Polar Bears up the Wazoo

Trip Start Nov 09, 2006
Trip End Nov 18, 2006

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Flag of Canada  , Manitoba,
Wednesday, November 15, 2006

I am now at an eight-hour sleep deficit. Every morning I wake at some ungodly hour, in pain from this wretched mattress and then I can't get back to sleep because of snoring. So if I'm starting to sound grumpy, that's why.

Other than the mattresses, this Learning Vacation has been great. I've had conversations with interesting people from all around the world. Well, no, they actually are mostly Americans. There are a couple of Canadians and some Brits. There's Annette, from Palo Alto California, who works for the city in the recycling program. Did you know that the numbers on your plastic goods represent the type of base plastic they are made from? That's why very stiff plastics and more flexible plastics can all end up being #1s. In the US there is a big market for the 1s and 2s, but not so much for the 3 through 7s. Most of those are shipped to China. We don't know what they do with them. She said that burning plastic creates more BTUs than many other fuel sources, so for all we know they're burning our recycled plastics for energy.

Linda and her husband run a hobby shop in Pennsylvania. In 1980, when the energy crisis was on, they built a new building and decided to make it solar. Morgan and Katherine are both veterinarians (Julie and those two were always yapping about vet stuff). Morgan's from Minnesota, and Katherine from Connecticut. They met on a dog-sledding trip. They were both their on their own and were paired on a team since they were both vets. Now they go on a different adventure together every year. Margaret, who I think I mentioned in an earlier post, is from England but now lives in Palo Alto (coincidentally close to Annette, whom she never met before this trip). She collects stories from the people she meets and writes them up for her elderly housebound friends. She's also a real hoot. She says she was born with the happiness gene, and every morning she wakes up and thinks to herself what a gift it is to have another day. Her husband, not on this trip, is apparently a very depressive sort. Funny how that works.

Every evening we get lectures. Rupert is our bear expert. He's a Scot gone Canadian and his love is bears. He started an organization called Ursus International (http://ursusinternational.org), focused on educating people about bears. He's very interested in figuring out how to manage the "conflict zone" where humans and bears intersect. Things are changing in that area. It used to be we'd just kill bears who became a "nuisance" (i.e. they smelled our food and came around to check it out). Now people are figuring out better ways of handling this conflict zone. It isn't just about being more humane, it's about maintaining ecosystems where bears can survive. So, here in Churchill, where the polar bears come through every year, they've gotten rid of the dump. All garbage is being stored indoors now. That had been a huge attractor for bears and made the bears think that human settlements = food. Instead of shooting bears, they now have a 10 km zone around town that the conservation officer patrols. When bears wander into it, they are observed to see if they'll wander out on their own. If it looks like they won't, they are tranquilized and taken to the polar bear "jail". If it is a single adult, it is held there until the ice forms on the Bay, then is transported to the ice and is released. If it is a mother with cubs, they are airlifted to a more remote location up north. Bears who aren't tagged at this time have a tag put into their ear and are tattooed on the inside of the lip.

However, there is a "three strikes and you're out" kind of policy. If a bear keeps showing up around town it is considered to be a nuisance bear--one who has made such a strong positive association between food and town that it keeps coming back-- and it is euthanized.

Our second day on a tundra buggy was with the "other" tundra buggy company: Great White Bear tours. Their buggy was one of the newer ones. It was more comfortable than the older one we'd been on, and instead of having a chemical latrine for a loo, they had a real flushing toilet.

The thing I liked best about this trip was that they let you stand outside on the deck while the buggy was moving. I did that for much of the morning. It made the whole place seem realer. Up until then, we spent almost no time outdoors. And even though we were on the back of a loud, stinky, bucking buggy, it felt much more real to me. And we saw even more bears than the first day.

A bit of info about polar bears. They eat seals, primarily. They wait until the Bay is frozen and go out looking for food. Bears are great swimmers--they can swim for dozens of miles at a time. Their fat keeps them buoyant, as does their fur, their feet are huge paddles, and they have a very streamlined shape. But the best way for them to catch seals isn't in the water--they don't stand a chance. It's on land. When the Bay freezes, the seals have to come up for air through holes or breaks in the ice. That's when the polar bear can get them.

The Bay is (or used to be) frozen for more than half the year. When it breaks up, the bears return to land and basically fast until the Bay freezes again. Unlike other bears, they don't hibernate. Instead they go into a kind of "walking hibernation" where they sleep a lot, move slowly, and nibble on berries and other things. When winter comes back, they move toward the water again and wait for it to freeze.

The bears we saw were still kind of in the walking hibernation. We'd see a bear a ways off and the buggy would stop. The bear would stop walking, look at us, raise its head and sniff. Then it would start lumbering towards us. We'd see it blinking its eyes a lot, the way you do when you're so sleepy you can just barely keep yourself awake. Sometimes, after walking around the buggy and checking us out, the bear would just flop down as if for a nap, putting its head down in the snow and closing its eyes for a bit. Then it would open them, look around, and close them again.

One bear, who is known to the locals as Dancer, came around and hammed it up for us. He was a huge bear, at least 1000 pounds according to Rupert. He crawled under the deck on the buggy, which was made of steel grating, and sniffed at our boots. He chewed for a while on the tires. He licked his crotch. He hung around for a long time. He looked like he was waiting for a reward, and he might have been. Until just a few years ago, people were allowed to feed the bears from the buggies. Then it was determined that this was training the bears to look to humans for food, and that just isn't a good idea. But some of them still remember those days, and hope for a handout.

Dancer also has a special relationship with the polarbearcam driver. He'll apparently hang out around the polarbearcam vehicle like a dog. He sometimes stands up and puts his nose in the front window and the driver will talk to him. Rupert thinks they are friends. And Rupert isn't prone to anthropomorphising animals, so he's probably correct.

I mentioned the buggy hotels in a previous posting. This time, there were 19 bears hanging around it. That is a LOT of bears in one place. A bunch were crowded around one spot, their heads to the ground and just their big butts showing. Obviously they'd found something interesting on the ground there. There was a mother and her two cubs sitting a few hundred yards away, just watching the hotel. Mothers are very protective of their cubs. They try to keep them away from danger--which includes other polar bears. Right now the bears are very hungry, and sometimes a hungry bear will kill and eat a cub. So when the mother stood up and started herding her two babies toward the hotel and the 16 bears hanging around it, I got really worried. Some smell coming off that hotel was so irresistible to that bear that she would actually put her cubs at risk to get there. At one point, close to the hotel, another bear approached her. She ran at it and there was a standoff before the other bear backed down. I was really worried for those cubs. Nothing bad happened to them while we were there, though. But if something did happen to one of those cubs, whose fault would it be? Wouldn't it be our fault for putting that tempting hotel right there?

This trip, we saw a lot of mothers and cubs. Females usually have two or three cubs in a litter. When we saw "cubs of the year," cubs born in 2006, there was usually only one of them. That means the other(s) didn't make it. There were more yearlings and two-year-old twins. More on that later.

On the way back, someone asked if anyone ever hits bears on the road. Michael, the head of the CNSC, said no, not usually. He'd heard one story of a guy who hit a bear with his truck and the bear had gotten up and run off. The Manitoba Conservation people (like the US Dept of Fish and Game) found that bear, tranquilized it, and checked it out. It was just fine. Those bears are tough. The biggest one ever recorded came in at 2300 pounds (though usually, after a winter of feeding they average 1400 for a big male and less for females). There's a story of a bear who swam 100 miles in 4 days, never stopping. But are the bears tough enough to handle the challenges that climate change is bringing their way?
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Michelle Hara on

Polar Bears! What a lucky opportunity you had seeing them. That is amazing. Say, do you travel Canada frequently? If so, Travel Insurance is a must!

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