Tuesday, November 25, 2014

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?”

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. 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 J├Ągermeister. 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 a costumed Mexican wrestler or M├ętis 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.

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.

Karlie slipped out the back door of the rover onto the deck. 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 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, storms 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!