S: Churchill, Manitoba ~ October 2012
BC: October, 2012
FC: Churchill, Manitoba
1: Natasha planned a surprise for Paula's 50th birthday -- a trip to the arctic! Grandma met us in Winnipeg, and we flew to Churchill the next morning. Our trip was like a safari -- we stayed on a big bus, and the driver found animals for us to see.
2: Natasha had school, but billed the adventure as a field trip for her photography class. The cost of eating is high in Churchill -- milk was $10 a gallon.
3: The area around Churchill used to be the military base where NATO practiced invasions of Russia (defensive, of course). Most buildings were torn down, but the structures the commanders used for observation are still standing, albeit unsafe to climb on. The land is pretty flat, so the commanders could see for miles from a two story structure.
4: We spent our evenings on the tundra, sleeping on bunk beds in trailers moved to the area for the polar bear season. We spent the days in our Tundra Buggy (designed for minimizing the impact on the fragile arctic ground, but able to traverse the road made by the military in the 1950s and 60s). As polar bears have attacked humans, we couldn't go outside the vehicle safely. The roads could be difficult to find at times. Luckily, we had fabulous drivers. Rumor has it the Tundra Buggy drives like Grandma's Buick.
6: When polar bears get too close to town, traps are set to capture them. When the bears are captured, they are sent to the polar bear jail for 30 days, then relocated by helicopter to a safe place away from the city. The jail has a capacity of 28, so when the 29th bear is caught, the first bear in is given early release. Traps are set around Churchill when bears are sighted coming near the town. | When we visited , there were 7 bears in jail (but no visiting hours). Our bus driver kept a loaded gun within arms reach. He said he had used it.
8: We came for the polar bears, but saw many different types of animals too -- owls, seals, hares, and ptarmigans.
10: The bears weren't too active -- from a distance they could be mistaken for light colored rocks. Bears get almost all of their energy from seal fat, and they can only catch seals when the ice forms. Thus, most of the bears have been fasting for five months. Bears congregate at Churchill in the fall because the ice forms here first due to the circulation of Hudson Bay and the influence of the freshwater from the Churchill river.
12: One of the most interesting things we saw started with watching a gyrfalcon hunt with a pair of eagles. They caught something small and white. We caught up with the prey later in the day -- it was an arctic hare. The eagles were no where to be found, but an arctic fox was dismantling the hare, and stashing pieces of it around the tundra.
15: We enjoyed both the wildlife and the scenery. The land was incredibly flat -- you could see for miles. The small lakes and tidal pools broke up the grass, shrubs and rocks.
16: We saw a lot of new birds -- two types of owls (short eared and arctic), willow ptarmigans, golden eagles, and gyrfalcons -- so the trip was a success for Robin. As all of Hudson Bay is part of Nunavut, Paula was brave and dipped her foot in the next province. Grandma and Natasha tolerated their shenanigans.
18: Each day was more exciting in terms of polar bear sightings. We saw a polar bear outside our trailers the first night (luckily Paula captured it on film), and during our first full day we saw polar bears laying down, but moving to become more comfortable. The second day we saw polar bears moving and walking. On our third and final day, we saw a mother and cubs, a fairly unusual sight in October. In the past, the end of October was peak season as the ice would form on the bay any day. Over the past 10 years, the freeze date has moved back three weeks until mid-November. The thaw time is earlier too, so bears have less time to stuff themselves with seals, and more time for their summer fast. Thus, the population of bears is decreasing as females can't sustain multiple birth pregnancies as well as they could in the past. | The tundra temperatures were near freezing during our visit.
20: This was the best surprise 50th birthday trip ever!