It is that time of year when the temperature gets cold, the snow starts to fall, and a group of Kelvin students takes the long trek up to Churchill to study polar bears. The bears are just starting to congregate at the edge of the Hudson Bay, waiting to get onto the sea ice for their first meal in many months.
We have just arrived back from another successful research trip with Dr. Jane Waterman where 12 Kelvin students joined some students from Elmwood High School and Nelson MacIntyre to research the impacts of climate change on the local polar bear population. We started with an eight hour bus ride to Thompson followed by an overnight train across the tundra to Churchill. The first day we met the students joining us from Churchill and Gillam, went dog sledding, had a great meal at the Churchill Northern Studies Center (CNSC), and listened to a talk by Dr. Waterman.
The next two days were spent on the tundra buggy where we were busy taking photographs of the bears. They were quite entertaining as we watched them sleep, roll around, jump and play, stretch, sleep some more, and even walk right towards us. The most exciting part was when we saw two male bears sparring right in front of us during both of the days that we were out. These photos will be analyzed by the students in an attempt to determine whether the early sea ice break-up is affecting the body condition of the polar bears in the Wapusk region. On our last day we walked on the tundra around the CNSC and toured the old rocket range. Then we had a talk by Roger Dube about Space Weather storms, and had a discussion about the book, Night Spirits: the Story of the Relocation of the Sayisi Dene.
After lunch we toured Cape Merry and the many murals around Churchill that were painted by artists from around the world to draw attention to the difficulties that the people in Churchill were facing because of the train closure. We finished off our time with some delicious Moose stew provided by Mervin and cooked by Jill, both Canadian Rangers involved with the program. We were fortunate to get a flight home even when many had been cancelled and are now excited to start analyzing the data.
Train to Churchill and Dog sledding
Today was our first day in Churchill, and man was it an adventure up here! We started our journey in Winnipeg gathered in front of Kelvin High School. At that point, we were groggily wiping sleep from our eyes and preparing for the harrowing journey ahead. Lugging our bags to the bus stop and shaking in the cold air, we prepared for the bus' arrival; awaiting it anxiously. We stood there waiting; and waiting; and waiting. The bus ended up arriving two hours late, but we never let that dampen our spirits. Boarding with a smile, we were ready for Churchill. During the eight-hour bus ride which was then followed by a seventeen-hour train ride, our group had plenty of time get to know each other. Talking, laughing, and trying our best to sleep we made new friends as well as strengthened old friendships. When we got to Gilliam and Churchill, we added new members to our team and were then set for the trip.
Our arrival at the CNSC was welcomed. Standing on ground that wasn't moving and being able to take a horizontal nap was greatly appreciated. It was interesting to watch the reactions of the students who were exploring the building for the first time, and see those who had come before rediscover the places where they had already made memories. We had time to unpack, relax, and spend some much needed time in the shower. We enjoyed our lunch before heading out to Blue Sky for dog sledding.
The bus ride to Blue Sky was mostly uneventful as some slept for the trip there. However, once we got there, we were subsequently greeted by dogs that came in all shapes and sizes (one was particularly popular with the group because of her thick coat of fur). While there, the Junior Rangers also arrived a bit later and congregated with us inside the "tent" to talk about dog sledding experiences and introduce us to their dogs' names. After the introductions, we were separated into groups of two with people from other schools and given a number that denotes when we would be able to ride on the dogsleds. Since the dog sledding was about seven minutes long with twenty-six groups, we had lots of time to occupy ourselves with such as eating the bannock and cookies the Blue Sky hosts prepared, drinking coffee and hot chocolate, feeding the whiskey jacks around the area, and simply socializing with each other. The entire event with Blue Sky was about four hours long and just before we were about to leave, we were given a chance to pet the dogs up close, which both groups can unanimously agree to enjoying. At about five o'clock in the evening, we departed for CNSC and prepared for our two days on the tundra to come.
Two days on the Tundra
We were fortunate enough to get two days on a tundra buggy taking photos of polar bears for our research and they were both very successful! Spotting six bears on our first day, we were able to get good whiskerprint, body size and body condition photos. We even saw two bears sparring!! We loaded up the tundra buggy around 8:20 am to make the trip deeper into the tundra to find some bears. The theme for our bear names this year is rocks and minerals, therefore the first bear we spotted was named Agate. The fun didn't stop there as we quickly spotted another bear nestled among some bushes, who we named Bisalt. Two bears Coal and Diamond were spotted sparring which gave us great opportunity to take ID and body condition photos, note any scars, and some nice pictures for our photo book! It was incredible to watch these two polar bears interacting with each other in their natural habitat.
After our lunch break we spent an hour and a half on one singular bear (it went by so fast!). "Emerald" was providing us with some AMAZING photos, coming right up to the buggies. He/She was a very curious bear, and it was surreal to be as close as we were to this beautiful animal, it was something not very many of us had experienced. We ended the day off with a bear named Feldspar. Upon our return to the CNSC, we ate another delicious dinner and then listened to a gripping presentation by astrophysicist Roger Dube. He spoke to us about space storms and the future for the world if we continue to use technology in the way we do. It was intriguing, informative, and quite honestly very shocking!
On our second (and unfortunately last) day on the tundra buggy, we saw four more bears, however we suspect some of them may be bears we saw on the first day. It was a very interesting ay regarding the behaviour of the bears, they each showed such different traits. The first polar bear we stopped for was named Garnet. He lounged around and then proceeded to walk around one of the tundra buggies which allowed us to take fabulous body size photos. Meeting three other bears, we were again lucky enough to see two of them sparring and interacting with each other. The end of the day brought a very curious and playful bear who we named Magma, the perfect end to two great days doing research on the tundra buggy! We can't wait to take all of our data back to Winnipeg to prepare for ArcticNet!