The largest bear captured in this area weighed 1,600 lbs, almost twice the size of a ‘normal’ adult male. Steve ‘The Eagle’ Miller, a long-time helicopter pilot in the Churchill area, used to talk about that one. They grabbed him in 1983, one of the first years that Steve worked up here. Over the years, Miller would handled thousands of bears, at any given time, around 80% of this population has been handled and tagged.
Closer to Churchill, Conservation Officers picked up on big ol’ bear weighing almost 1,400 lbs. They grabbed him from the Churchill garbage dump, one of the last years it was open, 2003 I believe. He had spent a fair bit of time there that summer, lounging and feasting, blithely watching the passers-by. You kind of waited until he gave you space to throw out your garbage. After all, he was about the size of a Ford Ranger.
Most of the time, you find the ‘big bears’ either at Cape Churchill or Ladoon’s. There is no reason for the healthiest, biggest bears approach Churchill. They are not in any particular hurry to reach the ice, unlike sub-adults and some females with cubs. For the most part, they stick to themselves, waiting well outside the ‘tourist zone’, spotted only by a select few travellers on the ‘Cape’ trip.
Ladoon’s, of course, is a bit of a different story. When a good bear would show up, a nice big one, he’d plug him full of chicken; encouraging him to stay but also keeping him out of town. It used to be that a few of ‘Ladoon’s bears’ would make a nightly trek to the dump, returning to Ladoon’s the next morning. Some bears even made a bit of a ‘nest’ in the trees halfway between the two spots.
One of Ladoon’s biggest bears, nicknamed Hydro, was missing pretty much his entire ear. When he would bee-line through Buggyland, he was called ‘Van Gogh’. This behemoth was a real entertainer though, you can find him in most coffee table books that came out of the late nineties, half-submerged, ice clinging to his oily fur. This guy was so big and fat that even in October, he needed to cool himself down. Eventually, he was shot by a hunter up in Arviat, Nunavut.
The biggest bears have been given nicknames from the very beginning. Back when Fred Bruemmer, the true pioneer of Arctic photography, first visited Churchill, he admired a bear dubbed ‘Cassius’. Back then, there was no ‘tour’, Fred was dropped off at the Cape Churchill tower, at which point, he poured bacon grease around the base and waited.
When ‘Cassius’ showed up, he was a scarred old warrior, still rippling with fat. Attracted not just by the bacon fat but by simple curiosity, he just about snagged ol’ Fred, who himself had slightly under-estimated Cassius’ height. Startled, Bruemmer scrambled up to the top of the tower and held on as Cassius rocked it back and forth. Luckily, bears figure things out pretty quick and Cassius settled down; soon providing some of the first polar bear photographs in circulation.
If Cassius represented the Lords of the Arctic, Ozzie was a bit of a gentler soul. Like Cassius, he was a big and scarred-up bear. He showed up in the very early days of Tundra Buggy Tours. Back then, the rear deck of Buggy One did not have any railing. Len Smith would head out each morning to sweep off the fresh snow. Bears are always watching, especially watching for patterns. Usually, they watch for patterns to set up a bit of an ambush or seize a predatory opportunity. Ozzie’s intentions were a bit less clear.
Figuring out Len’s routine, Ozzie would amble up and steal the broom; either sneaking it off the deck or grabbing it right from Len’s hands. Utterly pleased with himself, he would walk back a few paces, drop the broom at his feet, sit down and look over at Len. Len, for his part, would give Ozzie heck and tell him to back off, which he would. Then Len would jump down, walk over grab the broom and start sweeping again. After a short pause, Ozzie would walk back over and grab the broom once more.
Another favourite was ‘Metal Mama’, an older female who was a very successful and capable mother. She got her name from the metal tags that still clung to her ears, a holdover from the early days of research (before the small plastic tags replaced them). In 1988, she was around 24 years old and had raised several litters in the Churchill area. In many ways, she ruled the roost in buggyland, few other bears ever crossed her.
She was likely one of the first wave of ‘old females’ to hit Churchill. In the early 1980s, the female population of western Hudson Bay bears started ‘aging’, likely a result of reduced hunting pressures. During this time, cub production was higher and some cubs were even weaned at 1.5 years of age – an amazing phenomena when you think about it.
That first decade of tourism was a wild time. The bears were adjusting to being fed instead of shot, which when you look back at it, seems like a pretty reasonable trade off. On paper, a fed bear is a dead bear but not in Churchill. Bears figured things out pretty quick and returned each season, usually around the same time. Some were viewed as ‘old friends’, others maybe as pests and others with a wary respect.
A cast of characters has tumbled through over the years – Old Bones, Alfie, Scarecrow, Dogface, The Scrappy Brothers, Pretty Bear, Number One, Dancer, Linda, E.N., Bob – plus countless ‘Scars’, ‘Scarfaces’ and ‘Snaggletooths’. This year, my film crew started calling the clean, young males ‘Dexter’, one of the best nicknames in a while!