10/26/2014 3:59:34 PM
There's a Polar Bear Outside My Window
If you spend any time in the polar bear world, you're bound to hear a lot of stories about Churchill, the polar bear capital of the world.
I've done all my polar bear research on the North Slope of Alaska, working on a maternal den study. Everything I've heard about Churchill made it seem like an almost mythical place that was crawling with polar bears and other Arctic critters. While polar bears are ever-present in the back of your mind on the North Slope, denning females and cubs are extremely elusive and hard to find and we rarely catch a glimpse of them. So for me, the idea of being able to drive right up to wild polar bears seemed like a fantasy! Being invited to participate in the PBI Tundra Connections program in Churchill is not only something I've looked forward to for years, it's giving me the chance to see what all the fuss is about.
Within minutes of driving away from the PBI house in Churchill, we spotted our first polar bear, and myth quickly turned into reality. In far north Alaska, looking for bears with BJ Kirschhoffer of PBI involves us spending a good deal putting on appropriate Arctic clothing, going through safety checklists, and starting snowmobiles that have been sitting in -60 degree weather. Today, we simply piled into Tundra Buggy One and took a slow (heated) drive out to the tundra and the bears. It was almost too easy!
There is a lot to be learned from both of these polar bear populations. While I will always have a soft spot (or frozen spot) for the bears on the North Slope and the challenges that we face in carrying out our study, the relative accessibility and visibility of the Western Hudson Bay population here in Churchill makes for incredible research opportunities, as well as great ecotourism. People from around the world have the ability to view this unique group of bears up close, a wildlife experience that leaves a lasting impression on visitors, often planting the first seeds of a worldview centered on conservation.
I'm excited to see what the rest of the weekend in Churchill holds for me, and I'm also looking forward to my field season in Alaska this spring. Studying polar bears has sent me to some of the least hospitable places on earth, places that lack a lot of the obvious charms that you find in some of the world's more universally charismatic destinations. However, that might just be what I love so much about the Arctic. The attraction is subtle and often difficult to put a finger on, but it gets deep within you and slowly changes you.
I'm forever grateful that I've been able to experience these northern places, and that I get to work with the Arctic's most famous resident and apex predator. In fact, a polar bear is sitting outside my window right now. So far this place is living up to its reputation.