Polar Bear Blog – Bear Season History Part II

Well, there is a bit of a winter storm in Churchill right now with flurries expected for much of the week – then again, no one really listens to the forecast up there anyway. Temperatures are right around 0C (32F) so it going to get a bit sloppy if this keeps up. What Churchill and its bears need are 0C (at most) in the day and around -5C at night, that should freeze up the lakes quicker and once the lakes are frozen then the bear really start moving.

So, in the mean time, here’s part two of the Churchill Bear Season History Project…

Tundra Buggy Tours began with three partners, Len Smith, Dan Guravich and local Conservation Officer, Roy Bukowsky. Each brought a different skill set to the table, business grew quickly.

The first ‘bear season’ clients at Gordon Point were Victor Emmanuel Nature Tours, a company that focused primarily on birding tours. They had connections with Dan Guravich, whose real focus was on birds before he found Churchill.

In 1981, the industry hit its first big break. National Geographic spent a season filming ‘Polar Bear Alert’, exploring this little town where locals and polar bears shared the streets and exploring Cape Churchill. Certain scenes were slightly exaggerated with the assistance of a fair bit of seal oil.

The next year, NatGeo’s documentary was released and Guravich’s book, ‘Lords of the Arctic’ hit bookshelves. Bukowsky had found a grant to build another buggy and Len was busy building it so, the first ‘buggy driver’, Dennis Compayre, was hired.

However, as Buggy Two was nearing completion, Len’s garage (The Igloo) caught fire and burnt to the ground. Dismayed but undeterred, construction on Buggy 4 began soon after. Buggy 4 is actually still in use today – although now as a specialized film buggy.

In 1983, the Cape Churchill trip, at that time, only six photographers in size, came close to disaster. Fred Treul was photographing an Ivory Gull from the window when a bear reached up and grabbed his arm, severly injuring him. In the midst of a snowstorm, the little crew fought to get back from Cape, a journey that would take 14 hours back to Churchill. Treul, while suffering nerve damage, did recover. He even came back the following year.

Of course, this may have just added to the mystique of Cape Churchill. Already 30 miles east of Churchill, the trip was by invitation-only and it was Dan Guravich’s show. A veteran of the arctic now, Dan had drawn his lines. Feeding and baiting bears was fine in his eyes, research and handling – not so much. It is likely due to Dan’s philosophy that Roy Bukowsky stepped back and sold his share of Tundra Buggy.

While Dan chucked lard at bears, he also campaigned for their well-being. His efforts led to many innovations in research – sterilizing dart needles, sanitary removal of teeth when aging bears, reduced use of radio collars and eliminating research that was fatal to bears. He was no doubt a polarizing and charismatic character.

Through the 1980s, ‘bear season’ really caught hold. By 1984, LIFE Magazine published an article about the Cape Churchill trip. People clamoured to travel to Churchill., most touring in the Gordon Point area with only a select few visiting Cape Churchill. Two ‘sno-coaches’ were purchased from the Columbia Icefields (Buggies 3 and 5). They were track vehicles which were converted to wheels once they arrived in Churchill. The Tundra Buggy actually inspired the change from track vehicles to wheels at the Columbia Icefield tours.

Paul Ratson, now owner of Nature First tours, was the second buggy driver hired. Dennis moved into the ‘tracker’ full-time, basically a plywood box on tracks with a sometimes folding roof.A collection of different drives followed, Paul Purich, Ian Thorleifson, Charlie King, even Greg Rennie drove for one season. A lot of the drivers were farm boys from the west Interlake, Len was from that area.

Al and Bonnie Chartier operated Churchill Wilderness Encounters with both Al’s track machine and 4×4 buses. Dwight Allen and Dan Foubert built a fleet of converted school buses, running Arctic Safaris for several years before Len and Dan bought out their permits.

In the very early years, there were few bears around Gordon Point. The numbers grew as word got out in the bear population of this new phenomena. As the years passed, interactions grew as well. Sparring, the polar bear playfighting that Churchill is know for, was almost unheard of in the early eighties, today its a regular occurrence.

Outside of buggyland, the Churchill garbage dump had become ‘the place’ to see bears. The open and sometimes burning piles of garbage attracted bears, locals and, of course, the media. Churchill would become as notorious for its dump as for Tundra Buggies.

All this time, Brian Ladoon had discovered that food conditioning polar bears to stay away from his dogs (and maybe pose for photographers) was a fair bit easier than shooting problem bears.

Churchill’s position as a hotbed for polar bear research had really taken hold as well. Canadian Wildlife Service mark-recapture studies were an annual event by the end of the decade. Much of what we know about polar bears today was discovered in Churchill.

The 1980s were really the wild west era of ‘bear season’. Everything that was out there was getting stuck, the Government of Manitoba was truly an absentee landlord and, well, bears were being bears.

Next up – 1990s: The Rise of Buggyland

<< >>

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *