6/4/2014 1:13:43 PM

Polar Bear Cabin Again

Our 2014 season started with a familiar pattern: waiting for weather. In contrast to 2013 when we waited for two weeks for weather good enough to leave Inuvik for Aulavik National Park, this season only had a short delay of five days.

Unfortunately, we could only make it as far as Tuktoyaktuk, where we overnighted on some available couches. The next day got us to Banks Island and halfway up the island before fog and snow pushed us back. We flew over seven white Arctic wolves as we passed through the low clouds. They seemed a tad bewildered by our presence, and just stood and watched as we passed out of sight.

Heading back south, we found better light and conditions good enough to get back to Sachs Harbour. Fortunately, the Polar-Griz Lodge had rooms for us and we bunked in for the night. The next morning, we tried again. This time, we made it to within 30 miles (50 km) of Polar Bear Cabin but conditions were looking dodgy again. My map-reading skills (somewhat rusty from years of GPS use) suggested that if we followed the Muskox River north through the mountains (really just hills but impressively large when shrouded in fog and snow), we could follow the river to our camp. With some careful piloting, we made it.

Conditions were still decidedly winterish at 74°N. We settled into Polar Bear Cabin at Nanmagvik Lake. In reality, there was so much snow about that the lake was pretty hard to make out, but I'm told it's full of arctic char. With six feet of ice and no ice auger or fishing license, I'll have to take their word for it.

It's a wonderful feeling to be back at the cabin. Nobody but the Twin Otter crew that dropped off our fuel and food has been here since last year—the national park only has a handful of visitors each year. It's especially wonderful when the oil stove lights up and the propane two-burner flashes to life. It takes some hours to get the chill off the building, but everything looks perfect.

Pat Fonseca from Canadian Helicopters is back with me this year. It's great to have the same pilot three years in a row: the whole operation works so much smoother when the team knows their roles. New to the project is Dr. Thea Bechshoft from Denmark, who joined my lab in autumn 2013 as a post-doctoral fellow with two years of funding to study the effects of pollution on polar bears. Previously, Thea studied samples from polar bears in museums or from tissues of bears taken by hunters in Greenland. This is a new form of fieldwork for her. You learn a lot about of people in the close quarters of a small cabin: Thea hums. She hums a lot.

Now all we need is good weather. I think I've spent years in the field just waiting for weather. In the early 1980s, I once sat in a fog bank for three weeks waiting for it to lift: every day the weather office suggested that the fog would burn off by noon. Every day we stood with our gear in hand and were sorely disappointed when it didn't.

This year, we only had to wait four days until we found our first bear: a subadult male. The study we're helping on is a long-overdue inventory of the Viscount Melville Sound population. The last estimates for this area were made over 22 years ago. Based on the harvest level, survival rates, and the reproductive rates, the models had projected that the small population (73 to 208 bears) should have grown over the intervening years.

My first look in 2013 didn't suggest a large population and 2014 is starting to give me the same impression. 

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