Tara Kramer, our new operations manager, is no stranger to polar life and extreme cold.

© Tara Kramer

8/23/2017 6:26:43 PM

The Power of Polar Icescapes

By Tara Kramer 

We land in Churchill, Canada, and the expanse of tundra reveals an openness and simplicity particular to the Far North. The landscape is vast, just sparsely touched by low light and a shallow cover of fragile vegetation. The distant views are marked mostly by low-lying plants, long shadows, and tarns of water seeping between tussocks.

I began work with Polar Bears International this past January as the operations manager, based in the Bozeman office. After six months of learning the inner workings of our global organization, I’ve come to Churchill to prep for our busy fall season in this well-known polar bear gathering place. I’m here to observe many of the bits and pieces that make our work here so successful: touring the tundra, town, and riverfront, meeting our critical partners in person, and preparing accommodations for polar bear specialists and staff. This is my first trip to Churchill, but I feel that I am returning to a place that I have known well. 

Prior to joining PBI, I spent nearly a decade working for the U.S. Arctic and Antarctic Programs at field sites in Greenland and Antarctica. For months at a time I lived in the Far North and Far South, mostly with small groups of 10-20 researchers and support staff on the vast polar ice sheets. We lived often in tents, awaited the rare cargo flights, and constantly shoveled snow. The drifts were dependable and persevered to bury us. Surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of miles of expansive snow, bitter temperatures, and fierce winds, these polar icescapes crept under my skin.

Distinctly northern

During my comings and goings from my home in Montana to the small research camps on the Greenland Ice Sheet, I regularly passed through small coastal towns. These communities sit quietly on the edge between the hostile isolation of the ice and the bustle of the connected cities we arrived from. These towns are perched at the in-between, on the delicate tundra, the land that bridges sea and ice. And it is this quiet civilized hum of a fiery community that I find again during my first encounters in Churchill.

Yet during my week in Churchill I noted a clearly unique element to this community. Here, the presence of polar bears lingers even in their seasonal absence. Bears typically begin arriving in the fall, but in July the beginnings of both vigilance and curiosity emerge. Signs posted at the rocky beaches, coastal parks, and open roads across the tundra caution against solo travel but simultaneously pique interest in catching a glimpse of the elusive white bears. And I get the feeling, that even now, early in the season, they could be anywhere.

Summer landscape in Churchill, Canada.

It's hard to imagine polar bears in Churchill's summer landscape—but they're there. Photo copyright Tara Kramer/Polar Bears International. 

First bear sighting

On the fourth day of my visit, we are in a small boat on the Churchill River when we hear over the radio that several polar bears have been spotted on the point leading into the Hudson Bay.  We motor down the river and out into the swells of the bay, and there, amidst the rocks we spot a mother and two cubs. They appear and then disappear as we bob in the rolling waters, but we again spot the mother leading the two yearlings down the boulders and into the water. I stare in awe, their long gaits and elusive swaggers protecting them from becoming too soon too familiar.

Eventually they reemerge and wander off, back amidst the rocks and out of sight. Despite years spent in the Arctic, I have never before seen polar bears. I’ve followed their prints across the sea ice of Baffin Bay and tracked rumors of sightings along the edge of the ice cap, but this small family of bears is my first real sighting. I am captivated.

Later between busy hours of hustle around town and more tours of the tundra, I walk the gravel street back to the house where I’m staying. The evening wind is stern, and the quiet between these moments of meetings and errands carries heavy in the air. I imagine this town in the months to come, the growing numbers of visitors, the dwindling daylight and the sharpening cold, and of course, the bears. They, too, are so soon to come.

Working in remote field locations in Greenland and Antarctica has prepared Tara well for managing logistics and operations for Polar Bears International. Watch for regular posts from Tara on our social media sites and for future blog posts.

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