Polar Bears Galore

Trip Start Nov 09, 2006
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Trip End Nov 18, 2006


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Flag of Canada  , Manitoba,
Sunday, November 12, 2006

Day 4 of the great polar bear adventure did not begin auspiciously. I woke at 4 am with a sharp pain in my left hip. When I tried to move the leg, the pain went shooting down the leg through my knee and all the way to my ankle.

We're housed at CNSC (Churchill Northern Studies Center) dormitory style. I'm sharing a room with Julie, Jan (from Colorado), and Linda (from Pennsylvania). The beds have mattresses that feel like summer camp rejects, with the springs practically popping out of them. Julie and I ended up on the top bunks.

I was too tired to notice the discomfort when I fell asleep last night (still recovering from two poor nights of sleep on the train), but one of those errant springs must have been digging into my hip all night and causing bruising or spasming.

Well, since I was sharing the room with three other people, I couldn't very well scream in pain. I mean, I could have, but it wouldn't have been appreciated. So I clenched my teeth and using my hands, maneuvered my leg to the edge of the bed. Then I wondered how the hell I was going to get down the ladder? Would the leg hold weight, or not?

OK, the short version is that I managed to get down safely without falling and actually breaking the hip in question. Next I fumbled out some painkillers and lay in the lounge until my leg felt somewhat better. Ready to face the bed of suffering once again, I climbed up and lay on my back to sleep. Except someone was snoring very loudly and keeping me awake. Ahem.

When it was time to go out on the Tundra Buggy for a day of bear watching, I was already worn out. Polar bears schmoller bears. Seen them on TV, what more did I need?

8:15 am and a big white school bus from Tundra Buggy Adventures pulls up to take us to the buggy itself. Apparently the buggy we were getting was the biggest one in the fleet and the driver didn't think he could turn it around in the parking lot. When we arrived at the buggy depot, there was a camera crew waiting to film us. Now this camera crew is something of a mystery because they were at the train station filming when we arrived, and they followed the CNSC people out to where our luggage was being loaded into our bus, and back out to the platform and back to the bus. CNSC says they don't know what the deal is, but someone told them to expect a big bus full of tourists Sunday at 8:30 am because they were there waiting for us. Maybe you'll see me on TV.

Anyway, the bus dropped us off and we walked up a flight of stairs to the ramp into the buggy. These buggies are huge. The tires alone are taller than I am. The one we were on, named Gabriel, weighed 68,000 pounds. That's right, 34 tons. We didn't see the buggy until we got off of it and let me tell you, Gabriel is a monster. We found out later that this was Gabriel's last voyage as all the new buggies are made from aluminum, making them much lighter and less detrimental to the tundra.

There were rules for the buggy. Rule number one: Do Not Feed the Bears. If anyone is caught feeding a bear, even accidentally dropping a bit of sandwich overboard, the trip is over. That's because they don't want to teach the bears to come to humans for food. The bears are supposed to stay as wild and untouched by humans as it is possible given that they are surrounded by a dozen gigantic vehicles.

Rule number two: You must be seated while the bus is moving.

Rule number three: Do Not Feed the Bears! And so on.

The part you've been waiting for... did we see bears? You betcha! According to Margaret, a 70-year-old British woman who now lives in California and who carefully documented every bear sighting, we saw 35 of them. The first ones we saw were off in the distance. "There's a bear on the left," the guide would say, and everyone on the bus would stand up to see, but since the people on the left all stood up too, the people on the right couldn't see anything (guess which side I was on). The driver, Bob, would stop and then everyone would pile onto the left to see and take pictures. Since the bears were so far off, most of those early pictures, at least for those of us without telephoto lenses, were of tiny yellow lumps.

One of the first we saw was a mother and baby, both asleep in the snow. The bears still sleep a lot at this time of year. Their lifecycle consists of eating seals while the Hudson Bay is frozen, roughly November/December to May/June, and then going into a kind of "walking hibernation" the rest of the year. They don't eat, and just kind of laze around all summer doing as little as possible (things are somewhat different for gestating females, though). At this time of year, they are gathered near the shores of the Bay, waiting for the ice to form. They're still fasting, and for the most part still conserving energy. We saw a number of sleeping bears, some quite close up. They'd look up at the buggy looming over them, blink a few times, and then their heads would drop back onto their paws as if the very act of keeping their heads up was too much work.

It took a few hours for the buggy to get to "camp," even though it was only 10 kilometers away. This is a place where the Tundra Buggy company has an outpost, basically a gigantic wheeled motel on the tundra where you can take vacations right out with the bears. Personally, after all the time I've spent driving, flying, and training about lately, this sounds like a dreadful idea.

Anyway, it took so long to get to camp for a number of reasons. One, the buggy traveled incredibly slowly. I swear we could have been walking faster than it was at any number of points. Two, there were other tundra buggies about and if we happened upon a clump of them stopped on the road, we had to stop, too. Usually this was to view bears, so it wasn't a hardship.

The bears really did come right up to the buggies, just like on TV. I'd go out on the back deck whenever possible, outside, and I did see some bears pretty up close. The thing is, the whole experience was somehow surreal. I couldn't really grasp that I was in the sub-arctic, on the tundra, looking at polar bears in the wild. Again, it is sometimes hard to see it as the wild with all the tourists around, but I think the real issue was just being so far from what was familiar that I couldn't quite fit the experience into my world view. Maybe it's just that I'm getting old and inflexible, but I did speak to some other people and they said similar things.

The tundra is very barren. It's not just plain white snow, there are plants, shrubby brown things that peek up from the snow. But its very flat. We were told there's a hill out by the bay that's 40 feet high and that's the highest point in the whole area. There are dips in the land, possibly ponds and lakes frozen over and crusted with snow. It was cold yesterday in the wind, though the air temperature was only just a tad below freezing. The bears were in their element and I was very much out of mine.

We saw bears playing. A young pair, possibly siblings. Truthfully, it was a lot like watching Bob and Romeo wrestle (see my home page www.michelelloyd.com for pics). One would be napping, and the other would walk up to it and poke it, maybe bite it on the neck. The other would try to ignore it at first, and then roll over languidly and maybe reach up with his paws and grab the other around the neck. They'd wrestle, rolling around on their sides and backs, throwing their big furry back paws up into the air. You could see the brown stains around their anuses. At some point, both would be up on all fours, and one would rear up, then both would. They'd push into each other, then land back on all fours. After awhile, one would go back to sleep, and the other would, too.

There was a big, older bear around the camp. He lumbered over to the two younger bears, who stood up and moved away. The big bear carefully sniffed the snow the two had been sleeping in, digging his nose deep into a patch of urine. The others stood a little ways off, watching. One was clearly interested in the big bear. He started moving toward it. Not being able to read bear minds, I wasn't sure what was going through his, but he reminded me of Bob when she wants to play with Java, but isn't sure of her welcome. Java is probably twice Bob's weight, and she's an unpredictable bully, though she will play on occasion. According to the bear expert who's been giving us lectures in the evenings, play helps bears figure out what their competition for females will be in the mating season. So, he'd probably say this young bear might have been wanting to see if he was big and strong enough to handle himself against a mature male. Or maybe he was tired of hanging out with his brother.

One of the buggies out there was www.polarbearcam.com. They've got a couple of cameras on the buggy. It's a great place for you to see what I've been seeing since I can't put my pictures up yet. This big bear was very interested in the polarbearcam buggy yesterday. One of their cameras is in a bubble, and on a mechanism that lets them move it up and down. The bear stood up on his hind legs and started sniffing the camera. At one point he tried to grab it.

After about five hours of being in the buggy, seeing bears all around us, we became a little inured. On the trip back, someone would yell "bear!" and maybe half of us would try to get a look at it. But when someone spotted an arctic fox, we were all really excited.

Polar bears are yellowish in color, not white. But the arctic foxes are so white they really do blend in with the snow. This guy was running along some frozen lakes a ways out, and then, almost as if he'd been coached, he ran up along side the buggy--stopped at this point--and started digging in the snow. He caught something small and brown and crunched it in his jaws, then ran off again. Fox are so funny when they run, they hold their heads a little to the side so they look very furtive and sneaky. And they are always looking around nervously, as if they know they are about to be caught. It wasn't the first fox of the day, actually. We had seen one earlier, when we'd been parked by a couple of bears sleeping in a bed of kelp. The fox trotted up, saw the bears and turned away. Then, apparently unwilling to give up, turned around again and darted in a wide circle around them. One of the bears looked up, but wasn't too concerned. The fox follow the bears out onto the ice and eat what the bears don't (the bears focus on the fat and brains of the seals and leave a lot of the muscle meat behind), so the bears are used to seeing them about. They don't bother trying to catch the fox. The fox are too fast, and there isn't enough nutrition to make it worth the bear's trouble.

We were all exhausted after that adventure. After dinner, we had a lecture from a woman who was half Cree and half Scottish. These people, half native, half European, are known here as the Metis (there's a missing accent mark over the e). Her stories of life when she was growing up were very interesting and entertaining. Afterwards, I fell into my uncomfortable bed and dropped off to sleep almost immediately. [Note added a year later: The CNSC has since gotten all new mattresses!]
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