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.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful adventure. I can't wait to read more. And share it with my spouse who has always inkled she might like to go see the polar bears. We see. It just might happen. :)