When we arrived at the terminal on Palmer Road in Northeast Calgary, we were directed into parking spots. Then we walked into the terminal for Canadian North where we checked in by giving our names and showing photo ID. No security, no hassles although I imagine that we were all vetted beforehand. Hot drinks were available for us while we waited for about half an hour. Around 6 a.m., we walked across the tarmac and up the stairs to a 737 which would fly us to Churchill in two hours and ten minutes. During the flight, a guide told us some facts about polar bears: They are the largest carnivore on earth; a large male can weigh up to 2,200 pounds although the females are about half the size; they evolved from grizzly bears and are still so closely related that they occasionally cross-breed where their territories overlap; polar bears have shorter claws than grizzles, but still sharp--a sample of the claws was passed around--embedded in a thick layer of fur which assists them in their ice-walking; they have much smaller ears which protects them against extremely low temperatures and wind chills; they have huge canines and sharp ridges on their molars for tearing meat--another sample passed around; their necks are much larger than their heads which aids them in plunging their heads into holes to capture seals. Researchers can age polar bears by sectioning the residual tooth and counting the 'rings'--I assumed this would not be done on a live bear!
A hot breakfast was served on the flight, and after a smooth landing in Churchill, we walked through the terminal and got on waiting buses. We had been warned that the buses in Churchill have been "well-used"--one actually broke down on the return trip although not the one that Doug and I were on. Our driver and guide gave us a commentary as we bumped along over the 'pavement' on the way into Churchill: Hudson Bay began in 1731 as a British Hudson Bay Company Fort for the fur trade. The area supported a military base of about 6,000 people in the early 1940s, and it was a joint Canada and United States base after World War II. The base was closed in the mid-1960s. The area is still used by the military for survival training. The present population of Churchill is around 800 residents. The driver pointed out the Polar Bear Holding Facility, referred to as the "Jail," which has 28 cells for 'troublemakers.' Periodically a bear is sedated, placed on a strong, gigantic net with a heavy-duty strap under it, and then picked up by a helicopter which transports it out of the populated area. Most of these troublemakers are young adolescent males. Up to 1969 there was no polar bear control. Now, there is a Polar Bear Alert number 675-BEAR that residents can call. The polar bears are also monitored. However, often the children in Hudson Bay can't go out on Halloween night because of a bear alert.
Suddenly, the driver slowed as a gray wolf with black markings ran across the road. The driver told us that she had lived in Churchill for many years and that's only the second wolf she's seen. The guide has been on 72 trips, and that was the first one that he had ever seen. So, our bus load was fortunate to have that sighting.
Hudson Bay is 851 miles long, 650 miles wide, with an average depth of 330 feet, five fresh water rivers drain into it, the current is counter-clockwise, and the tides are between 12-15 feet. Out on the Bay, we saw a ship that had been carrying ore concentrate from Rankin Inlet that had been run aground--perhaps on purpose--in 1961. The ship is still there--slowly falling apart. We were also told that unfortunately the Hudson Bay Port was closed on August 8, 2016, and many workers were laid off.
The bus driver dropped us off at the Tundra Buggy loading area. The tundra buggies are about 7 feet off the ground and hold about 34 people. Our driver, Marc, set off across the tundra along with the other buggies on trails first made by the military. In some places, Marc just drove across small ponds which they call lakes, maximum depth about 5 feet although as I looked down from my window seat, I could usually see the bottom. As we bounced along over the tundra, I noted the landscape of stunted black spruce trees, small bushes, covered in about six inches of snow, and lots of slushy mud embedded with deep tundra-buggy tracks. It was around 0 Celsius, but there was the usual sharp wind off the Hudson Bay. We were urged to scan with our binoculars.
Soon, someone spotted a polar bear on the right side. Our guide identified the bear as an old skinny male. We could see his warrior scars. We watched as the bear spread his legs gingerly on the ice--testing for stability--and decided it was frozen enough. He slowly moved out on the ice--it hurt me to watch his painful progress, and the guide said there was a good chance he wouldn't make it to hunt ring seals.
The naturalist guide told us about other animals and birds common in this area and showed us photos on his iPad. Throughout the almost six hours out on the tundra buggy--yes, there is a 'potty' with a holding tank--we saw the following: a female mallard, several snow buntings which flew up and around the tundra buggy as we proceeded along the trails, five willow ptarmigans in the stunted willows, and a long-billed duck. Also in the area are redpolls, horned larks, surf scoters, black-bellied plovers, gryfalcons, peregrine falcons, and snowy owls. There isn't much pond life although there are stickleback fish which drive themselves into the mud and freeze solid for the winter. Their bodies contain glycol which enables them to freeze and thaw-out. There are also arctic and red foxes--we saw fox tracks--muskrats, lemmings, and Arctic hares. Occasionally, caribou will migrate through the area. In the summer, 3,000-4,000 beluga whales come into Hudson Bay to feed on caplan and other fish. (And, yes, Classic Canadian Tours have a fly-in one day trip to whale watch.)
There was great excitement as a healthy-looking mother and cub were spotted. It's rare to see a mother and cub(s) so we stopped along with two other tundra buggies and watched for over an hour. The mother bear looked like a huge off-white rock as she slept. The cub rolled on top of her, bit at her ears, played in the red kelp--the tide was out--and then finally walked off to amuse itself. The cub was also practising its pouncing skills which it would use to hunt seals. As the cub played, we had our lunch--soup and buns along with tea, coffee, hot chocolate, water, or pop.
Some of our fellow buggy occupants had sophisticated cameras--most of them gathered on the outdoor viewing area at the back. My emphasis was on enjoying the moment, and Doug and I passed the binoculars back and forth as we watched through the large buggy windows. I did get a decent video and a few shots of the action as the mother finally determined the cub was getting too far away from her--he was walking around one of the other tundra buggies--so she heaved herself to her feet, walked toward it, and the two ambled off along the shoreline.
The guide said this cub was probably about 20 months old. Breeding season is May, and most females only breed once every three years. (They have to keep the cubs away from the males because the male polar bears will kill the cubs so that the females can ovulate again and be bred.) The bred females continue to feed throughout early summer and then go up to 100 kilometers inland while all the other polar bears head for the coastal ice. The ova is implanted that fall for a total gestation period of about eight months. The females give birth in dens, usually by early January. The newborn cub(s) are 12-14 inches in length and weigh just over one pound. They stay in the den until late March or early April. During the entire time in the den--four to eight months--the female doesn't eat or drink. By that time, the cub(s) are big enough to survive outside the den, and they all head to Hudson Bay to hunt seals. The cub(s) will generally stay with their mother for two to three years.
Polar bears are solitary animals so we spotted another five individuals--a couple of whom never got up from their naps while we watched--obviously, the tundra buggies don't bother them. We returned to the tundra buggy loading area, boarded buses, and bounced back into Churchill. We noted that every bus has a gun mounted above the driver's head, and that the man standing with a gun guarding the tundra buggy loading area got back into his truck and drove off once we were all loaded on the buses. We had about 45 minutes to shop and walk on the edge of the very icy roads--no sidewalks on the permafrost of course--along the four-block main street of Churchill before we got back on the buses, and headed to the airport.
Once aboard the plane which had waited for us--the attendants told us they cleaned the plane and then had a rest while we were gone--we flew back to Calgary arriving around 9 p.m. We were served wine or our choice of other drinks and a hot meal--either beef or chicken--and, yes, they had special meals for those of us with food allergies.
The one-day polar bear safari was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and as I got off the plane and stiffly walked to the vehicle to drive home, I wished the old male bear the best. I hope he makes it out onto the ice and fattens up on those ring seals. If he doesn't, the cub we were so fortunate to see will continue the cycle of polar bear life.