Polar Bear Blog – The Complicated World of Freezeup

Well, I left a bit of a gap in bear reporting this last week because, well, a lot of bears left! This has been yet another year of early freezeup or, if you like, a return to the old ‘normal’. However, ‘freezeup’ is a complicated thing so I will try to explain it the best that I can.

The coast of Cape Churchill runs from Button Bay to the west of the Churchill River and townsite about 50 miles east to Wapusk National Park and ‘the Cape’. Along this shore, freezeup occurs at different speeds. One of the first places to freeze is Button Bay. Polar bears who reach Button Bay essentially get a one or two week ‘headstart’ on seal hunting. A few years back, polar bears were so successful in their early season hunting that they were literally stock-piling seals on the ice, too stuffed to eat anymore but still hunting. Its all about location…

If you travel along the coast, Cape Churchill (the Cape) is one of the last places to freeze. An open lead is often there well into winter, this is why the final and most expensive trip of the season – leaving right now! – makes the arduous journey to ‘the Cape’. Here the biggest and healthiest bears gather, it is the best real estate and they have no ‘desperation’ to walk towards town or anywhere really except straight out onto the ice.

Bird Cove, Gordon Point and other smaller inlets along the coast generally freeze first, allowing early season hunting – aided by rough ice and changing tides (seals often get stranded in early season ice). Many bear season tourists get to witness polar bears hunting on the sea ice before the bears truly ‘leave’. Its pretty neat.

Other places will remain open much longer, especially Cape Merry at the mouth of the Churchill River. Long after the ice has frozen and the bears have left, you can find open water behind the Town Centre Complex. The current and wind direction can pack the ice in one day and sprinkle it all about the next.

Even after the bulk of the bears head out on the ice, you will have some stragglers coming to shore from their specific hiding spots (not everyone likes attention after all) and yet other bears that will travel out on the sea ice, hunt and then return to shore each day. Freezeup is, by no means, a linear progression.

In any case, here is what happened this year. Freezeup occurred about roughly the same time as it did last year, which is considered ‘early’ now. The first real seal kills on the ice were spotted on November 9th and what many of us consider ‘freezeup’ occurred on November 11th. Many polar bears headed out on the ice, leaving those of us with groups and such a wee bit nervous.

That evening, a south wind hit and pushed out much of this ice. There was a lot of open water along the coast once again. This is the third straight year where ‘bear season’ has been ‘saved’ by a south wind. The tricky thing this year is that most of the bears that were on the ice simply left with it, getting a headstart to their season – the second year in a row where some bears have ‘lucked out’.

The good thing for tourists is that more polar bears showed up and we had a very nice week of bear viewing – great ice, great bears and, as usual, fantastic light. By last Friday, however, more northwinds had packed ice in and more polar bears had ventured out to hunt. A south wind dispersed the ice but another wave of polar bears was just not really there.

There are still a few around, including DogFace at Ladoon’s dogs, but now the numbers are low. There are still some nice encounters but many of the bears viewed are through spotting scopes.

In my view, freezeup occured between November 11th and 15th, so do most of the local bear season characters. Judging by the amount of photographers following foxes around these days, I would say many visitors concur as well.

This is two good freezeups for polar bears. While the actual Hudson Bay may take longer than normal to freeze completely (?), it doesn’t really matter because the bears are out hunting right now. At least, most of them are.

Somewhere between 11-14 polar bears remain in the holding facility, likely to be released onto the ice around the 20th or 21st (?). For many of these bears, the delay is not a big deal but for a few of them, it is a bit more tricky. Early season seal hunting is a bit of a critical time for some bears.

Once the heavy ice hits in December and January, the bears chances of a successful hunt really dry up. In fact, bears spend much of mid-winter in ‘walking hibernation’ just like they do in summer. They wait for the bounty of spring and its seal pups. So, any early season kills while the ice is still building can make a big difference.

So, as usual, its a complicated reality with polar bears… Either way, we have some glitches and all that but its better to focus on the good news this year: the bears for the most part are out on the ice. For the most part, the bears were in good condition (Manitoba Conservation reported that many of their larger bears were around 150lbs heavier than last year). Of course, others did not fare as well including Dancer and a radio-collared female who was reported to have lost her cub this fall. She was disoriented and wandering down the road, her hormones probably all out of whack. Its tough to see but this is part of nature.

Still, these last two season have really put an exclamation mark on what all of the local polar bear guys believe up here: we have not reached a ‘tipping point’ with Churchill’s polar bears, they are not starving, the numbers are not crashing and it is not necessary to remove them from the wild and place them in captivity. So yeah, if I have an ‘agenda’… well, that’s it.

One more note, its funny that over all these years, I have never come across a study that has shown with statistical significance that freezeup is occurring later and later or with any real trend at all, it must be out there somewhere I suppose – it seems to get quoted a lot.

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