Polar Bear Blog – Bear Season History Part I

As with most of North America, 1969 was a year of change for Churchill. This change would not begin anywhere near the community, however. That year, the SS Manhattan made the first crossing of the Northwest Passsage, investigating its potential as an oil shipping route.

Canadian photographer, Dan Guravich, was aboard the Manhattan as the official photographer. It was during this trip that he first saw a wild polar bear and, as happens to many of us, he was hooked. It would take him another seven years to ‘discover’ Churchill, however, ‘bear season’ as we know it, can be traced to this newfound obsession.

In Churchill itself, the military presence had gradually withdrawn through the 1960s and polar bears were moving in. Without the ‘buffer zone’ created by military activity between Churchill and its polar bears, encounters between Churchillians and polar bears increased.

Conservation officers had addressed the issue of problem bears by moving them by air about 100 kilometres away, spending about $40,000 in 1970.
Because the bears returned so quickly, they resorted to lethal means in many cases… seven were shot in 1970, they figured thirty or more would be shot in 1971.

Under the leadership of Brian Davies, the International Fund for Animal Welfare stepped in and paid about $500 for each problem polar bear to be tranquilized and flown to the Kaskattama River on Hudson Bay. During that season, 24 bears were ‘bearlifted’ out with only four of them returning to the Churchill dump.

By 1972, Davies suggested that IFAW should not be responsible for the costs of moving the bears and that the feds cover the cost as a training exercise for armed forces – in the case of an environmental disaster. In the end, the province picked up the tab.

Photographer Fred Bruemmer was the first to travel to Cape Churchill and photograph polar bears. Dropped off by helicopter, he set up camp on the steel research tower and prepares to bait polar bears towards the tower. The results of bacon fat poured around the tower are met with unexpectedly vigorous results.

Al Chartier was probably the first ‘tour operator’ in the Gordon Point area. He ran an old military track machine along the main trail to First Tower – the one we still use today. One of his main clients was photographer, Leonard Larue. Boris Ozurkiewicz also advertised ‘Tundra Tours’ and took several clients out east. His track vehicle can still be seen parked in town.

In 1974, on the advice of Bishop Robidoux, Camp Nanuq resident, Brian Ladoon travelled north to Repulse Bay and Igloolik to rescue Canadian Eskimo Dogs. As culture was changing, the sled dog lifestyle and the Canadian Eskimo Dog were fast disappearing. The following year, he chartered a DC-3 to Hall Beach and Igloolik as well.

Brian Ladoon and Dwight Allen were actually the first guides for Dan Guravich. Guravich hired them to take him out to the maternity denning area to photograph bears. It was a cold and long trip that provided few results. However, it does push Guravich to find a warmer (and somewhat safer) way to photograph bears.

Dan hired Boris Ozurkiewicz and his track machine to photograph polar bears the following years. After mechanical problems and, um, personality conflicts, the experiment ends near First Tower with harsh feelings.

While in town, Guravich meets Len Smith, the owner of the ESSO garage, who tells him that the big bears are found out ‘east’ – Cape Churchill.

Through the 1970s, there was a real focus on the arctic, specifically oil and gas development. As such, many researchers were travelling to Churchill, known as the ‘Accessible Arctic’. By 1978, a group of residents and researchers establish the Churchill Northern Studies Centre at Akudlik Marsh.

Later, Nils Oritsland would head a group of researchers including Paul Watts in the establishment of another facility, the I.A.E.P (a.k.a why scientists should never name their own buildings). Many of the important findings of bear physiology and the consequences of an oil spill would come out of this work.

1979 was another pivotal year for Churchill’s ‘bear season’ – not that bear season existed yet… After Len and Dan’s conversation, Len set to work completing a large-wheeled tour vehicle, at that time, called a Tundra Bus. Ten years after seeing his first polar bear, Dan Guravich had finally found a means to observe and photograph them.

That same year, the Government of Manitoba helped Brian Ladoon move his Canadian Eskimo Dog Kennel out to Mile Five, near the ‘Golf Balls’…

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