"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Polar Bear Journals, Ch. 10, What's a Hungry, Bored Bear to Do?

You’re a polar bear.  You’re hungry.  You’re bored.  You’re too hot.

The ice went out early in July and now there’s nothing to do.  You snuffle around in the lines of seaweed and kelp the tide washes ashore a couple times a day, but there aren’t any big fat ringed seals lurking in there.   You scarf up some grass but it doesn’t even amount to a mouthful, much less a tummy full.

What to do, what to do… 

You wander along the shoreline, looking for ice.  Nothing as far as you can see.  There’s a bear over there.  Maybe he wants to wrestle.

Okay, that was fun for a couple minutes, but it’s way too hot out here for that.  And you’re still hungry.  Still bored.

Oh, no, here come those big white things  with the appetizers on the back.   They smell good, but you can’t reach them.   Tricky things.  Someday, though, someday you’ll catch one.  You’re a lot more patient than they are.  They’re always clicking at you, like they’re nervous.  Pointing those things at you and clicking.

Maybe there’s ice farther north.  Maybe you’ll just mosey on up that way.  

The farther you walk, smells fill the air.  Mmmm….   Fresh bread from Gypsy’s….   and something else.   Mmmmm  bacon…bacon-cheeseburger.  Yeah, that’ll be nice.

No, wait.  You remember the last time you went into town?  That loud noise?  Better stay away from there.  Go check for ice.  

Hmmm…  Nothing at Cape Merry.   No picnickers.   

Oh, for a seal.  The smell of seal.  Seal, seal, seal,  gonna find me some seal.  I smell SEAL!!!


There it is.   Can’t get at it.  Better check for its breathing hole. 

Ah, ha.  Now I can get it.


MMMMAAAAAAAA!!!   What?  What happened?  I can’t get out of here.   And that wasn’t a seal, either.  Just a rag soaked in seal oil.


And so, another polar bear winds up in polar bear jail, or, more appropriately, the Polar Bear Holding Facility located   by the airport in Churchill. 

Capable of holding 23 troublesome bears, the facility is in a double-wide Quonset shaped building by the airport.  Bears caught in the live trap are transported here, the trap backed up to a cell, and the escape hatch raised.  The conservation officer pounds on one end and the bear scampers out into the holding cell.

The pickup and culvert trap leave the building and the exterior doors are closed.  Dim lighting.  Other bears.  Sows and cubs in larger cells at one end.

There’s controversy about this program.  Some claim it’s cruel.  The bears aren’t fed, but then, they don’t eat if they’re loose on the tundra either.  They’re given water and snow when it’s available.  When the ice forms, the bears are released and urged towards it with cracker shells if necessary.

Occasionally, if the facility nears capacity, bears gain early release and are slung beneath a helicopter for a 40 mile journey north—far away from humans.


Bears are sedated and their eyes covered while being transported.

Polar bear jail is only for bears that make repeated forays into Churchill or otherwise cause trouble.

In 2009, there were more than 300 “incidences” involving polar bears near human habitats.  There is a 24-hour a day patrol around Churchill and all residents know the phone number to report a bear sighting. 

Conservation officers in Churchill can have as many as a dozen bear encounters before noon each day, according to one officer.  Most of the bears are scared away with cracker shells fired from .12 gauge shotguns.  The live traps have replaced leg snares, which required sedating the animal so it could be moved. 

No longer used leg snare.  Bait would be placed in the narrow end of the timbers.

I suppose when compared with a life roaming the shoreline, being held in a cell for a few months can be considered cruel.  The facility isn’t meant to be a bed and breakfast for polar bears.

But, the alternative also is cruel—and fatal.  Polar bear jail gives the carnivores a chance to continue living.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Polar Bear Journals, Ch. 9, Wherefore art thou, Churchill? And why?

Polar bear skull.
I first heard of Churchill, Manitoba, when friends talked about having gone there to see polar bears.  That was the extent of my knowledge.

So earlier this year when a mutual friend e-mailed to ask if I wanted to join her and others on a Road Scholar program to Churchill, I responded, "Absolutely!"   I still didn't know where Churchill was--just some vague idea that it was in the eastern part of Canada.  I guessed that only because I've been through most of western Canada and knew I hadn't been in the province of Manitoba.  I went online to find out where Churchill was located.

Okay, up there on Hudson Bay, central Canada, Central Time Zone, just below the Arctic circle.  That told me where; it didn't tell me why.

The great thing about Road Scholar (previously known as Elderhostel) guided tours is that they are educational.   Each of the five days we spent at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre included an evening lecture on various aspects of polar bears, Churchill and its vicinity, and the marine environment of Hudson Bay.

Our first full day in Churchill featured touring the tundra in the Tundra Buggy and watching 18 polar bears.  On our second day we went to town.  Literally.  We were bused 14 miles into the town of Churchill. 

Darryl flies us over the tundra.
Once there, a 30 minute helicopter flight gave us the lay of the land.

Typical tundra scene with lots of ponds.

The famous Hudson Bay point wool blanket.  The indigo bars stitched into the blanket indicates its size rather than the popular belief that they indicate the price in pelts.

This area had been inhabited by nomadic Arctic people for more than four thousand years, the Thule people from the west who evolved into the Inuit, and also the Dene.  The Chipewyan and Cree had lived there since before the arrival of Europeans in 1619, when a Danish expedition looking for the fabled Northwest Passage landed where Churchill would later be located.  Only 3 of the 64-man expedition survived the winter, and they returned to Denmark.

The British steamship MVIthaca floundered ashore in 1960 after its right rudder broke during an 80 mph gale.  All 30 tons of its freight, including two generators and many plywood panels, were off-loaded at low tide.

A century later, the Hudson’s Bay Company built a log fort a few miles up a river and named it Churchill River Fort after John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, who was an ancestor of Winston Churchill.  Hudson’s Bay Company engaged in the fur trade with the Chipeyan natives, with furs coming from as far away as the Rocky Mountains.

Prince of Wales fort with its star bastions.  It is undergoing reconstruction.

When the British and the French began fighting over the North American territory, a large stone fort called Prince of Wales Fort was built near the mouth of the Churchill River, begun in 1731 and finished in 1741.  Forty years later the fort was surrendered without a shot to the French by the heavily out-numbered British.  The French attempted to demolish the fort.

Churchill River weir.  Thousands of Beluga whales flock to the mouth of the Churchill River in summer to calf.

The fur trade suffered as a result and the local natives, who depended on trade goods from the fort, were negatively impacted and many starved.

Prince of Wales Fort across Churchill River and the Cape Merry Battery in the foreground.
Sign at Cape Merry Battery.

With the success of agriculture in the Canadian plains, a rail link from Winnipeg to Churchill opened in 1929.  This eventually resulted in a large grain terminal being constructed in Churchill because it proved to be the shortest route to European markets, closer even than the St. Lawrence Seaway ports.

Photo of Churchill grain terminal and port.  Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Churchill train depot.  Building also houses Parks Canada office and museum.
In the mid-1950s the Churchill Rocket Research Range was built 14 miles outside of town for joint Canadian-American atmospheric research.  It closed in 1984 after firing 3500 sounding rockets into the upper atmosphere.  Some of the rockets tested became part of the US space program.

Churchill Rocket Research Range is the large complex in the foreground.  At the upper part of the photo is the new and old Churchill Northern Studies Centre, where we stayed.

Rocket launchers.

Scientists from around the world went to the rocket site to study the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) as it is one of the top three places in the world to view the phenomena.  Churchill sits directly under the Auroral Oval and, weather permitting, the lights can be seen  300 days a year on average.

Control building for the rocket site.

Wa;lking towards the assembly bunker at the right of the building and another rocket launcher at left.  Notice the figure in the front of the group at right.  That's Mike, carrying the .12 gauge shotgun that will be used to scare off any bears that might approach.

In 1941, during World War II, the US military built Fort Churchill a few miles out of town, and the people of Churchill were pulled into the modern world.

Polar bear skull in the Hudson Bay Helicopter lounge.

And all that was just part of the morning.

(to be continued)

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Polar Bear Journals, Ch. 8, Testosterone Trials

Early November on the frozen tundra near Churchill, Manitoba.  It’s been more than four months since the great white polar bears have had a decent meal.  Their metabolism has slowed as if they are hibernating, but there’s no long sleep for these bears. 

They remain awake and searching for food while they are onshore.
They nibble occasionally on berries and grass in an attempt to quell their hunger, but what they really need is a huge ringed seal with plenty of blubber. 

The problem is, they need Hudson Bay to freeze over so they can get on the ice and hunt those seals.  And Hudson Bay isn't cooperating.  Every year freeze-up comes later and later, and every summer the ice goes out sooner, driving the huge beasts onshore.

The sows with cubs have stayed inland, waiting for the boars to leave so they can  bring their cubs safely to the ice.  The boars will kill the cubs if the sows approach too soon.  One theory that seems to hold the most weight is that the boars kill the cubs so the sow will be in estrus by mating season.

A little bit of slush has formed in some of the quieter parts of the shoreline, but a persistent northerly wind roils the surface of the water and prevents more freezing.  Long naps help while away the time as they wait.

So do sparring matches with other males that have gathered along the Churchill coastline to wait for the ice.

Even though the temperatures are hovering just below freezing, the air is much too warm for such exertion.  Yet, the younger males continue with these sporadic playful matches, while larger, older boars refuse to waste their energy in such trivial pursuits. Their huge bodies have become lean from lack of food and they must conserve what energy is left.

Scars on muzzles give proof that these sparring matches aren’t always fun and games.  In a few months, after they’re out on the ice and getting fat and healthy, it will be mating season and the sparring will be for real.  For now, it’s good training for the youngsters.

A little give and take, some rolling around, and it’s time for a break.  Maybe lap up a bit of snow to quench the thirst, then spread-eagle on the snow to cool off.  

A short nap, and they’re at it again.

Note the hind legs spread out behind the bear.

This photo illustrates how lean the bear on the right, with his torso twisted in mock battle, has become.

 Not much to do when a hungry bear is waiting for the ice.