Monday, November 28, 2011

Part IV Life and death on the tundra

(Please start with Part I, and work your way up, if you haven't already!) 
We spent two very full days on the tundra, learning more about it and its inhabitants each day. Polar bears thrive on a diet of ringed seals, which live in Hudson's Bay year 'round (and elsewhere where polar bears abound) but the bears can only access them from the ice surface, in other words, they can gorge themselves on this nutritious food source only from November through about June each year--unless a seal is serendipitously delivered up to them on the beach before ice-up. It does happen; given the windstorms we were experiencing, I would guess by the looks of it, this poor guy apparently had had a fatal head-on bash against a rock. 
Ringed seal, favorite polar bear food, named for the distinctive spots on its hide.
Polar bears, like other bears, are by no means averse to consuming a free meal, and this one had already started to investigate this gift from the sea.

A polar bear tests the air in an effort to locate the odoriferous seal carcass about 75 or
100 yards in our direction.

Same hungry bear, circling the source
Unfortunately, at that moment there were a three tundra vehicles surrounding the seal carcass, and I think, in spite of very strong off-shore winds blowing across it towards the bear, the large vehicles may have distorted the scent-line. He walked back and forth several times while we watched, stopping to point his nose in the air, clearly aware that a free meal awaited somewhere nearby. But he either wasn't quite able to accurately locate it, or he was not willing to pass between the rovers to get it. After a while he bedded down in the osiers for a nap. A friend who stayed in the Tundra Lodge later reported to me that the next day her rover excursion witnessed a bear consuming the last of the seal. It may have taken a while, but the bear(s) took full advantage of it after all.  
More bears out there, everywhere:

A nice big bear heads toward the fully liquid Hudson's Bay; less than a month later the Bay was frozen and the bears had left the tundra.
The nature preserves of Churchill are known for other wildlife besides polar bears, too. Everywhere we saw what looked like dozens of kleenex tissues fluttering in the wind, rising about 15 feet in the air, swooping, and landing on the ground. When the "tissues" did finally descend for a few seconds they were revealed to be snow buntings, like large sparrows with white breasts and undersides, black-tipped wing tops, and rusty nape, head, and "necklace," pecking at the remnant fruits of the summer's seed-bearing plants. We saw a raven or two, three or four lesser scaup lagging behind their migrated brethren, and maybe an occasional gull--forgive me if I know not what kind. We also saw a tiny herd of rock ptarmigan, all in winter white except for little black Zorro masks across their eyes. Most disappointingly, none of this birdlife was gracious enough to stand still for a photo. In other seasons, they say, it's birding paradise. 
Other critters we might have seen, but did not happen to: arctic fox, arctic hare, boreal woodland caribou, and moose. And very, very remotely possibly, wolves. What we did see, in town near the docks (on Cape Merry) rather than out on the tundra, was this stunning red fox, described as being "cross phase" meaning, I believe, that it combined red and silver fur patterns in one animal:

With apologies for the poor quality image (what a lost photo op!!) -- I wasn't allowed to get out of the van and shoot without a windshield between camera and critter because a polar bear was said to be in the vicinity. We didn't see the bear but in the distance we could see the trap that awaited it.

And of course, the presence of fox means a plenitude of small rodents year 'round. It gave me the feeling that there's so much more going on out there that I wanted to know about!
Go to Part V.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Part III: Where the bears are

(Please start with Part I, and work your way up, if you haven't already.)
Bears are not welcome in town (about that more later), but they have their own protected territory:  The Churchill Wildlife Management area (which also encompasses Wapusk National Park) is just adjacent to town. In the far distance to the left of the sign are the buildings of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, where scientists conduct research on wildlife, botany, geophysics, climate, and everything else that is fascinating about the boreal tundra. 
Churchill Wildlife Management Area
From: Hudson Bay Lowlands Proposed Protected Areas (undated), Manitoba Conservation
The very top of the beige area on the map, along the shore of Hudson's Bay, is accessible to permitted organized tours. But accessible has a rather specific meaning on the tundra. Although the Canadian military once used the area for research and training, the "roads" in the protected area can only be referred to in quotes

What the military left behind was a small network of routes that require specialized vehicles to navigate. The vehicles used today, called tundra buggies or rovers, were locally designed and assembled to safely navigate the terrain (deep mud, water, ice, snow, rocks large and small), and to keep passengers warm and safe inside while allowing good viewing and photography. Early on our first morning in Churchill, Great White Bear Tours delivered us to the rear viewing deck of our rover to board.
The rovers are truly massive, and although they accommodate 30 or so people plus the guide and driver, NatHab limits the number of participants in each group to 14 or 15 so every one can have a window seat. Everyone wants a window seat! 
They heave along the tundra at maybe 3 to 5 miles an hour, affording plenty of time to keep a lookout for wildlife. We rolled along for almost an hour while Sandra talked about bears, the tundra, and the local culture. Then someone called out BEAR!! There she was, our first wild polar bear, rolled up against the willows, butt to the wind (of which there was plenty: it had not let up even in the slightest since our arrival). 
She momentarily looked up, sleepy and unconcerned--the bears have been living with rovers full of tourists in their midst for at least 20 years--conserving energy while waiting for the winter hunt to begin. Then she went back to sleep.
The reason they rest butt-windward, which we observed over and over again on our forays on the tundra, is that it enables them to utilize their acute sense of smell to monitor what is going on behind them; like humans, they have to squint when facing the wind, so thus oriented, they can then use their human-like vision to keep an eye on what is before them, even in blizzard conditions.
Facing the wind
Great White Bear Tours and one other company also have rights to park a train-like assembly of tundra vehicles that includes a kitchen car with staff quarters, dining car, lounge, and several sleeping cars, during polar bear season. Visitors can opt to stay out on the tundra in one of these lodges for the duration of their visit; they're probably not as comfortable as those of us in town, and they did not have the opportunity to enjoy the local culture and variety of restaurants (more on these later) like we in town did, but their bear sightings were nearly continuous as the bears, curious by nature and bored by circumstance, like to hang out near the lodges. Each time our rover stopped at the lodge we were amply rewarded.
Another snoozing polar bear, this one beneath the Tundra Lodge
This bear, hanging out by the lodge tires, was consuming a ball cap that had blown off of someone's head from the viewing platform above.

All bears use their noses, but polar bears are believed to have the most well-developed sense of smell among their kin. Reportedly, they can pick up the scent of seal breath 20 miles across the ice. This guy appears to be particularly enjoying the aroma of fresh tourists.

Go to Part IV.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Part II: There are no roads to Chuchill

(Please start with Part I, if you haven't already, and work your way up!)
The next morning, we joined our group in a mini-van that delivered us, in caravan with other NatHab groups' vans, through the back gate of the Winnipeg airport, across the tarmac, to the foot of stairway to our Nolinor charter 737 that was to take us on a 1-1/2 hour flight to Churchill. The weather was gorgeous, but Sandra, our guide, cautioned that two prior flights to Churchill that morning had been cancelled due to turbulence, so we might expect our ride to be "a little bumpy." Well, whatever, it's a little late to back out just because of wintery weather up north, right? And besides, one can certainly not drive to Churchill, every single wheeled vehicle in town got there, in whole or in parts, on rails or on a ship. And in any case, I am here to tell you how fabulous it is not to need a boarding pass, to skip security, not to have to take shoes, watches, bracelets, and belts off, and not to empty water bottles before boarding. We lifted off expeditiously, but to my window-seat-loving disappointment, the scenery below, which I fully expected to be like nothing I'd ever seen before, was soon obscured by clouds. But the flight was perfectly ordinary, turbulently-speaking, from start to finish.
The territory below that I couldn't see was, initially, the flat cultivated surrounds of Winnipeg, then taiga (thick, boreal "Hansel-and-Gretel" forest), then tundra, which reminds one of nothing so much as being at 10,000 feet at, say, the 49th parallel (the north entrance to Yellowstone is at the 49th, but just a little under 6,000 feet in elevation) with a few scrawny trees (krumholtz) scattered here and there, osiers and even lower-to-the-ground vegetation, lots of exposed rock formations, rough terrain, and many places for water to pool and ice to form. This is exactly what the ground looked like as far as I could see when we finally poked down under the thick cloud cover at Churchill.
When we came to a stop on the runway, watching the folks seated ahead of us deplane we noted that they all walked across the rainy tarmac at a 45 degree angle. It turns out the wind was blasting at an unremitting 55 mph. The reason the landing was smooth is that the runway - originally built by the military - was aligned perfectly into the wind, and the wind was not gusting. But the irony of the name of the neighboring commercial aircraft, CalmAir, was not lost on me. 
Great White Bear Tours was our local transportation provider, and our  small bus was waiting as soon as our luggage was off-loaded. Our first stop was one of Churchill's two prominent inukshuk, this one overlooking Hudson's Bay.

An inukshuk is a sculptural assembly of rocks that is used by native peoples as a place marker, a cache, directional aid, memorial, and so on. They have great significance to the aboriginal peoples all across Canada. This one was easily 20 feet high. If you click on the image to enlarge it you can make out the enormous rollers heading onto shore from the Bay behind it. 
Our group was then taken to the Northern Nights Lodge, situated right behind another of Churchill's large inukshuk, also a gateway to the port. 
Churchill's other major inukshuk, with the marine fuel tanks of the port visible in the distance. To the right was the Northern Nights Lodge, where we bunked.
We rather liked the Northern Nights, in spite of its motel-like decor. It was cozy and quiet, had a very good restaurant, and made a good home for us for four wonderful nights. We could see from our window that someone had, probably weeks ago, left their fishing nets hanging to dry out back. In the unrelenting wind, the nets became gossamer, punctuated by little blue weights.
The tundra view from our window; polar bears sometimes wander out there.

I just learned that the Northern Nights Lodge burned to the ground the night of November  18. There was one minor injury, everyone else was safe (though their possessions like passports and cameras mostly destroyed), and I would guess the hotel not full as the bears had already left for the ice and there are few visitors in town now. It's nonetheless very frightening to think about, as it could so easily have happened to us. And although bear-watching season was over for 2011, Northern Nights is among few employers in town and numbers of jobs went up in flames too. Northern Nights, may you rebuild and flourish again next season!
Go to Part III

Friday, November 25, 2011

Part I: What we thought we knew we didn't

The tiny, but mighty, town of Churchill, Manitoba, is located on the western shore of Hudson's Bay, about 500 miles south of the Arctic Circle. It is accessed by air, water, or train only - there literally are no roads to Churchill, even from near-by towns. Of which there are none. It is a unique inland deep-water port through which, historically, massive tons of produce, comprising 90% wheat from Canada's breadbasket provinces - Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta - is delivered by rail and shipped out: this in spite of the tightly limited season during which the Bay is ice-free, from July to early November.  But it is with the ice that the greater world's fascination with Churchill really lies. Each winter this ice, due to quirks of geography and climate, forms first along Churchill's shores. And the polar bears (Ursus maritimus) that have been on land all summer congregate there, starting in October each year, waiting nervously for the Bay to freeze.
We are amply familiar with the annual cycles of grizzly and black bear life. This October, KLK and I had to re-learn what we thought we knew about bears. You might be thinking, as did we, "winter + ice + bears = hibernation" but the polar bear's year is radically different. The great white bears in fact spend the winter quite awake, feeding upon, in the case of Churchill's bears especially, ringed seals. Yes, we have all seen zoo polar bears playing in water, but it turns out they do it to keep cool in warm climates like Chicago, and because they're otherwise bored silly in captivity.  They are fantastic swimmers, but they just can't nab an agile seal in open water. They wait on the ice, sometimes for many, many hours, near the seals' air-holes. When a hapless seal rises for a breath, the bear reaches down and grabs its head, hauling it onto the ice to gorge on its ample blubber. Or, if it's lucky and stealthy enough, it can sneak up on a seal basking on the icy surface. 
Unlike that of its black and brown cousins, polar bear metabolism demands a diet of fat rather than protein.There's even nice symbiotic relationship with little white arctic foxes that follow them onto the ice, cleaning the proteinaceous meat off the bones when the bears are done with the fat. Nothing goes to waste, even in this time of surprising plenty.
When the pack ice melts and hunting is no longer possible, the bears come back onto land to spend the summer. Though they avail themselves of the rare beached seal and other carrion, a little vegetation, kelp washed onto shore, and garbage when they can get it, they functionally fast for four to five months. By the time they return to Churchill, they're thin, hungry, and mostly indolent in a state called  "walking hibernation." This, it turns out, is the very best time to observe them.
Traveling with an organized tour was a first for us. We picked Natural Habitat Adventures (aka, NatHab), recommended by friends, and were well-pleased. In particular, our group leader, Sandra Elvin, was superior in every aspect of her job: she is a bear researcher, studying the impact of industrial development on the black bears of Newfoundland, but highly knowledgeable about non-ursine wildlife, geography and geology, climate, and local culture as well. She is especially skilled at graciously herding the cats that comprise 14-member tour groups in potentially dangerous environments.
Guide Sandra Elvin demonstrates the workings of a polar bear skull.
Our journey started October 15 with a direct flight, Chicago to Winnipeg, capital of the Canadian province of Manitoba. 
NatHab's "Vegetable Van" was there to take us from the airport to our hotel.
Our home for the night was the Fort Garry Hotel, one of the pearls in the transcontinental necklace of historic copper-roofed, fairy-tale-design hotels built by the Canadian railroad in the early part of the 20th century. It was full of NatHab groups and guides, gathering at the Fort Garry even as the bears were gathering around Churchill... 
The Fort Garry

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Life in the District

Click photo to see detail
Here's a snap from "within the Beltway" - it seems life in Washington DC might not be all it's cracked up to be. This is the real, official license plate for cars registered there. Who would'a thunk?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Crushed by the crazyness but not done in yet!

I'm a person who needs lots of downtime, during which I write, read, (a-)muse, play with my cat, dream of my future, take restorative naps, and plan trips in my head and with my heart. I've had terribly little downtime of late, first because of a big grant proposal hump (I worked every week and every weekend from early September to early October), followed by a week-long trip that was so fantastic it was richly dream-like (several blog posts to follow!), followed by one weekend in Chicago half spent shopping for the right clothes and accoutrements for a dear co-worker's wedding, followed by a day with an old friend and her family in the 'burbs of DC, followed by four days in the heart of the nation's capital at a conference, quickly followed the next Saturday by my co-worker's lovely wedding - in Chicago but consuming more than half of my Saturday - followed by the temptation to do nothing this dark and dreary November weekend, except that I have tickets to Lyric Opera's matinee performance of Boris Godunov (Mussorgsky) tomorrow. [YAY!] In between all of this is condominium association board work aplenty. Surely there is no rest for the weary? If the stars favor me, I will start posting on that mid-October trip over the long Thanksgiving weekend. I can hardly wait.

Meantime, these are two photos snapped with my pocket Panasonic Lumix. It's a little embarrassing to get such good pics from such a cheap little camera, when by preference I lug all over two SLRs and assorted lenses of far greater price with not-always such great results.These are Great Falls of the Potomac: who knew the Potomac River had such a magnificent heritage upstream from where Mr. Washington purportedly heaved his silver dollar across? It was nothing less than stunning on that perfect early November day.