Paw Prints in the Snow

© Patrick Mislan

5/8/2012 8:05:18 PM

Paw Prints in the Snow

By Patrick Mislan

When we set out two weeks ago our goal was simple: deploy 10 GPS collars onto female polar bears in the Amundsen Gulf. However, when it comes to fieldwork in the Arctic nothing is ever quite as simple as it seems.

The Far North doesn't have many of the luxuries that we often take for granted down south. The weather can change fast and the forecast is unreliable at the best of times. Supplies are limited and forgotten or broken equipment cannot be replaced. Experience is the best preparation up here and, considering this is my first field season in the Arctic, I am very fortunate to be traveling with polar bear expert Dr. Andrew Derocher as well as some very knowledgeable Inuit hunters and guides. Let me share with you some of the lessons I have learned and experiences I have had over the past two weeks while working hands on with wild polar bears in the Canadian Arctic.

We were stationed in Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories, a small Inuit community of about 400 people on the western shore of Victoria Island. The people of this town are very welcoming to researchers from the south and are more than happy to share with us their extensive knowledge of the land, including suggestions as to the best habitat for polar bears. As we waited for the weather to clear and our helicopter to arrive, a long-time resident, Harold, showed us the art of chopping crystal clear ice from a local pond to bring home for drinking water. I have never had a more refreshing glass of water than that which was melted from a pristine arctic lake.

Before long, it was time to hop in the helicopter and head out over the sea ice in search of polar bears. I learned very quickly that in order to work up here you have to have a strong understanding of meteorology. The weather can change quickly and severely in the north and when you are flying in a helicopter it is even more essential to be vigilant. Even though the temperatures down south are rising, April and May are still very much winter in the north. Being able to read the barometer, the winds and the clouds can mean the difference between making it home to bed or spending a long night shivering in the cab of the helicopter out on the sea ice. It isn't the kind of place where you'd want to take chances!

Spotting a bear can be a real challenge. Their white coats blend in very well with the pure white landscape of the sea ice. Although polar bears are big, the landscape that they roam is truly vast ... it can still be like searching for a needle in a haystack. Being able to read and understand polar bear tracks in the snow is the best bet for finding these elusive animals. They can cover huge distances in a single day, searching among the ice ridges for unsuspecting seals. You can figure out a lot about an animal from looking at its tracks. A skilled tracker can quickly tell the size of the animal, the speed it was moving, the type of behavior it was exhibiting and sometimes even the gender—all from a few paw prints preserved in snow, amazing!

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