Monday, August 12, 2013

Journey to the Edge: Of Bears and Buggies

It is probably safe to assume that no one comes to Churchill, the polar bear capital of the world, without at least hoping they will get to see one these massive carnivores, and we were no exception.

Peak polar bear season is in October-November, just prior to the ice forming on Hudson's Bay. All the hotels are booked up, the flights and trains en route to Churchill are filled, and seasonal employees come in to help out. It is also a very expensive time to come, which is why we arrived in August instead. Even though peak sighting times are still months away, the bears are still inland, and can still be seen relatively regularly.

Living with the bears requires a constant state of vigilance, as they can wander into town with no fanfare or warning, either up the beach or just down the main road. Two weeks before we arrived, a local man walking with his dog and two children came face to face with a juvenile male (~300 lbs). He kept the bear at bay by whipping it across the snout with his dog leash while interposing himself between it and his children, and simultaneously dialing the 204-675-BEAR hotline so the conservation officers could get down to the beach and tranquilize the beast.

Belinda booked us in on a tundra buggy tour for Thursday morning with a driver named Neil we had met out at Parker's cabin. A nice fella with a quick wit and easy smile, he considers himself a tourist here because he spends the majority of the year at his home in BC, but has taught himself quite a bit about the local flora and fauna over the past few seasons.

The buggies themselves are amazing machines, built right here in Churchill, and are essentially an extra tall (enough to easily stand in), extra wide, 4-wheel drive school bus on monster truck tires, with an open platform built on to the back. After about a 20 minute drive by shuttle bus to the launch point and buggy #17 (which Neil would like to dedicate to Wendell Clark, by the way) we helped him load on the lunch and coffee supplied by the Tundra Inn, and we were on our way.

It is not quiet on the buggy, with the massive diesel engine sitting just under the floorboards aft of the driver's seat. When the prodigious rocking and bucking of the buggy threatened to flip the trap door open, Neil stamped it shut with a cry of "Shut up, Gramma!" While never taking his hands off the wheel.

Neil told us he had seen at least one bear on each trip he'd taken in the last week and a half, but that didn't guarantee we would see one today. It was almost an hour's drive to where he had seen the last one, close to the gutpile left from a hunted caribou. (I asked if it had been hunted or killed by an animal, and he said not only was he sure it was hunted, but he was pretty confident he'd eaten its tongue Saturday night.) Along the way he pointed out several birds and flag trees, and took the buggy across a full-on lake deep enough to crest the windows on a regular car. "The air intakes are at about 4 feet, so I get nervous at about 3 & 1/2," Neil explained.

"Keep an eye out for white rocks," he continued. "If it lifts its head, there is a chance it is a polar bear. It still could be a rock, because we get heat waves sometimes that will totally make it look as though the rock lifted its head, and that can be disappointing."

Not too long after crossing the lake, Neil pointed out a rock sitting besides another small body of water. "That might be him," Neil said, "that gutpile isn't too far from here." Sure enough, the rock got up and began to walk around. Seeing that the bear looked agitated, Neil, turned off the engine for a few minutes to let him get used to our presence, then started up and moved slowly up behind him.

We ended up maybe thirty yards behind the bear as he ate the caribou remnants. He was content to eat with his back to us for the most part, but would occasionally turn his head to gaze at us. We snapped photos furiously, and since the buggy was at less than half capacity, everyone was able to get to a window easily.

While we did this, Neil helpfully unlimbered the lunch containers, dramatically asking, "Hmm, I wonder what sort of soup they gave us today?" as he opened one and the smell of vegetable soup filled the buggy, the drifted out the open windows. It turned out to be a hearty scratch-made vegetable, but it was not enough to entice the bear from his own meal.

Neil put the soup away and brought out the containers full of coffee and hot water, and we drank hot chocolate and 'tundraccinos' for about 20 minutes while the bear went about his business. When he had either eaten his fill or gotten tired of being a spectacle, he laid down for a post meal siesta. He hadn't done a whole lot, but he was the first wild polar bear any of us had seen, so we were thrilled. Anything after this would be a bonus bear.

Neil next took us out east, towards Cape Churchill, and asked Glory if she had her Learner's Permit yet. When she said no, he grinned and said "Me neither! come take the wheel for a bit.". The kids took turns driving the tundra buggy, which is quite a challenge since it takes more than 18 complete revolutions of the truck-style steering wheel to turn from end to end. Happily, there were no incidents during this apprenticeship period, and Glory even had the correct answer to the tourist question Neil popped on her.

Some time after Neil returned to the driver's seat, I saw a suspect-looking white rock out towards the shore of Hudson's Bay. Was that a bit of light showing from beneath the centre of it? "Neil," I asked tentatively, "is that a bear out at about our nine o'clock, by the water?"

Neil peered through his field glasses. "I think it very well may be. Good eyes there." As we drew closer, he sat up straighter and said, "Holy crap, it is, and she's got a seal kill there; you don't see those very often."
"Really?" I asked.
He nodded. "I think I've seen the whole time I've been in Churchill."

As the tundra buggy approached, she became skittish and moved away a little bit, but Neil cut the engine and parked the buggy maybe 30 feet away from the skinless carcass of a good sized ringed seal, and eventually she returned.

This bear was a female, about the same size as the male we had seen earlier, say 600-700 pounds, but sleek and with a full belly that Neil pointed out as the sign of a healthy bear. Since they have no predators besides man, polar bears don't really grow old in the wild, they tend to starve to death instead, which Neil informed us is pretty tragic to watch since he'd had one give out in full view of the buggy one time. Seeing a well-fed female at this time of year, where the animals are pretty much in a state of 'waking hibernation', was a real treat for everyone, including our guide.

The female didn't do a whole lot while we were there, conserving her energy for the most part, but she did pace around a bit, always returning to the seal so the gulls wouldn't try to feed on it. We stayed on-site for over an hour, while Neil unpacked the soup and sandwiches for our lunch. I spent quite a bit of time on the platform watching the bear, snapping photos, and with the wind coming in off the bay, I was grateful for the bowl of hot soup Neil offered me when I came back into the buggy.
After lunch, Neil said he was going to move the buggy a little closer to the seal carcass in order to see what she would do. He brought us to within 6 or 8 feet of the seal, which prompted two behaviours; first, she lumbered around to the front of the buggy and began drinking from a puddle, which Neil said he had never seen, as the bears are thought to get most of their moisture from the blubber of their kills. After she had slaked her thirst, which makes sense when you consider how salty that seal probably was, she grabbed it by the tail and dragged it across the rocks towards the shore, assuming we wouldn't follow her.
After that, it was time to head for home, about an hour's drive as the buggy crawls. It was just as well; sitting down after the excitement of such a close encounter with Canada's apex predator made me realize how tired I was, and despite the bumpy ride, both Fenya and I managed to nod off on the return trip.

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