The southwest corner of Melville Island near Cape Russell, Northwest Territoriess. Hills like these are used by pregnant females for denning. The ice in this area is too flat to be good polar bear habitat, but we found a lone adult male traveling through the area.

© Dr. Andrew Derocher

6/4/2013 5:18:24 PM

Polar Bear Cabin and Beyond

Andrew Derocher

After our arrival at Polar Bear Cabin, it didn't take long to settle in, turn on the oil heater, start melting snow for water, and get our gear in order. The cabin is a sturdy bit of shelter originally built for polar bear research back in the late 1980s. The Viscount Melville study population lies just a few miles north of us, and on May 2nd we had our first chance to get out. 

We headed north across M'Clure Strait, named after Captain Robert M'Clure who traveled through this area in 1850-54 searching for the lost Franklin Expedition. M'Clure's ship, the H.M.S. Investigator, never made it back to the UK and still lies underwater in Mercy Bay a few miles east of our cabin. Most of his crew were rescued by the H.M.S. Resolute, which was also lost in the ice but later recovered by an American whaler. Interestingly, part of the H.M.S. Resolute eventually ended up in the White House as the Resolute Desk.

Conditions weren't perfect on our first day out, but we had some chores to do, including moving our fuel off the sea ice and onto land. A Twin Otter had deployed the fuel a month earlier, but landing onshore was too dodgy. We also had to retrieve our frozen food, which was stored in bear-proof containers.  

While we were slinging our fuel, we spotted two polar bears. A mating pair perhaps? As I checked out the bears, one was definitely larger than the other so a mating pair made sense. I got a tranquilizer dose ready for the smaller bear thinking the larger male would stay close. Of course, as I darted the "female" it became clear that this was no female at all, but a small adult male. Fortunately, the dose worked and he was soon asleep. 

The larger male remained nearby so we moved him to the same area and got him down. A good start to the day: for mark and recapture estimates of population size, the larger the sample size the better.

We then headed for fuel at Mould Bay on Prince Patrick Island. I had not been on the island since 1991, when it was a thriving weather station complete with a cook—but it has been abandoned for many years now. Nonetheless, wolf tracks at the fuel cache were an indication that we weren't alone. 

We had planned to use the island as our second camp if we chose to make the move north. The idea of tenting at these temperatures was a little less appealing, although our tents are arctic tents with solid sides. But the weather, now decidedly more questionable, forced us to turn back. 

We had hoped to reach the northern edge of the study area and check out Emerald Isle north of Melville Island, but the conditions were too poor up that way. The winds were picking up, so tracking was out of the question but we got lucky when a big male walking in the open appeared. We ended the day with a smooth capture and a run back to the Polar Bear Cabin as the weather crapped out.

This is the second installment in a five-part series on a population count of the Viscount Melville Sound polar bears. You can read the first, third, fourth, and fifth blog posts here.

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