Return to Churchill, the Polar Bear Capital
Or “Hello Mrs. Polar Bear, nice to see you again.”
Returning to Old Haunts
Last year, I didn’t see a polar bear. I didn’t go up to Churchill. I thought I’d enjoy an autumn off after 4 consecutive years helping Polar Bears International with their media outreach initiatives but, truth be told, I really missed it. It was rewarding to once again walk the few streets of Churchill in the biting cold, to hear the crunch of snow underfoot as you walk past the sled dog puppies in front of the Trading Post, drive the coast road past Miss Piggy in search of bears popping out of the folds in the shield rock. It felt good to see the people I only see in Churchill, the buggy drivers with Frontiers North Adventures and bear scientists and activists, and to enjoy the community of those working for a common cause. And it was good to see the bears again. I arrived later this year than usual and the weather was cooling quickly. This was good for the bears but not so good for the bear viewing. In the end we saw plenty of bears. They were mostly mothers with cubs which is a great sign but I did miss the sparring males this year.
A Chance To See a ‘Cape’ Polar Bear
The promise of adventure of making the move to “Cape” also tantalized. There was the usual discussion of whether we’d be able to make the move, if the ice would hold the 80,000 lb immaculate lodge cars, if the bears would be there, etc. When the day finally came to make the big move, having a camera to document it all gives you some unique access. It frees you to get on the ground with the staff, something that is usually taboo for obvious safety reasons. It gives you chance to be a part of the work, occasionally setting the camera aside to heft big wooden blocks or help lift a steel trailer tongue. There are 7 lodge cars that need to be moved as well as buggies that pull them. Each has a floor about 6 feet off the ground or ice, and they vary in size and weight. The lodge is disassembled and each “car” is hooked up to a buggy that will pull it 30 some miles to be reassembled at Cape Churchill. This year the disassembly went fairly smoothly. The trek to cape had the usual hiccups with engine trouble and the lodge cars breaking through the ice, but each issue was handle with the skill of experienced hands and minds. At one point, one lodge car required the power of 5 buggies to pull it out of where it had sunk axle deep on its rear tires, in the dark, with the potential of bears appearing out of the darkness at any point. From the observers perspective, it all seemed normal and routine and professional. The command to “give ‘er” went over the radio and the engines roared and the lodge eased out of its sticking point and rolled on…into a developing blizzard where visibility was limited at times to a 100 feet or so. Luckily there were GPS tracks to follow, blazed a few days before, so it only remained to dodge the larger boulders (anything smaller than a seal was probably ok) while picking our way through blowing snow. A mile short of our destination, a halt was called, the buggies all parked together and the staff bedded down for the night after a dinner of frozen pizzas heated up on the heaters in the buggies.
The next day with the snow still blowing, the lodge was reassembled, and yours truly was trusted to pull 3 lodge cars a hundred yards or so, in a straight line, but still, a cool life experience. When the guests arrived that night, the storm had blown itself out and the aurora came out to entertain us all. The next morning was crisp and cold and the sea ice in the low hung sun was brilliant in its desolation.
Though the filming opportunities were a little fewer this year, it’s always an adventure and one of the most rewarding parts of it are getting to know and interact with the people who live and work in this environment. Reconnecting with talented and fascinating characters and meeting new one’s is always enriching and Churchill is one of the richest places on earth.