Polar Bear Blog – Last Minute Bears

Early season tourists and bears have started trickling into Churchill. Summer is officially done and morning frost has settled across the north. We’re still due for some high winds and freezing rain by mid- month but winter’s slow and steady march south has begun.

And, I know I have said this before, but if ANYONE is thinking about a last minute polar bear trip, do it! Churchill still has this reputation where you have to book a year ahead but this is really no longer the truth at all. There is still a lot of spaces available and in peak season, no less.

Tundra Buggy has ‘day tripper’ tours listed for the following 2013 dates – October 7, 9, 11, 13, 17, 19, 21, 24, 25, 29, 31 and November 4, 7, 11, 13, 15, 17. Cost is $399 per person (which used to be expensive but now is pretty much just ‘normal’ for day tours… crazy, huh). Calm Air is about $1200 return from Winnipeg or cheaper if you drive to Thompson. If you have Airmiles, its a super deal as ‘bear season’ is considered ‘low season’… Train availability is harder to get but you can still find it.

I will also be offering town and area tours this year, limited to six people per tour. Its kind of a mix of Churchill stories, driving with short hikes and maybe a few bears too. Its been some time since independent travellers have really been welcomed by Churchill so this is a pretty nice development if you ask me. Shoot me an email – polarbearalley@gmail.com – and I can recommend some B&Bs that still have space or a spot on the floor somewhere, ha! Trust me, if you show up in Churchill with no plan, strange characters and adventures will find you… (no plan but still a place to stay of course….)

If you are interested in group travel, pretty much all the big companies still have space available as well – call them up, who knows… For myself, I would recommend something in between October 28th and November 15th if you want peak polar bears.  Try Great Canadian Travel or Classic Canadian.  ChurchillWild’s lodges have been booked for some time so if you’re looking at 2014… now is probably the time to start thinking about them.

On another note, I took the plunge and booked a Polar Bear Alley trip to Kaktovik, Alaska next year. The tour will run October 5-11, 2014 – seven days with four days of polar bear viewing. Group size is small, six people, and I kept the cost pretty reasonable, $4995pp.

At that time, there should be snow and still about 30-40 polar bears around. Kaktovik just seems so much like the good ol’ days of Churchill. Its not for everyone (pretty rough around the edges!) but its a taste of the real arctic and, well, you get up close and personal with polar bears at eye-level. Again, email me at polarbearalley@gmail.com if you’re interested. Should be a pretty amazing trip…

Just finishing up the latest edition of the Hudson Bay Post, Churchill’s monthly newspaper published every four years (ha!). This one is looking pretty good – have to send out a big thanks to Walter Sinclair, Dennis Compayre, Bryce Bekar, Lewis Sinclair and Joe Stover for their articles… good stuff. Can’t forget Sebastian for his polar bear pictures and ChurchillWild for their continued support. I forgot how much energy it takes to put together an edition but its worth it in the end, even if I’m a few days behind in wood cutting now.

Anyway, that’s enough blatant commercialism today… back to polar bears… The polar bears in Kaktovik are shaping up to have a good season, winter is early there and they should be back on the ice by mid-month (Susan Crockford was right… ahem). There is already some shore ice in Foxe Basin (northern Hudson Bay) so things look pretty good up there too… sounds like a pretty heavy iceberg year in Hudson Strait too, strong northwinds could help the Davis Strait bears out. Hard to say, just yet.

Sea ice across the arctic seems to have held up pretty well this year. Of course, we are not in the ‘glory years’ of the 1980s but certainly a big recovery from 2012. It has generally been a cool summer across the arctic, even if there was open water at the north pole, and there seems to be some fall storms amping up, likely to push newly forming ice to polar bear gathering areas. This is a good thing, but again, something to watch…

What is a bit surprising to me is the amount of multi-year sea ice still kicking around in the western Arctic. After last year’s ‘perfect storm’ that dispersed a lot of the pack ice in the west, currents and conditions seem to have packed it back together and it seems fairly stable. Of course, this is just looking at a satellite image but the situation does not quite seem as drastic as I thought last year. Maybe this multi-year ice has been dispersed before and simply floated back to its natural location the following years… interesting to watch, for sure. Sure is a lot that we don’t understand.

The really scary thing in all this is that as computer models predict fairly linear sea ice decline, shipping routes seem to be trending more towards the arctic. As more countries use these ‘shortcuts’, the chance of an early freeze creating a serious environmental disaster keeps increasing. For all the talk, I hope that arctic shipping will likely not be anything more than a novelty in my lifetime.  The ice is just too variable.

Then again, the North Sea route seems to be exploding with traffic up from 4 in 2011 to over 50 ships this summer.  Funny that after all these years, researchers still really have no baseline data on Russian polar bears to monitor the effects of commercial activity.  At least one ship got stranded on that route this year – hopefully we take it as a warning but I doubt it.

As for my predictions for Churchill’s bear season, well I would say that the ice finally freezes up this year around November 18th, kind of like it does almost every year. There will either be an almost early freeze that scares every tour company up there or a late start to the freeze that brings out the climate change night news crews. There’s no real El Ninos or volcanoes or whatever this year to suggest something really dramatic… and I’m sure the humans can take care of the drama in bear season anyway!

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