First Day of Churchill Survey

8/1/2011 6:18:18 PM

First Day of Churchill Survey

I meet up this morning with two seasoned Manitoba Conservation biologists, Vicky Trim and Daryll Hedman. We wait patiently as the helicopter pilot completes his pre-flight checklist. After lift off, we're soon cruising at 100 miles per hour at 600 feet. As we cross the Churchill River we can see the eerie white of swimming beluga whales in the water below.

A lone polar bear in Hudson Bay.
It's always surprising to see polar bears in the clear waters of Hudson Bay during the summer melt off. This bear is in good condition.

Counting the bears is slow at first. As each passenger spots a bear we talk into our headsets for all to hear. Daryll tallies the results and any notes we shout out, like "single bear in good shape" or "mother with COY" (cub of the year). I keep a second set of notes for practice. As we approach the Nunavut border, the pilot exclaims "grizz!" and, sure enough, on my side of the aircraft is a barren ground grizzly bear trotting down the beach and across a kelp bed. This is a rare sight and everyone is very excited.

After reaching the border with Nunavut we turn south and make a beeline for the airport to refuel. Soon after we tank up, we're off again, this time heading east toward Cape Churchill. Again we count polar bear after polar bear, making notes about their body condition and companions. After reaching the cape our aircraft heads south along the coast.

As we fly over the Manitoba coast, I can't help but take in the beauty that surrounds me. At our furthest point we're over 100 miles to the closest town and surrounded by wildlife like polar bears, wolves, moose, and caribou. We fly over ground covered by caribou tracks, especially in the mud. So when we hear the chirps of the radio collars in our headsets, we fly inland for two miles to find a herd of 1,000 caribou grazing and resting on the green tundra below.

A caribou herd grazing on the tundra.
A caribou herd grazes on the green grasses of the tundra summer.

The arctic summer day is long, so even after our team has completed our route for the day and the helicopter is parked safely in a small clearing, the sun is still high in the sky. We land just a few miles from York Factory, the historic trading post for the Hudson Bay Company, where ships from England would anchor and swap goods for furs brought to the post by trappers and First Nations's people. After the blades stop whirling we unload the aircraft, piling coolers and bags filled with clothes and emergency gear amongst the long grass and wildflowers. After shuttling the gear into the cabin we begin getting comfortable and cooking dinner while swapping stories and eventually a few lies.

Darryl Hedman and Vicki Trim, Manitoba Conservation

Biologists Darryll Hedman and Vicki Trim of Manitoba Conservation.

To be honest, the night is long: only two small windows provide ventilation for the cabin and the air is hot and stick with humidity. The screenless front door remains open all night, allowing any insect flying by entrance to our sleeping quarters. As someone who spent my childhood in Minnesota in the outdoors, I thought I knew all about mosquitoes. But I find myself redefining my knowledge of the pesky bloodsuckers. The bugs of the North are huge and tough—an open palm slap to a fly and a firm squish will usually result in a slightly stunned bug flying off unharmed when you pull your hand away. Northern mosquitoes are also large, dwarfing their little Minnesota cousin, and the middle C note their wings produce can be heard over large distances—even over the loud snores produced by wildlife management personnel. Perhaps I'm growing soft living in Montana where we have no bugs, but sleep is sparse that night.

Photos ©BJ Kirschhoffer.

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