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Polar bear express

Churchill Tundra Buggy vacation a real eyeopener

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It was the overhead thumping and cracking, as if large chunks of ice were crashing down, that first aroused me from my early-morning slumber.

But then I heard the sustained honking of a vehicle’s horn combined with deep-throated barking from Silver, a burly white male malamute at Churchill Northern Studies Centre.

That could mean only one thing: a polar bear on the premises.

"Now that’s a wakeup call, mate," observed my robust roommate, Alan, an insurance broker from Adelaide, Australia, who, along with his wife, Krystine, had joined me on a week-long excursion called Lords of the Arctic: Hudson Bay’s Polar Bears Learning Vacation Course.

Sure enough, peering out of our thickly barred window into the late-fall darkness, we saw that a large female bear and her two substantial cubs had wandered onto the site. As we learned later, they’d somehow climbed onto the roof of the CNSC, a not-uncommon occurrence.

Silver was harassing the bears, trying to drive them off with the help of CNSC executive director Mike Goodyear at the wheel of a pickup truck.

Suddenly, mama bear charged at Silver, who took off past our window before circling back around the other side of Goodyear’s vehicle to continue his harassing tactics.

A couple of minutes later, the bear family ambled off into the slowly fading blackness.

"Silver got too close to the bears at one point, and the mother pinned him under her paw. Then, the cubs were on him, but Silver got away unscathed," Goodyear said later that morning over breakfast in the centre’s cafeteria, adding that he had to nudge the female bear with his truck to chase her off.

Manitoba’s Hudson Bay coast has one of the world’s largest concentrations of polar bears, and Churchill has long been regarded as the "Polar Bear Capital of the World". About 900 bears now call the area around western Hudson Bay home.

The independent and non-profit Churchill Northern Studies Centre is located some 25 kilometres east of town on the former rocket research and testing range of the National Research Council of Canada.

"Every year bears gather along the coast, waiting for ice to form in anticipation of hunting ringed seals on the frozen expanse of Hudson Bay," said our course instructor, husky, Scottish-born conservationist Rupert Pilkington.

Pilkington was preparing us for our first tundra buggy outing the next morning to witness polar bears in their natural setting on the tundra surrounding an ice-free Hudson Bay.

"Polar bears are almost completely carnivorous," he said. "Like most bears, they are opportunists, and they will feed on other animals or carrion. But they are most adapted to ranging over the ice looking for seal breathing-holes, and trying to catch them when they come up for air."

Founder of Ursus International Conservation Institute, (www.ursusinternational.org), an organization "dedicated to the conservation of bears and their habitat," Pilkington describes polar bears as fearless and highly inquisitive.

"They will come to us," he added. "Never feed them. They are a protected species in Manitoba."

At 8:15 a.m. the next morning, after a wholesome buffet-style (as were all meals) breakfast in the cafeteria, our bundled-up group boarded the centre’s school bus and driven by Goodyear to the Tundra Buggy depot about half a kilometre from the centre.

The super-sized buggies, standing over four metres high and powered by 455-horsepower Alison engines, are all built in Churchill and owned by Frontiers North Adventures. They are nearly 10 metres long with three metres of open deck at the rear, an interior propane stove and on-board washrooms.

Their huge, 450-kilogram tires spread the weight of the vehicles to minimize damage to the fragile tundra. The $250,000 vehicles can seat 40 passengers.

Repeating Pilkington’s warning, buggy driver Bob Debets noted that there’s a $3,000 fine and an appearance before a magistrate in Churchill for anyone who throws food to a polar bear.

Debets, a 29-year veteran at the Assiniboine Park Zoo and a Tundra Buggy driver in the months of October and November for the past decade, noted that he had helped scatter the ashes of the world’s oldest polar bear, the beloved Debbie, on the shores of Hudson Bay. Debbie died in November, 2008 at the age of 42 after spending most of her life at the Winnipeg zoo.

"I also scattered the ashes of her mate, Skipper, when he died in 1999," he added.

Prior to getting underway, Debets cautioned everyone to stay seated when the vehicle was moving.

"The trail network we’ll be driving on were built by the U.S. and Canadian military in the 1940s and 1950s," he said. "They’re pretty rough."

He wasn’t kidding. Our buggy lurched and wobbled along that heavily rutted, waterlogged and tortuous tundra highway on Gordon’s Point, a haunting glacier-scoured landscape that is part of the transition zone between boreal forest, subarctic tundra and the marine environment of Hudson Bay.

But it was worth it. In all, our group encountered 24 polar bears, including females with cubs, on that bleak and blustery day.

Most individuals were clicking away silently with their digital cameras in silence when a massive male polar bear sauntered by just metres from our stopped buggy. Lifting his enormous, streamlined head, he gazed at us indifferently.

"He’s about seven or eight years old and weighs around seven or eight hundred pounds," said Pilkington as we huddled on the rear deck, the northern wind whipping through us.

"There’s some scarring on his snout. He’s been in a few fights with other males."

At another stop that day, we played audience to a polar-bear sumo match. Two big males were play-fighting, rearing up on hind legs, mouths wide open, pushing and battering each other with their powerful paws. It was a formidable display of strength, agility and endurance as they wrestled each other to the ground, rested for a spell on the muskeg and then went back for another round.

"They are solitary creatures, but, they do this to socialize," explained Pilkington, who said the two bears were each about 10 years old. "They play because there wasn’t a need to fight (over mating with a female or a food source), and they’re intelligent. When they come to play like this, they come to know each other through smell.

"It’s a complex thing. These alliances between bears are made in the fall, but only last until the ice forms on Hudson Bay. Then, it’s every bear for himself as they hunt seals."

During another Tundra Buggy expedition after a heavy snowfall several days later, we also saw scattered clutches of willow ptarmigan sheltering amongst dwarf willow, a snow bunting, a couple of red foxes (but not any of the smaller white arctic foxes), and even a seal poking its head briefly out of the rough Hudson Bay waters as our Tundra Buggy trundled past the shoreline.

Back at the centre, our group heard presentations by Pilkington and other experts, including University of Manitoba zoologist Professor Jane Waterman, who is studying individual polar bear identification and play behaviour.

One evening, Dene elder and long-time Churchill resident Caroline Bjorklund gave a poignant, informal account of her life and the Sayisis Dene people. Bjorlund was one of the Sayisi Dene who were forcibly relocated by the government from their northern Manitoba homes to Churchill in the 1950s, causing unanticipated social and cultural difficulties.

Our vacation also included a 45-minute helicopter ride, exhilarating sled-dog rides (on sleds with wheels) at Blue Sky Expeditions and a visit to the town of Churchill. There, we toured the Parks Canada Visitors Centre and the famed Eskimo Museum, stood on the rocky shore ofa raging Hudson Bay, went gift shopping and lunch at the lively and affordable Gypsy’s Bakery, Restaurant and Coffee Shop owned by the Da Silva family.

"This was an amazing experience," said Leonora Rodriquez, a soft-spoken biologist, web designer and world traveller from Costa Rica, during lunch on the Tundra Buggy one day.

"I haven’t gotten this close to nature anywhere else in Canada as here in Churchill. This is pure nature."

Martin Zeilig’s trip was sponsored by Tourism Manitoba and the CNSC.

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