Polar Bear Blog – Bears Abound, Just Not Here… Yet

When Polar Bears International declared 2008 to be the Year of the Polar Bear (shamelessly usurping the International Year of the Potato), I predicted that Churchill’s ‘endangered’ bears would have a fantastic year. So, I won’t say I told you so but i told you so, so far.

Manitoba Conservation does an annual aerial survey from the Churchill area to the Manitoba/Ontario border, roughly the inland range of the polar bears of western Hudson Bay. In late July (the 22nd I believe), they flew the range and counted around 34 bears. Most were still out on the bay feasting on seals. In fact, there were still two little bits of ice floe in southwestern Hudson Bay on August 22nd…! This means that many of the bears stayed out on the ice until mid-August, almost a month later than usual (or at least, earlier than usual for the last decade, but simply similar to the ‘glory days’ of the early eighties).

So, almost all of the bears visiting Churchill are in really good shape (around ten to twelve in buggyland right now). This seems to have translated through the larger population with 266 polar bears being counted on the fall aerial survey in September. This is the largest number of bears recorded in the history of this survey. Isn’t that crazy?!? Life is good for the bears!

Of course, this also leads to the cut in quota for Nunavut’s Inuit. Arviat, an economically challenged traditional Inuit town just north of Churchill (and when I say just north, I mean 250 miles) has had their quota wiped out. From 23 polar bears harvested last year, political pressure (not research) has led the government of Nunavut to cut it to three bears. All three bear ‘tags’ have now been used in self-defence kills (partially because we relocate bears north from Churchill… but that’s another story). So, no commercial hunt, no income, no community pride for Arviat… hmmm…

Now, I’m not what you’d call a big hunter but my friend, Uli is pretty big on it. Every weekend this summer, Uli, now twelve years old, goes out caribou hunting, goose hunting, hunting, hunting with his father. Its a traditional town and Inuit tradition is hunting (of course, to make things a little more complicated, polar bear hunting is a relatively new things in Arviat but whatever…) still the point is that Uli probably won’t get to hunt a polar bear with his father, probably one of those moments that you take with you for the rest of your life.

And while the polar bears are doing fine, the Hudson Bay Railway is a complete disaster. The train is coming in 12 hours late on the already adjusted schedule that added 12 hours to the trip… Plus, it sounds like no one – VIA or HBR – is really letting travellers on to this fact until they are on the train! This is a crime. Omnitrax promised the community that tourism would not be affected by the track upgrades (required due to Omnitrax’s lack of maintenance over ten years – not climate change…). Train travel is down this year and, naturally will continue on a downward spiral for the foreseeable future.

Let me put it this way… my japanese film crew was showing me a DVD of the show we’re working on (which is quite good by the way… its kind of a Lonely Planet Japan…), anyways, the show featured Khazakstan. Now, Khazakstan is a truly remote country with little infrastructure and what infrastructure there is, is naturally fading soviet era whatever. One of the funny moments in the show was when the train was thirty minutes late – the local guide joked that its never on time. Then, they hopped aboard this old and slow train for a twenty hour trip. Twenty hours?!? My lord! And twenty hours to travel only 1000 kilometres or about 600 miles.

Then, there’s Churchill… the train is consistently 12 hours late on a schedule already based on an 18 hour ride from Thompson, Manitoba… maybe 300 kilometres or 200 miles away… wow. (I just looked at my ‘Travel to Churchill’ page on polar bear alley and I am SO sorry for slacking off on the updates… will work on that)

Now, I have been accused, now and then, of being a bit cynical so here’s a bright note to end this entry. This year, the polar bears are saved so we can now all stop recycling! And next year, once our $60 million of repairs and upgrades to the Hudson Bay railway are completed, we should once again be on par with Khazakstan. Huzzah!!!


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