Yesterday, we were lucky enough to jump aboard a helicopter bound for Cape Churchill and check out how things are shaping up for the final wave of bears this season. It was a bit of a lucky break as we exchanged a van tour on Saturday for a helicopter trip on Sunday… which is a pretty sweet deal when you think about it – I mean the bears are way closer in a van than a helicopter…!!
Cape Churchill is the proper name for the north-facing shelf that juts 50 miles out into Hudson Bay, stretching from Button Bay to the west of Churchill out to ‘Cape’ itself and the Canadian Wildlife Service tower. Everything is rigged with webcams out there now so we probably offended a million polar bear cam viewers but it was super fun and I don’t think we disturbed too many bears, hard not to spook some of them with a helicopter though.
Either way, things are looking fantastic for this population, better than I had ever imagined when we took off from Camp Nanuq – having a helicopter land in your yard is pretty cool I have to say. We got off to a bit of a slow start, cruising over the bears in buggyland, counting about a dozen from the air but not really spending much time there. Then, there was a bit of a lull around Knights Hill and LaPeruse Bay, located about 3/4 of the way out to ‘Cape’ itself.
We cruised south to Thompson Point, about 1/3 of the way down the coast to the Nelson River. Between Thompson Point and Cape Churchill, you should get a pretty good idea of what is building up east of Churchill and maybe a little snapshot of the overall health of the population.
Between Thompson Point and the Cape there were about 25 bears, however, the hopeful sign is that many of these bears were mothers with cubs including two sets of mothers with twins. When we got to Cape itself, a sandy spit reaching northward off the corner of the shelf, we were amazed at how many bears were gathered right there.
Another 25-30 bears were counted just in this tiny area surrounding the research tower, including 12-15 bears nestled in day beds right on the spit, lying 20-30m away from each other, if that – that’s pretty close… Mostly, these were big males, likely still around 1000 lbs, the true ‘lords’ of the arctic, bears that will never make their way to Churchill simply because they are so healthy that they don’t need to put in that extra effort. What was truly amazing, however, was that two sets of mothers and cubs were nestled into the day-beds right next to these arctic behemoths.
One mother nursed as we flew over. This was, of course, a ‘stress nursing’ event because of the helicopter’s presence but still its better than running and pretty amazing for her to even be there. As we turned and cruised past for one last look, none of the bears really seemed ready to give an inch, they all watched from their day-beds and a couple got up but none of these top performers were ready to admit that they were nervous.
Cape is known as ‘where the big bears are’ not so much for mothers and cubs hanging out there. Over that two hour trip, we saw eight family groups including four females with twins. To me, this is a really positive sign, we have not had a cub year like this for maybe five or six years. Way beyond expectations.
Another interesting encounter involved one big male, who has probably been darted by helicopter before, that quickly made his way into the water, kind of a hurried walk not a run and then stood defiant in the waters while we did a quick circle. Researchers cannot dart bears in the water for fear of drowning and some of the older males know this; that was a pretty cool thing to see. He just stood there, stared us down and waited us out… he wasn’t paying for jet fuel.
The ice out at Cape looks great, I would say we a pretty much on schedule for freezeup, maybe another week or ten days. LaPeruse Bay is almost locked in and same goes for Button Bay. Long spits like Halfway Point, Gordon Point and The Cape are all catching freshwater ice that pours out of the Churchill River. More pancake ice can be sen around the end of Cape, spread out along the eastern edge of Wapusk National Park. Honestly, there are already places with just enough ice for early season seal hunting, judging by the tracks to and from the ice edge near Cape, I’d say there has already been a fair degree of success.