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October 23, 2010

Polar Bearology 101: Ready for the Ice

Leave it to the Schoffners to miss a week of great fall weather and head to the tundra at Hudson Bay for a little time with polar bears and, alas, even snow! Friends Jim and Joyce Shaffer joined us for the trip to Winnipeg, Manitoba, then on to Churchill, Canada's only arctic seaport and the polar bear capital of the world. It happens to be south of Stockholm and Helsinki, but it's as far north as the four of us had ever been.

For six weeks a year polar bears gather near the water and we were at the beginning of that special time. The bears are waiting for the bay to freeze so that they can venture out for some tasty ring seals. A polar bear eats 65 to 75 of these little guys a year. The 900 bears estimated to be in west Hudson Bay haven't eaten since the ice melted in late June, so they're hungry and conserving their energy. Which means these solitary creatures sleep; they sleep a lot. The pregnant ones are headed to dens and will give birth between November and January. Females have to double their weigh for a successful pregnancy, because they'll go so long without food while nursing their cubs, frequently twins or even triplets. Multiple cubs can be fathered by different papa bears, but that's bearology 202.

We spent hours each day on Polar Rovers exploring via old military roads (all of which were partially under water). Drivers stayed on these undulating trails to avoid damaging the tundra's terrain as well as coming in contact with munitions that might be lurking somewhere. Our huge vehicles were eight feet off the ground, and the more curious four-legged furry friends would approach and stand on their back legs to check us out.

But the best bear was Buddy, who hung out around the five-car Tundra Lodge where we stayed. Each year they position the lodge on the bay, right in the path of the bears. So Buddy would come for a sniff when we stood out on the elevated grate that connects the train-like cars or threw open the windows and called to him when he was in view. His antics were grand: rolling and scratching, then seating himself in a somewhat spineless position, or putting his chin and shoulders to the ground and looking like a vacuum cleaner with back legs as he careened around in the snow. I won't ever forget his rendition of the happy baby yoga pose.

Hope the ice doesn't freeze too soon. More groups coming in for this Natural Habitat adventure need to see that...before it's too late.


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