Polar Bears International's BJ Kirschhoffer works on Tundra Buggy One

Photo: Jenny Wong

Staying Connected on the Tundra

By Kieran Mulvaney, Guest Contributor



27 Oct 2023

In the beginning, more than 15 years ago, the notion seemed ambitious and a bit crazy: Would it be possible to air live broadcasts from the tundra near Churchill, Canada, during the annual gathering of polar bears? Or to stream live polar bear cams?

Thanks to the generous donation of a specially outfitted Tundra Buggy from one of our longtime sponsors, Frontiers North Adventures, and a clever internet set-up, every year during polar bear season in Churchill, Polar Bears International hosts livestreams and webcasts direct from the tundra. “Buggy One” is bursting with electronic equipment to make such communications possible; but broadcasting from the tundra poses challenges, and all the equipment in the world won’t help unless you have the right people to run it. For 15 years, B.J. Kirschhoffer was PBI’s Director of Field Operations until taking up a position with our partners at explore.org earlier this year. Here, he gives some insight into what is involved in being able to broadcast live from polar bear country.

So, first, can you give me a sense of some of the challenges in establishing a fast and reliable Internet connection on the tundra?

The tundra is vast and flat, so In the beginning, the biggest challenge was simply finding enough places that were tall enough and close enough together to mount antennas. Once we had figured that out, then all the other pieces—powering things, maintaining them, and keeping everything snow- and ice-free—were the follow-up challenges. Now, in the last 12 months, Starlink has emerged as an option that has made life much easier.

The Tundra Buggy One broadcast studio

Photo: Bradley Hampson / Polar Bears International

A lot of folks reading this may have WiFi repeaters around their houses to help boost their signal; you operate on a similar principle but a larger scale, don’t you?

Yeah, that's basically how it all works. You just repeat from one site to the next. So, you're kind of maintaining a lot of hops along the way in order just to accomplish the task. We partner with the Duke of Marlborough School in the town of Churchill; that’s where the network starts. Then we transmit to the grain elevator at the port, and from the grain elevator up to the Churchill Northern Studies Center (CNSC), which is another partner of ours. And then from the CNSC, the network kind of splits; some of it goes to the Tundra Buggy Lodge, and some of it goes out to Cape Churchill.

And then, in the middle of all this, the place where so much of the action happens is Buggy One. What kind of bells and whistles are on board that enable it to hook up to the network and broadcast livestreams?

Most of the equipment that we use is really designed for point-to-point. It’s very good at being on a tower somewhere where everything is bolted down tight. It’s not designed to be mounted to something moving, like a Tundra Buggy. So, we joined forces with explore.org and invested in an antenna that mimics some of the behaviors of a cell network, in that it knows where it is on the landscape and can move from hotspot to hotspot as it drives around. And that's vital for something like Buggy One. And so that's probably the fanciest bit of equipment: a collection of hardware that is a sophisticated GPS and sophisticated compass that provides location information to the smart antenna that's on top of Buggy One, which in turn essentially points itself back to the hotspots on the landscape. It’s a very sophisticated piece of equipment. And then we have lithium batteries underneath the floor of Buggy One; they don’t make the buggy move but they power all the various electronics that keep the internet going.

Buggy One viewing a polar bear on the tundra

Photo: Dave Sandford

How many cameras are on Buggy One?

One on the inside, one on the outside. We like to keep that pretty simple. And a computer to mix it all together.

And of course, it isn’t just about having the equipment; it’s about knowing where to position the buggy so that the external camera can show bears while the internal one is maybe showing people talking.

Yeah, absolutely. Part of it is trying to make sure that the program is as interesting as possible. And so, you want to be able to change views and see what's going on outside, so you can speak to the behaviors or speak about the animal and its environment. It's a lot of cutting back and forth. And then in later years, we got more sophisticated and able to quite easily pull in PowerPoints, presentation slides and pictures, video, or different streams. So yeah, we had a ton of flexibility to sort of make our own little TV show up there.

Has all of this become smoother and easier since you started?

Oh, yeah. When we first started, we didn't have the smart antenna, we were trying all kinds of tricks to make everything work, and that required tons of equipment that was very expensive and very finicky. And I didn't know anything about polar bears. I didn't know anything about their behavior. And of course, year after year, you learn a little bit more, and you apply what you've learned and then you figure out a little bit more about their behavior. And so, by the end, you basically know what bears are going to do and you can position yourself in places that allow the bears to come to you. And of course, the equipment got better so there was less messing around with the gear and more concentrating on the broadcast.

Inside Buggy one during a Tundra Connection

Photo: Kt Miller / Polar Bears International

Last year, Good Morning America came to Churchill and broadcast live from Buggy One. How was that experience?

It was neat to be able to put a spotlight on polar bears, and to have a megaphone to talk about them and the threats they face.  It was high Intensity, early mornings and late nights. They do this kind of thing day in, day out, but they were very impressed with Buggy One and the quality of the connection that we had. And they’re used to having generators running to power lights and cameras when they’re on sets, whereas we like to broadcast silently. So, we were able to provide them with essentially a mobile camera truck that was just totally hybrid and off grid.

Anything else?

There's all this equipment, but it’s all really about the people and the bears. The people that work for PBI, and all the other people that we've brought up over the years to work with, are all so fantastic that it really makes a very special experience. It’s very cool to be able to talk about polar bears, talk about climate, take the perspectives from the specialists that we bring up and broadcast all that. And then to have a window out into the world and be there on Buggy One while the bears are doing their thing. It's just so special. I can't count the number of hours that I've sat just watching bears outside the window or through the binoculars. It's fantastic. And it's really been a highlight of my life.

Kieran Mulvaney is a freelance writer who has written extensively about polar bears and the Arctic for publications including National Geographic, The Guardian, and The Washington Post. A native of Bristol, England, he lives in Bristol, Vermont.