return on November 13.
Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.
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