I flew into Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge today, a remote albeit five star lodge along the coast of Cape Tatnum, about an hour flight out of Gillam which was about an eight hour train ride south of Churchill. The goal here is to gather some baseline data and partner with ChurchillWild on a non-invasive bear identification research project. If the first day is any indication, things look like they will work out pretty nicely.
After landing in some classic Hudson Bay autumn rainsleet, the guides and guests settled in for some caribou minestrone, which is as good as it sounds, and quite the upgrade from the Co-op C-Store selection of Wong Wing microwave dinners that a sleepy Sunday in Gillam offered (although I always feel that a nice occasional dose of chemicals does wonders for the immune system).
And, as happens along Hudson Bay, the weather soon changed; the clouds slowly broke apart, meandering across the golden horizon – not too bad. Given the opportunity, the crew slipped away from the fireplace and gathered around two off-road vehicles, Arctic Rhinos (a unique hybrid of Tundra Buggy and ATV) for a lecture about bear safety, a bit of dry humour and then we all headed out to look for bears.
About halfway between the cabin and the tidal beaches, we found our first two bears, a young healthy female – likely just hitting breeding age, maybe four or five years(?), and an adult male, a bit older from what I can tell and a bit lean but not so lean that he can’t make it through to November’s freezeup.
The female was our first encounter, she is a bold little bear and, probably one with a fair bit of personality (we’ll find out soon enough); a great bear for a first encounter.
I’ve been to ChurchillWild’s other lodges and followed their guides on a ‘bear walk’ at Seal River… and after 15 years of polar bears, I pretty much know what to expect. But, the variety of, say, shock, excitement, adrenalin and maybe ‘revelation’ in the guests who, although they ‘know’ they are about to walk with polar bears still don’t really believe it until it is happening (maybe even not quite until after its happened).
The Rhinos got us close to the bears, two of them foraging on berries and sedges. It was been a phenomenal berry year down here, gooseberry bushes and wild strawberries everywhere and bears eating them by the pawful. Once, we were close, Andy and Butch, ChurchillWild’s veteran guides (sorry, Andy), helped us off the vehicles and we walked out to a better viewing position.
ChurchillWild has a tight protocol for viewing bears as a successful and safe operation with any species of bear relies on a high level of consistency; let the bears make the decisions (but not too many decisions) and they allow a very high level of tolerance.
So, we set up while she ate berries and continued to eat berries and then ate some more. Then, after she had sniffed the air enough times or maybe when that berry supply was exhausted, she climbed over the ridge and walked towards us. Around this time, you can that the general nods and ‘mm-hmms’ when Andy explained what would happen, have pretty much been replaced by ‘holy shit there’s a polar bear walking towards us’. This is all compounded by the fact that despite being a walking storefront of bear deterrents (picture: hey buddy wanna buy some pepper spray), Andy’s main deterrent is simply ‘sound’. And that sound is created by banging two rocks together.
For me, it was doubly interesting – both from watching people’s first bear and wondering exactly how Andy would handle a bear that is actually pretty tricky. Young females are generally more ‘capable’ than young male bears. The male can, in a sense, bully his way to more milk, more attention, more everything from their mother leaving his sister to adapt and learn at a faster pace than him. That or women are just generally smarter and harder working than men but that just sounds crazy to me…
Either way, female bears are pretty smart and pretty adept hunter opportunists by the time they are four years old. So, a confident, healthy hunter for our first encounter? Pretty interesting. Through a fair bit of ‘negotiating’, I wouldn’t say that she ‘listened’ to Andy but we definitely bought enough time and reset her decision-making until her confident curiosity was slowly replaced by indifferent tolerance. Pretty cool.
We gave the old male a bit more space since he was new to the area and its usually a good idea to let bears adjust a bit, we’ll see what he is up today. Snow is on the ground – very early – but blue skies have broken through once more, thanks to a cold north wind. Lots of geese moving these days, a peregrine or two around… so we’ll see who’s out there.