Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Tuesday 9th November- Arrival in Churchill

As the day dawned it was clear that the landscape had changed from taiga to tundra with stunted tree growth and permafrost: we were arriving in Hudson Bay. The sense of anticipation was tangible, and yet perversely I was sad that the train journey was coming to an end. Colette had remarked that this year's group was the best yet, and we had transitioned from strangers to friends bonded by a common outlook and mission.

After unloading luggage and the remains of Chuck's food cache, we boarded a school bus to reach the Northern Studies Center, and whilst we did not encounter any bears on the journey there, the landscape was awesome in its barren bleakness. Our accommodation was a 1950's rocket research station which now housed students like ourselves and Arctic researchers. We headed out looking for wildlife immediately after our orientation (memorably including advice not to evacuate after a fire alarm since we were more likely to be threatened by the bears outside). Before lunch we saw a snowy owl, but it wasn't until 3:00 before I had my first encounter with not one but several polar bears. This was the reason I had travelled a total of 7000 miles and the memory of that first encounter will remain with me for ever.

There is however a disturbing subtext to these bears, as they are attracted by a local, Brian Ladoon who deliberately overfeeds his dogs so that the surplus feed brings in the bears. Having put a wall around the land, he then charges tour groups to view these bears. The consequences are not only negative in terms of habituating bears to human sources of food, but it has also led to a number deaths of dogs. The polar bears, defending their young, can kill a dog in an instant, and in fact Ladoon has reportedly lost around 20 dogs per year. Unfortunately the authorities have so far proved completely unwilling to take any enforcement action, and therefore the cruelty continues. I intend to comment on this further, but suffice to say that I personally have witness this barbaric circus and it has made me want to explore what can be done to raise awareness about it.

In the evening Chuck gave a lecture about the geography of the arctic and the political threats to the ecosystem. He explained contrary to popular perception, the arctic is relatively small and therefore vulnerable, needing the help and involvement of all of us. He told us global warming had gone off like a stick of dynamite, and yet politicians who could hear will not hear. We need to tell them about the trouble polar bears are in and why it comes back to us in our behaviour and decisions as to whether they survive. They need an ice platform to catch the seals which constitute their food source. However he believes that whilst a small number of polar bears may survive and learn how to survive on berries and compete with black bears, in the Hudson Bay area this may only be 200.

We also saw an initial cut of part of a film about the life and work of Chuck, explaining how a  miraculous escape from a helicopter crash had led to the realisation that he should devote the rest of his life to saving the bears and the arctic. There them followed a number of clips of people, including Colette, who described Chuck as part polar bear in his mannerisms, facial expression and thoughts. We were then treated to a presentation from Dr Frank Tyro about a trip to Baffin Island. The scenery was just beautiful- this is certainly part of the Arctic I would like to visit.

For me though it is some of the more informal parts of the trip which provided unexpected pleasures such as visiting Gypsies, a local bakery and cafe which is something of a legend, and late nights talking to Colette, Heather, Shannon, Rupert and others.

Arrival at Churchill Station

The wonderful bear dog Silver, who guards the Northern Studies Center

Bags stacked up at Northern Studies Center

Ladoon's dog farm -more of this later

This guy needs our help

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