Polar Bear Blog – Churchill, Kaktovik and Arviat

Kaktovik is quickly securing its place as a premium destination for polar bear photography.  As yet, it does not have the tourism infrastructure of Churchill or the variety of activities for visitors but its bear-viewing opportunities, I would say, are on par albeit quite different.

In Churchill, the bears gather each fall, gradually building in numbers as they await the return of the ice and early season seal hunting.  Although they forage through the summer, there is a real sense of ‘anticipation’ in the bears and a wide variety of behaviours as they wait for the ice.  Playfighting between males, also known as sparring, is one of the signatures of Churchill’s bear season.

The garbage dump has long since closed and, as a result of continued efforts to reduce ‘attractants’, the bear encounters are actually spread out along the coast quite evenly now.  Churchill, for now, offers the widest variety of behaviours; bears have not been hunted in Manitoba for over four decades now and it shows.  Viewing is either by large-scale tundra vehicle or by bus/walking tour.

In Kaktovik, the bears are drawn to the area by bowhead whale carcasses, usually two sometimes four, that have been flensed and left to compost.  The bears here are well-fed and some days quite relaxed.  Viewing is primarily by boat but also limited van access is available to go to the ‘bonepile’.  Kaktovik is a treasure trove of eye-level photography opportunities for swimming bears and nursing females with cubs.  The tricky part is that the bonepile and sandy beaches make for some pretty dirty bears some days.  Still, the chance to witness eye-level nursing, and it is very common there, outweighs the days where the polar bears ‘turn into’ grolar bears.

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The real bonus for polar bear fanatics is that the Churchill-Kaktovik seasons kind work quite well together.  Churchill’s summers are probably the better choice for bear watchers right now.  There are bears on shore each summer and you can watch them swimming, relaxing and such yet, you can also swim with beluga whales.

By late August, Kaktovik’s season is just beginning, although bears can be encountered through the summer there as well.  Once the whales are pulled up on the beach – and even a few days before (bears are pretty good at keeping up to their annual schedules…) – bears arrive.  Through September, bear numbers continue to grow and by the end of the month, the first snows have usually fallen and the real pristine ‘high arctic’ photo-ops start.  By mid-October, some years late October, enough ice has formed for great images but not enough for everyone to take their boats out of the water.  The bears here slowly ‘drift’ away, the bone pile picked clean and growing ice making their journey to the pack ice north of Alaska a bit easier.

At this same time, Churchill’s bears numbers are building and by late October, the first real snows have usually fallen and the lakes are beginning to freeze.  From this time, bear season really starts to roll with peak numbers of around 50-60 bears along the coast hit around mid-November, just before they all leave!  Once the north wind locks that ice in for the last time, the bears leave en masse with only a few stragglers over the next week.

Arviat is a little different than each of these places.  There are very few tourists (but growing) and flim crews are beginning to discover their bears.  Arviat’s bears are essentially Churchill’s bears that have moved north because of changing ice patterns and the closure of the Churchill garbage dump.  A traditional hunting community, Arviat has a fair amount of wild game stored in town limits, an active garbage dump between town and the airport and several dog teams (and dog food) tethered along the edge of town.

Its a bit of a ‘wild west’ feel up there… with a WWF funded patrol circling the town by ATV all night every night.  Add to that, Nunavut Conservation Officer’s new plan to lay seal bait piles outside of town to keep bears at bay.  Arviat is a real wild card in the polar bear world right now… I love it.

Its going to be interesting to see how these three towns develop in the coming years.  Churchill has been dealing with bears for so long that it almost seems that they are taken for granted a bit, in terms of policy at least.  From an indie guide’s viewpoint, Churchill absolutely has more red tape for visiting film crews than the other two while Kaktovik’s USFGS Officers strictly enforce that local guides are used and permits are followed.  Arviat is still feeling its way around what to do with film crews.

Kaktovik and Arviat are much more tolerant of bears just outside of town limits and do not jail or relocate bears, however, lethal force is more likely to be used in the case of a negative encounter.  Churchill still holds its place as ‘The Polar Bear Capital of the World’ but this will be challenged as both Arviat and Kaktovik develop infrastructure.  As Churchill works to reduce attractants and increases its handling and relocation of bears, the two upstarts are essentially developing ‘food conditioning’ programs; one with whale meat and one with seal.  The cubs in these towns will return for the rest of their lives whether they want them to or not.  Interesting times.

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