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Posts Tagged ‘Churchill’

A hissing good Halloween Churchill Wild style

Polar bear stands at the window of Seal River Heritage Lodge.

I can seeee youuuu... Trick or Treat!

by Tara Ryan

A few good things to know:

  1. Polar bears have about 20 vocalizations – one of which is a hiss.
  2. In Churchill, Manitoba the trick or treating set are accompanied by gun-toting bear patrol enforcers.
  3. Wearing any white costumes (ghosts, brides… polar bears) is generally frowned upon (see gun toting bear patrol enforcers for rationale).
  4. Did I mention polar bears hiss when they are angry?

“Halloweening” in Churchill takes on a paramilitary edge as kids out trick or treating are shadowed by gun-wielding bear patrol officers. This is not unexpected.

Jack-O-Lantern of the North

Jack-O-Lantern of the North

Kids are used to the bear patrol presence year around but these patrols are especially heightened during the months of October and November, when the bears are starting to gather around the edges of the Bay in greater numbers awaiting the freeze up. There are other restrictions local kids must endure at this sugar-laden time of year – most importantly: “Thou shalt not dress in white; ghosts, brides and especially no polar bear costumes.”  This is polar bear central after all.

Being a polar bear guide working away from the bright lights of the ‘big city’ of Churchill (about 60 miles north)  in the remote Churchill Wild Polar Bear Lodge at Seal River, my fellow guide (Andrew MacPherson) decided to try his luck at bucking this long-standing no-white for Halloween northern tradition.

For October 31 we came as “problem bears” – me as a garbage addicted grizzly bear and Andy as a bear from the old ‘polar bear jail’ days (when they  used to dart the bears and then spray paint numbers on them to keep track of repeat offenders).  While putting the finishing touches on our costumes, we began to hear a shushing/hissing noise from outside – not unlike the air being forced out of a tire with a puncture.

Halloween-costumed hissers at Churchill Wild

Hisssssss....!

Andy was silhouetted in one of the many bedroom windows looking out over the tundra. He was stunning in his white long johns appropriately padded with pillows for a fat bottom, a white fuzzy hat with ears, and matching gloves and claws.

The fall light had dimmed the immediate surroundings outside to near black. A ghostly movement accompanied by continued agitated hissing – and a nose print on the window – finally clued us in. There was a very annoyed polar bear outside our window that was letting the ‘polar bear’ on the inside know in no uncertain terms – that his presence was not welcome.

Andy hissed back.

Only at Churchill Wild!

Me? Fly a Plane?

Or “Rough Company at Cape Churchill”
by Ian Thorleifson

Ian Thorleifson with polar bear cubs

Ian Thorleifson with polar bear cubs

Working with wildlife is always full of surprises. One day in November, my assignment was to meet an airplane and a pilot at Thompson airport, fly to Cape Churchill (a favourite resting place for Polar bears during their on land season), land on the beach ridge, and pick up two Wildlife Service biologists. Then we were to fly along the coast of Hudson Bay, searching for radio- collared polar bears.

Sunday at ten in the morning was the agreed time to meet at the airport, and I was there in plenty of time. The only other person around the hangar was a mechanic, working on another plane. I asked him which plane we were to fly with, and he indicated a Cessna 206 parked nearby. I walked over and checked it out, and noted a couple of unique features. The 206’s I’d seen were “tail- dragger” – two wheels under the body and one more under the back of the tail. This one was on “tricycle gear” – three wheels in a triangle configuration under the front of the fuselage with the load balanced by the weight of the engine. Every other 206 I remembered had a three blade prop – each blade being about 2 and a half feet – 80 cm – long. This one had a two blade prop instead, with three foot blades to make up the difference.  Besides, it was a “Trainer” – two equal sets of operating gear to allow the pilot to take control anytime from a person who was learning to fly. I mentioned all this to the mechanic, and he said “Doesn’t make any difference”, and I reckoned he was right.

“It’s quarter to eleven”, I remarked, “Where’s that pilot?”

“He’ll be here”, the mechanic reassured, and sure enough, in walked a sharply dressed young fellow with a city haircut and the meanest set of blood shot eyes I’d seen since earlier that morning. I don’t like the looks of this, I thought as I introduced myself. “Been bush flying long?” I asked. “Just arrived from Calgary yesterday,” he explained, “And they threw a heck of a welcome party for me last night.” Oh, great….  “You look pretty rough – you sure you’re ok to fly??” “For sure! They’ll fire me if I blow my first assignment!”

Against my better judgement, we loaded up and took off toward Gillam, me in the left front seat. I knew my way from Thompson to Cape Churchill “like the back of my hand”, so I reassured the pilot I could navigate for him without maps. That reassured him, and he visibly relaxed – so much so that in about fifteen minutes, his head was bobbing! “Hey, what are you doing?” I yelled. He snapped to attention, then said, “Man, I’m so tired – Can you fly a plane?” I protested vehemently, summarized my flying experiences from the passenger seat, then realized that we weren’t going anywhere with that.  “It’s easy now we’re in the air” my sad specimen of a pilot reassured me – just do this and this and I’ll just have a quick nap.

He was mostly right – Weather was calm, only a few controls to manipulate. The challenge was navigating. I didn’t have the confidence to fly AND look at a map, but, no problem, I could navigate to the Cape from my own memory of the terrain. But – I had to be able to see the ground! We left Thompson with a complete overcast sky and a 3000 foot ceiling. As I flew NE, the ceiling kept dropping. So did I.  By the time sad sack started stirring, we were at 300 feet and getting close to the Cape. He stretched, glanced out the window and LEAPED towards the controls! “What the … are you doing so low?!” I explained, and he settled down. I then described the terrain at the Cape – open gravel beach ridges, one that led to a tower where the researchers were. We would carefully land on the ridge, taxi to the tower, pick them up and go.

206 cockpit with trainer gear

206 cockpit with trainer gear

He surprised me with his very good landing! Because of our tricycle landing gear, he landed “nose up” then slowly lowered the front until all three wheels were rolling along the ridge – rolling right into a polar bear day bed!  Only about eight inches deep, but just deep enough to make our extra-long blades on the propeller contact the gravel. “Praaang” was the sound, and the plane started to vibrate. We were almost right at the tower, so he quickly shut off the engine. We got out to look, and our biologist buddies came down from the tower. No question – we were not flying anywhere with those twisted and broken blades!

In keeping with the “no problems” attitude, the tower crew invited us up for a meal of spaghetti and red wine, and talk things over. Great supper, but a quick look at the tower did not reveal anywhere for two more people to sleep except in layers. Not the best way to get along. I suggested “That plane is big enough – we’ll pull out the seats and Good Luck the Pilot and I will sleep in there – Any bears around?” The biologists informed me that just before we landed, they had scanned all the way around and counted 43 big male polar bears! Pilot’s eyes got very big – but I said “No Problem – I’ve got scare pistols and heavy rifles and shotguns – They’ll never take us alive!” He was not reassured, but really had little choice.

We climbed down to the plane, removed the seats and stored them safely, laid out our sleeping bags and snuggled in with all but our outer parka and boots on. It was comfortable enough, and I was asleep quickly – but not for long. Pilot had me by the shoulder and shaking, hissing through his teeth “Ian there’s a bear at the window right beside you” and sure enough, I looked up and could see a big black nose pressed up against the Plexiglas, five feet up off the ground. No problem – I just waited until he pulled his nose back, opened the door and bumped his nose, then fired a “cracker shell” onto the ground in front of him – BOOM! FLASH! and away he ran. That happened eight times that night. They pounded on the tail of the plane, pulled the insulating engine cover off, banged on the windows. I chased them away each time, but my eyes were sore from the Flashes, my ears were dull from the Booms. I got very little sleep. Pilot got none.

In the morning, we climbed back up into the tower for coffee. The biologists had radioed to town, and soon two rescue planes appeared! Pilot just about leaped right out of the tower. We flew away with one plane and a regular pilot to do our radio collar surveys. The mechanics put another propeller on the plane, and, incredibly, they flew it to town without it falling out of the sky – but it did have a cracked crankshaft when they took it apart, and that could have come apart at any time in the air…

And, you know, I never did see or hear from that Pilot again!

Magazine editor Katie Nanton details trip to see Churchill polar bears at Seal River Heritage Lodge

Polar bear relaxing on rocks at Seal River Heritage Lodge

Polar bear relaxing on rocks at Seal River Heritage Lodge – Photo Credit: Robert Postma

Katie Nanton, an assistant editor with NUVO Magazine, was at Seal River Heritage Lodge for the Birds, Bears and Belugas Adventure last summer.

A seasoned adventure traveler, writer and editor with world-wide safari experience, Katie wrote a story about her Churchill Wild experience for NUVO entitled A Canadian Safari – Churchill, Manitoba: the polar bear capital of the world, which appeared in their Spring 2011 Issue. Below are a few excerpts from Katie’s Story with a link to the original story. Enjoy!

First polar bear

I see the first bear in the distance. A big, beautiful Ursus maritimus. Adrenaline kicks in and the quiet chatter halts, followed soon after by the clicking of camera shutters and zooming of lenses. Our guides remind us to be silent – although this bear is familiar with the presence of people by now, we don’t want to disturb or frighten it – and we take a few steps forward until I’m standing about 10 metres away from this larger-than-life beauty. I eye the guns slung over our guides’ shoulders: loaded, and a necessary precaution, they are very rarely used, and only to scare off an approaching bear. Nothing stands between us and this wild animal but a short distance and a few rocks; polar bears are capable of running up to 40 kilometres an hour.

A  fight in the morning

One foggy morning, I awaken to an early morning knock on my bedroom door and a commotion outside. A night watchman stands  guard over the lodge each night, eyes peeled for curious bears and Northern Lights. I’m expecting flashes of green and blue aurora borealis, but out of the main-room window is a more unexpected early morning sight: far in the rocky distance, two bears are stretched up on their hind legs, standing at least eight feet tall, their furry arms in the air like boxers, jabbing, dodging, and blocking each other, paws flailing. Their show of strength is spellbinding. I want to get closer. I walk with my guide until we come within about 15 metres…

Full Story: A Canadian Safari – Churchill, Manitoba: the polar bear capital of the world

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About NUVO Magazine

NUVO Magazine LogoInspired by quality, NUVO is a lifestyle magazine for the Canadian sophisticate. It is our mandate to create an editorial environment that is stimulating, evocative, entertaining and informative, and relevant to both the amateur and the connoisseur.  The NUVO reader is the inquisitive, culturally aware, well-travelled urbanite who appreciates a blend of insight and entertainment. We share the NUVO reader’s discerning taste in travel, food and wine, film and TV, fashion, art, architecture, design, business, automobiles and music.  NUVO features the finest in writing, photography, illustration, design and production. Our commitment to quality is essential to being a leader in the magazine industry. It is thus our assiduous intention to craft a magazine that is quite simply unlike any other.

Polar bear tours with a rustic accent at Churchill Wild’s Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

Polar bear at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

Polar bear surveys the arctic landscape on the Hudson Bay coast at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

by Rick Kemp

Most of our Churchill Wild polar bear eco-adventures take place at Seal River Heritage Lodge. Every year we’ve added an upgrade or two and our guests rant about the service, accommodations, and the unequalled on-the-ground access to polar bears. We are the only company on the planet that operates remote fly-in polar bear eco-lodges.

Last year we added a new 1400 square foot dining room with huge picture windows overlooking Hudson Bay, to provide guests with a sea-side dining experience that makes viewing any polar bears that might walk by (and decide to peak in) an exceptional experience for both humans and bears!

This year we’re adding a kitchen fit for a celebrity chef. Construction starts next week and Jeanne is particularly excited about the concept of her new workspace.

Seal River is increasingly becoming THE destination in luxury arctic adventure travel and we’re proud to host whenever we have the opportunity. Seal is home to the popular summer adventure Birds, Bears & Belugas as well as September’s Arctic Safari and the Polar Bear Photo Safari.

But Seal River Heritage Lodge is not the only lodge in the Churchill Wild arsenal – we also operate Dymond Lake Eco-Lodge for our Great Ice Bear Adventure. And last year we started a new project – Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge – which is home to our Mothers & Cubs Adventure.

This converted old goose hunting camp is about as secluded as you can possibly get! Located approximately 150 kilometers southeast of Churchill, Nanuk is a 10 minute bush plane flight from the historic York Factory (and about an hour from Gillam). Nanuk has been around since the 1970s and the previous owner had often noted the massive number of polar bears in the area. As it turns out, Nanuk is situated right in the heart of newly discovered polar bear denning areas.

Last summer I went to Nanuk for the first time and it was a mind-blowing experience. The lodge can be best described as “rustic”. Individual cabins sleep two per room and at present the Nanuk operation can accommodate up to 12 people. Each cabin has its own bathroom and shower.

Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

The main lodge has Wi-Fi, a kitchen, dining hall and a large common room with a fireplace and a bar. It’s all very cozy but not on the level of Seal River (yet). Plans are to bring it up to par with Seal but I must admit, the atmosphere at Nanuk lends itself well to an authentic arctic wilderness setting. The polar bears were plentiful and we also saw wolves, moose, Northern Lights and many different species of birds including eagles.

A number of media types were there with me (it was a media trip) and Michele Sponagle recounted our polar bear tale better than I could for MSN Travel in Polar Express. Angela Saurine came all the way from Australia and wrote Close Encounters with Polar Bears for News.com.au and Birgit-Cathrin Duval from Germany blogged about her experience in Guess who’s coming for dinner on her visual storytelling takkiwrites.com blog. We even had a trio from Mexico who gave us salsa dancing lessons one evening. Lucas Aykroyd and I spent our downtime talking about 1980’s hair bands and Euro heavy metal. Lucas wrote 1984: The Ultimate Van Halen Trivia Book so I knew ahead of time we would have lots to talk about.

The Mothers & Cubs Adventure at Nanuk takes place on the coast of Hudson Bay within the Cape Tatnam Wildlife Management Area, truly one of the most fascinating places on earth, with so much history I couldn’t get enough. I ended up reading three books about the area after my trip! Northern Manitoba is one of the most pristine wilderness areas left in the world – so remote that it has barely changed in thousands of years.

After a two hour flight from Winnipeg we arrived in Gillam and then took a bush plane to Nanuk. The breathtaking flight east from Gillam to Nanuk takes you over the Northern Taiga Forest and tracks the mighty Nelson River over the plains and tidal flats of Hudson Bay.

Following the same route the fur traders took for hundreds of years, you fly over York Factory, a trading post that was permanently established in 1684 by Governor George Geyer of the Hudson’s Bay Company – the beginning of Canada’s fur trade history. Some of the Nanuk staff expedition leaders are descendants of the Cree people who originally inhabited the area when the first Europeans arrived in the early 1600s.

This coastline of Hudson Bay around Nanuk and York Factory was in turmoil between 1600-1900 as the French and English played king of the hill – both looking to control the riches provided by the fur trade.

The early expeditions in search of the Northwest Passage would have followed the coast right past Nanuk. Many ships got wintered into the Bay and numerous explorers died in search of the elusive route. That in itself could be a blog post.

The polar bear and the cannon

Polar bear meets history at Nanuk

When you’re at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge you’ll notice all sorts of artifacts. The previous owner was an avid explorer of the area and always carried his trusty metal detector with him. Within the fenced compound you’ll find remnants of old shipwrecks such as brass railings and authentic cannons from the 1800s, possibly even earlier.

Butch and Gordie, two of the Nanuk guides, have been there for almost 30 years combined. Both are proud Canadian First Nations people who know the surrounding land through a deep spiritual connection. Gordie is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet and Butch was born at York Factory in the 1950s, before the residents were relocated to York Landing Cree Nation. In the off season, Butch manages the York Landing airport but he loves to return to Nanuk every year.

The trip to the Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge was my first Churchill Wild Adventure. I can’t wait to go back. There’s a shipwreck that we didn’t get a chance to see.

It’s on the top of my “to do” list.

1983 – The Worst Year Ever for Western Hudson Bay Polar Bears

by Ian Thorleifson

Ian carrying tranquilized polar-bear

Ian carrying tranquilized polar bear near Hudson Bay

We’ve all heard many sad stories and dire predictions about the future of the polar bears of Western Hudson Bay. And they have had some tough years – particularly in the early 2000s. The worst year they ever had was not recent however, it was almost 30 years ago. In 1983

My knowledge of 1983 is first hand. I was in charge of the Polar Bear Alert Program that year, and I was working as a biologist for Manitoba Wildlife Branch, and with the very capable crew from Ian Stirling’s group of the Canadian Wildlife Service.

But I must qualify that my observations are not backed by rigorous science – we simply did not have that defensible level of knowledge then. We did have a substantial amount of observations, notes and perceptions built up from many people’s observations over many years.

By 1983 the Canadian Wildlife Service had been intently working with the polar bears in Hudson Bay for about 15 years. A large percentage of the bears in the population were tagged – at least half of them, maybe three quarters. We estimated that there were about 1800 bears in the South Western Hudson Bay (SWHB) polar bear population at the time.

Productivity was very good – most mother bears had two cubs with them and many of those cubs were “independent yearlings” – able to hunt and care for themselves, and to allow their mothers to re-breed every two years – the most productive polar bear population known at the time.

Tourism, especially that related to polar bear watching, was starting to roll in Churchill – Dan Guravich and Len Smith and their Cape Churchill crew had been to the Cape for up to three weeks at a time for four years now – and their observations and photos had identified a “rogue’s gallery” of big old male bears who were at the Cape every year.

The winter of 1982-83 saw very heavy snowfall accumulating in SWHB, so heavy one could imagine the bears having a challenge getting through to the seals. When the bears were forced ashore, they were in “ok” condition, but not really fat. But they were early – by the first two weeks of July the ice had broken up and quickly melted completely out of the Bay. Then the summer was HOT. And DRY. We worked on the tundra with no shirts on – and no mosquitoes! The heat stressed the bears even more than the mosquitoes would have.

By November, there were a lot of bears around – and far too many were getting very skinny. In the middle of November, very cold weather brought a quick freeze – and bears started moving out onto the ice. Then came the big south wind with melting temperatures and weeks of fog and mist. The ice was completely melted, and the number of bears along the Coast was amazing – I counted 50 different bears in a 14-mile drive! Eight bears were shot by local people in self-defense. On November 29, a man was killed on the main street of Churchill by a young male bear. The Polar Bear Alert crew was handling as many as 15 bears a day. Walking skeletons were seen too often. And still no freeze-up until almost mid-December.

We did not realize the impact this all had on the population until a couple of years had gone by. At Cape Churchill, Dan could recognize only a couple of the “rogues” they had previously seen. And 1984 saw the lowest number of bear incidents in the history of the Alert Program.

Based on these observations and the “Mark/Recapture” rate of the next few years, we estimated that HALF of the SWHB population perished out on the ice that winter. We find very few dead bears, because they do not die where we can find them. Travel out on the Bay is very difficult and dangerous.

The population built up again in the late ‘80s and ‘90s – to at least 1200 to 1400 bears, then declined to the 950 or so estimated today. But no one year was ever as bad as 1983…the Worst Year Ever for polar bears.